Sunday column: On a legislator’s plea to ‘lobby me’

In a late night text message to a woman lobbyist, as recorded in a recent state attorney general’s investigative report, state Rep. Jeremy Durham wrote: “I’m bored as hell. Lobby me.”

Such a plea for lobbyist attention is surely not the most offensive of Durham doings recounted in the report on his interaction with 22 women lobbyists, legislative staffers and interns. But maybe it best reflects a subtext in the overall report that delves a bit into the culture – or maybe it’s a subculture — of Tennessee’s Legislatorland.

Says the report at another point:

“The investigation revealed that lobbyists, much like staff members and interns, depend on maintaining a good working relationship with legislators for their livelihood and future success. A lobbyist depends on favorable support from legislators to satisfy and build a client base, and many female lobbyists interviewed described the substantial financial and professional stake they have in avoiding anything that would jeopardize a good relationship with legislators. As Jane Doe #4 put it, lobbyists do not have clients without legislators.”

Many of the state’s best lobbyists these days are women, a transformation from not so many years ago when the lobbying legion was almost exclusively male. And those ladies, by and large, are quiet, competent and knowledgeable professionals who – as with all lobbyists regardless of gender – must have pretty good people skills to sway legislator thinking. These women have probably upgraded the quality of the lobbying corps generally over the years and downgraded the amount of sleaze involved.

It’s a sad and sordid thing that some have been subjected to sexual harassment by a legislator using his position of power to influence success or failure of their professional endeavors. But that’s hopefully – and, as several Jane Does quoted in the report indicated – something that doesn’t happen as a matter of routine. Durham, one is reasonably led to understand, was an exceptional case of inappropriate legislator conduct.

A corollary to the observation of Jane Doe #4 – that lobbyists rely on legislators to get their clients – is that legislators rely on lobbyists to get their information, which usually comes from those clients. Also, they have considerable control over where candidates get their campaign money through political action committees – almost all PACs have lobbyists advising or controlling contributions — and suggestions to well-heeled clients.

They also build up what another lady lobbyist described to the AG investigators as “social capital” by using their people skills at gatherings of legislators, often hosted by lobbyist clients. The report relates Durham approaches to women at events ranging from Nashville watering holes to out-of-state American Legislative Exchange Council events to a Republican Caucus gathering in Gatlinburg.

Those didn’t get as much media notice as Durham seeking – and getting in the case of a 20-year-old intern – sexual attention by offering alcohol in his legislative office. That’s understandable because social interaction, as opposed to sexual interaction, is the norm for lobbyists and legislators. It’s not the norm for average citizens.

Lobbying of the Legislature is a multi-million dollar business. The limited public disclosures of lobbyist compensation and lobbying expenses have been showing totals of up to around $70 million annually in the recent years when Durham was active, roughly double the Legislature’s taxpayer-funded budget. That’s using the upper end of the “range” of money each lobbyist employer reports. But even that may be on the low side for various reasons.

For one thing, some honest lobbyists acknowledge they don’t count as reportable compensation or expenses any of their activities unless they are explicitly asking a legislator to vote one way on a pending bill. Thus, it doesn’t count when one is building “social capital” at events or sitting in a committee meeting or chatting in the hallway about family, mutual friends or politics.

A lobbyist may put in a 12-hour day, but consider only the 15 minutes of pleading with Rep. John or Jane Doe for a positive vote in committee as lobbying. Thus only the pro-rated amount of salary and expenses for that day gets included as lobbying involved in that 15 minutes is counted in internal bookkeeping and ultimately included in the public disclosure.

The anonymous lady receiving Durham’s late evening “lobby me” request wisely and understandably ignored it, according to the AG report. But even if she had not, that probably wouldn’t have been a reportable expense.

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.