There will be 60 new legislators wandering the Capitol halls when the 2011 session starts – an impressive figure, but it pales beside the number of lobbyists and PR people who are presently scrambling to figure out who all those new faces belong to.
The influence-seeking class in St. Paul has its work cut out getting to know the massive freshman class – the fourth largest of the past four decades, exceeded in recent years only by the 64 new members elected in 2002. Fifty-four of the new freshmen are Republicans, a margin that has tipped the party into power in both the House and Senate. So the Capitol’s power brokers have a short time to familiarize themselves with the new majority caucus members they will be working with – or against – in the upcoming legislative session.
“You are dealing with a lot of unknown quantities, and [new members] make up the majority in their respective caucuses,” a longtime DFL lobbyist said. “It’ll be rough going.”
A couple of factors have hindered their homework: the makeup of the still-unannounced committee rosters (a critical piece of lobbyists’ efforts to target votes on specific panels) and a tougher-than-usual research problem. As Faegre & Benson lobbyist Meredith Beeson noted, many of the freshmen have never held office before and have no record in the public affairs arena, making it hard to read where they will stand on many issues.
One senior DFL lobbyist said his firm spent time during campaign season researching the candidates they deemed likely to win. But few expected Republicans to knock off so many incumbents and to claim the number of open seats they did – so now the firm is playing catch-up in researching the backgrounds of a few dozen legislators who wound up in St. Paul against the odds.
That means surfing campaign websites, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and researching their businesses to get information. Things lobbyists look for: hometown, education, organizations, spouse’s occupation and personal interests. All can be helpful in reading the tea leaves on their legislative agenda, government relations people say, or for merely breaking the ice on a first meeting.
Some lobbyists are also chatting up their allies among the ranks of veteran legislators at the Capitol to get a read on the new members. Senior legislators have already met the new members multiple times at caucus meetings, and some may have already lined up freshmen “reinforcements and worker bees” to help champion issues those senior members intend to raise, Fredrikson & Byron lobbyist Shep Harris said.
The missing committee assignments and limited research have also put a higher premium on lobbyists attending – and hosting – events and fundraisers as a pretext for meeting rookie legislators. Lockridge Grindal Nauen held fundraisers with all four legislative caucuses last week, and the Senate and House GOP caucuses recently held their own fundraisers to replenish their post-election war chests.
“I don’t think there is one person who can say they’ve met everyone and reached out to all the new members,” Harris said. “It’s about making those personal, face-to-face connections and doing it now. You’re not going to be able to introduce yourself right before a budget committee deadline and expect the same result.”
Some lobbyists don’t like the fundraiser circuit, especially at a time when so many other Capitol denizens are clamoring to find an entree with the new Republican majorities. “The House and Senate Republican caucuses have all of a sudden become very popular, and [a recent Senate GOP fundraiser] was overflowing,” said GOP lobbyist John Knapp of Winthrop & Weinstine. “That’s not the best way to establish a relationship with legislators.”
Minnesota Association of School Administrators lobbyist Charlie Kyte has been meeting legislators in person at local spots in their districts or in their homes to establish a relationship. “It’s what we have always done, just on a bigger scale,” he said. “We reach out and build relationships, and we put our finger in the dike when a large number of people are doing what we don’t think is best.”
One longtime DFL lobbyist said the job of feeling out the new legislators and the new centers of power at the Legislature will still just be getting started when the session rolls around. “You go to the fundraisers and eat chicken wings with the legislators and those sorts of things, but ultimately it’s just going to take a while,” the source said. “It’s not like there will be just one or two new people on a committee next year. There might be five.”