To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, Cristine Almeida has seen the Capitol from both sides now. The veteran lobbyist wields solid influence in the Legislature, partly because she has the background and the versatility to bring an insider’s perspective to her work.
Almeida, 48, owns Almeida Public Affairs, a four-person shop based in St. Paul. It’s oversimplifying the case to call it a lobbying firm: It offers consulting in an array of areas, including government relations, government contract procurement, media relations, issue and candidate campaign consulting, and alliance building, mostly in Minnesota but also in other states.
Almeida’s client list includes Medtronic and Minnesota Public Radio, as well as out-of-state companies such as Anheuser-Busch/InBev and New Jersey-based biotech firm Celgene. The firm might juggle the needs of a dozen and a half clients during a typical legislative session.
The variety of services springs from a business model based on efficiency: Almeida works to take every work experience, every new skill acquired, and make it a part of her firm’s toolbox.
“Those are areas I’ve developed expertise in over almost 25 years,” Almeida says during a rare midday break at a coffee shop near her Highland Park home in St. Paul. “It’s something I offer to clients — some of them don’t care at all about lobbying and want more high-level strategy or state contract procurement.”
Offering that kind of service is a departure, she says — and the kind of thing that keeps her busy when the Legislature’s not in session, or when she wants to help a client for whom she’s not registered to lobby.
Testing the inner sanctum
A native of Wisconsin, Almeida got her feet wet in lobbying early. She worked as a Senate staffer in the early 1990s, then spent some time at Leonard, Street and Deinard (as Minneapolis firm Stinson Leonard Street was then known) as a non-lawyer lobbyist. She practiced in health law after getting her law degree, but continued doing lobbying on the side.
In early 2004, when Sen. John Hottinger yielded his seat as Senate majority leader to Dean Johnson, Johnson asked Almeida to be his chief of staff. Though she stayed with the job only a couple of years before hanging out her full-time lobbying shingle in 2006, it colored her work in a way that continues today.
“I had the opportunity to see the internal workings of the place in a way that was really different from when I had been more of a lower-level committee aide,” she says. “I got to see the things that matter in our world: how they set targets, what happens behind closed doors in negotiations when it’s the two leaders of the legislative bodies and the governor, how things play out in the press differently from what happens in that room.”
That wide-ranging perspective appeals to clients and colleagues.
“Cristine can see the forest through the trees,” says Darin Broton, a senior consultant at Tunheim Partners in Minneapolis, which has provided communications help for Almeida on various issues. Most recently the two firms teamed to help bring about changes to a Minnesota statute controlling the length of time that victims of sex crimes have to sue their abusers.
“She has the ability to think strategically about all the various levers that need to be pulled at the Capitol to get things done on complicated issues,” continues Broton. “She understands how the workings at the Capitol are interconnected with stakeholder engagement and communication.”
Left and right
Almeida Public Affairs has worked on behalf of a number of progressive causes. Almeida herself chaired the board for the Minnesotans United for All Families campaign, which helped defeat the proposed state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.
Yet a look at bios of the firm’s staff, all of whom work offsite, shows a group that can’t be pinned down based on ideology. Her two associates, Dawn Carlson and Colin Marsh, have professional roots in the Senate and House Republican caucuses, respectively. Hiring Carlson and Marsh, Almeida says, was a deliberate move to avoid being pigeonholed and to ensure credibility on both sides of the aisle.
“I knew I wanted balance,” she says. “Because I worked for Dean Johnson, I was heavily identified as a Democrat. I wanted someone to help me get some perspective from the other side. I like having people with lots of different relationships.”
Rounding out Almeida’s team is attorney John Kavanaugh, who worked for Almeida when she was with Johnson and is a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“John’s invaluable because he’s a workhorse and we know each other’s style,” says Almeida.
The work done by Almeida Public Affairs depends strongly on the client’s location and business. Medtronic, for instance, looks to the firm to advise it on the business and tax climate in the Capitol, as well as helping it take the temperature around issues such as the disposal of medical devices and related waste.
Other clients look to the firm as a steady advocate at the Capitol. Every session, a handful of legislators bemoan any amount of funding received by MPR. Almeida and company remind them — and get “friendly” legislators to spread the word — that the funding not only goes toward infrastructure for public radio stations throughout the state, but also helps pay for emergency alert system and Amber alerts.
“[MPR gets] a tiny amount in the grand scheme of things, but there are people who just don’t like MPR,” says Almeida. “That’s an issue we face no matter who’s in control, and we know it’s coming every year when state government budget is up for debate. The best we can do is to illustrate what MPR does. It’s a perennial complaint that they expect.”
Not all friends
Almeida has worked for numerous political campaigns, both as a volunteer and as a paid consultant, including Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign; she did work on behalf of St. Paul legislative candidate Dave Pinto during the recent DFL endorsing convention. Working for a candidate as opposed to a cause or a corporation is “a different world,” Almeida says, but something she’s glad to do when asked.
Because her responsibilities are so wide-ranging, she has little free time, even when the Legislature is out of session. Asked what she does for fun, she replies plainly, “I don’t know what I do for fun. It’s gotten to where I’ve had to ask friends what they do for fun so I can get some ideas.”
Although friendly and accessible, Almeida knows that her secret weapon is walking a line between graciousness and twisting arms when necessary — and understanding that every success on behalf of a client is an omelet that will require a few eggs to be broken.
“The thing about the Capitol is that not everybody likes everybody,” she says. “Any lobbyist who says, ‘I’m friends with everybody up there’ is a liar — or else isn’t doing their job.”
The Almeida File
Name: Cristine Almeida
Job: Principal, Almeida Public Affairs
Grew up: Madison, Wis.
Lives in: St. Paul
Education: B.A. in English Literature, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1988; J.D., William Mitchell School of Law, 2000
Family: Husband, Brian Gorecki; grown stepdaughter; three dogs
Fun fact: Almeida’s family is from Cuba, and escaped that country a few years after Fidel Castro took power. Miami is still the site of a huge annual family reunion.