The Hill

Lobbyists make do with virtual convention

The online format for the Democratic National Convention initially posed a major challenge for lobbyists looking to impress their clients, until they found that many were happy to give this year a pass.

Conventions are usually a hot ticket for K Street firms, with lobbyists eager to leave Washington for a few days and show off their political network to clients.

But like many things under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic, this year is different.

“To say the client’s interest is low would be an overstatement,” said Heather Podesta, CEO of Invariant. “Clients are focused on core corporate issues and the COVID negotiations.”

Podesta, like many other lobbyists who spoke to The Hill, said the virtual nature of the convention had created what would have been an impossible situation for those looking to offer clients first-class treatment during the four-day event.

“Nothing about Zoom says VIP,” she said.

Lobbyists and their clients are staying home as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accepts the nomination from Delaware instead of in Milwaukee, the initial location for the quadrennial party gathering.

It’s a Zoom convention, much to the chagrin of Democratic lobbyists. How it will all shake out, and what the reception will be from clients, is yet to be seen.

Former Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.), a senior policy adviser at Nossaman LLP, said he will tune in if something is consequential to clients.

“I’m not going to be completely consumed every day with the convention, but I’ll still have it on in the background,” he said.

Bethany Bassett, senior vice president at Rasky Partners, told The Hill she will tune into events around the convention for clients and report back.

“From a lobbyist’s role, what I’m trying to do for my clients’ interests is be virtual eyes and ears and try to bridge that intersection between policy and finance for them in this completely unprecedented time,” she said.

Arshi Siddiqui, a partner at Akin Gump, added that she’s expecting a scaled-down level of participation based on client needs.

“For my day-to-day, things will be dictated by client priorities — so my guess is that my participation this year will be much more limited,” she said.

Cristina Antelo, founder and CEO of Ferox Strategies, plans to monitor relevant policy-focused speeches.

“For the policy pieces, my lobbying shop will have folks covering those campaign events and making note of anything interesting worth sharing with clients,” she said.

For some lobbyists, the level of client interest varies by policy issue.

Carney said his clients were particularly interested in Biden’s speech in Pennsylvania last month when he unveiled his $700 billion spending plan aimed at revitalizing the manufacturing sector.

“That was very well received by my clients. Other clients that are in the defense space are actually less focused on the conventions and more focused on what’s coming out of the CARES Act,” the former congressman said.

The big question heading into this week is whether the new format will be well received and perhaps even adopted to some extent for future conventions. Lobbyists said they hope that’s not the case, noting that the conventions are where they can really show off their clout.

“I’m a big believer in FOMO being a great motivator and that people want to be in the room where it happens,” Podesta said, referring to a fear of missing out. “Four years from now, we will know how to wash our hands and how not to slobber all over each other. Hopefully we will not still be wearing masks, but we will move into a state where we can socialize again.”

Some lobbyists said that for this time around they’ll just tune in at nine o’clock every evening for the main programming, and if something interesting happens, they will write a memo for clients. Other lobbyists said clients aren’t even expecting a memo on what transpires.

But there are other events besides the prime-time coverage that lobbyists and their clients would normally be attending during a four-day convention.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is holding events, like a “Meet the Senate Candidates” virtual roundtable Monday at 5:30 p.m., and a voting rights update Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Other Democratic groups like the Blue Dogs and New Dems are also expected to hold virtual events.

“Conventions were a good way for clients to be involved with not only the campaign but with various groups too, like the ideological and diversity caucuses. And now we are trying to find other creative ways for them to get facetime or access and getting intel like hearing in advance what the platforms will be, or who will be up for this or that position,” Antelo said.

One additional wrinkle to the 2020 Democratic convention is that Biden isn’t accepting campaign donations from registered lobbyists.

“Another role that has ramped up at least for me, given the times that we’re in and given that Biden is not accepting lobbyist finance, is doubling down on House and Senate races. I’ve seen that my geographic footprint of giving is far wider than it has been in years past,” Bassett said.

For members of Congress, popping into virtual events is much easier than having to physically attend various events around the host city.

Multiple days of intense engagement with the presidential campaign, lawmakers and clients will be missed but lobbyists are accepting of the reality.

“Those of us who have been involved in the past can look back with some fondness and look forward to the excitement and the energy in the future. But the fact is, we have a responsibility in this country to protect everybody, and if having a convention is a threat, we shouldn’t do it. We can, in the case of a global pandemic, make a few sacrifices,” Carney said.

“I wouldn’t call it frustrating; I would just call it a challenge. It’s an opportunity to be nimble,” Bassett said.

Lobbyists are also finding creative ways to enjoy this convention from home.

“I think making up bingo cards and the ultimate drinking game is one way to make it through this moment,” Podesta said.

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