As much as politicians like to diss lobbyists publicly, even lawmakers who pride themselves on resisting the pressure of special interests will concede that those paid to represent companies, nonprofits, local governments and ideological interest groups play an important role in crafting policy.
“I will see every lobbyist who asks to see me unless I have a scheduling conflict because I know they have a job to do and I can get important information,” says state Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison.
State Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, said nearly the same thing last year when defending Assembly Republican leaders’ plan to hold fundraisers set up like speed-dating services, in which each lobbyist who makes a contribution gets several precious minutes of face time with each attending legislator.
Lobbyists don’t have to pay for access, Tranel says. “I’ve never said no to a lobbyist."
For Berceau, the problem is that lobbyists have no interest in speaking to her anymore. Their avoidance of her and other Democrats reflects the perception that Republicans will be running the show in Wisconsin for many years to come. Unlike in past years, when the balance of power in the Capitol was more delicate, lobbyists no longer see an incentive to cultivate relationships in both parties.
“There’s been a notable change this year,” Berceau says. “I have always been visited by lobbyists, even when we’re in the minority. They’re not even bothering now.”
There are few indications that things will get better for Democrats anytime soon. Gov. Scott Walker leads his Democratic opponent in most polls and national polls suggest that Republicans will likely gain ground in Congress and in state legislatures around the country.
But worse still for Democrats is that Republicans so skillfully redrew the legislative district maps that few in the minority party harbor illusions of gaining back control of the Assembly in the foreseeable future.
Similarly, she says that interest groups are desperately seeking to curry favor with the Walker administration by hiring allies of the governor. She cites the UW System’s recent hiring of Jim Villa, Walker's former chief of staff during his time as Milwaukee County executive, to a top lobbying position for the System.
Berceau also suggested that the Wisconsin League of Municipalities had Walker’s wishes in mind when its board named Jerry Deschane, the current head of the Wisconsin Builders Association, to be its next executive director.
Deschane made headlines three years ago when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that his son, Brian, had been hired to a top state job for which he appeared to be woefully under-qualified, ostensibly because of his connections to Walker, who had just been elected.
Larry Arft, the city manager of Beloit and president of the League of Municipalities, says that Deschane was hired because of the breadth of his experience and contacts in both parties.
“He didn’t present himself as being a Walker loyalist or being particularly close to the governor,” he said.
Anecdotally, lobbyists have suggested that government relations firms are less interested in hiring Democrats than in the past and that lobbyists and their clients see little reason to contribute to members of the party out of power.
However, campaign finance records indicate that the Democratic legislative campaign committees — the fundraising groups run by party leadership in both chambers of the Legislature — are raising almost as much money as their Republican counterparts. The groups typically receive most of their money from insiders, either lobbyists or conduits for business groups.