WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley clients are hiring lobbyists as fast as ever despite a terrible recession and talk of reform.
The valley's cities, counties, tribes and farms, among others, have signed up new lobbyists since January, public documents show. Typically, these clients pay tens of thousands of dollars every few months. In return, they get help in navigating Capitol Hill.
"Being a small agency in the San Joaquin Valley, we need to get our voice to Washington, D.C.," said Patty Hartman, assistant to the Dinuba city manager, "and it's difficult because we're competing with major cities."
Many have made the same political calculation. More than $1.6 billion has been spent on registered Washington lobbyists since Jan. 1, Moneyline data show. Lobbyists have registered on behalf of 4,678 new clients during the same period, Secretary of the Senate records show.
Among those registering new lobbyists this year were the cities of Dinuba and Merced, the farm association California Pear Growers and, among tribal groups, the Coarsegold-based Chukchansi Economic Development Authority.
A total of 474 California-based clients have signed up new lobbyists since Jan. 1, more than in all of 2008.
"They're able to make the contacts we need," Calaveras County Undersheriff Michael Walker said, "and they can provide the follow-up."
Some clients, like Dinuba, are first-timers. A city of about 20,000 residents, Dinuba hired Townsend Public Affairs in April for help with federal funds. City officials want to build a regional transit center and expand course facilities at the Dinuba Vocational Center. Dinuba hasn't reported a payment to Townsend.
"They're helping us meet with our senators and with the Departments of Labor and Education," Hartman said.
In other cases, clients file new registrations because they are following lobbyists from one company to another.
Visalia-based California Dairies Inc., for instance, had one lobbying firm but switched this year to Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice after several lobbyists moved.
The sheriff's departments in Calaveras and Alpine counties hired the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm the Ferguson Group.
The Ferguson Group represented Calaveras County before it was dropped as part of budget cuts. But with rural law enforcement officers seeking federal funding for a new emergency communications system, the two sheriff's departments rehired the firm.
The two departments have each paid the Ferguson Group $10,000 this year. They hope to receive more than $1 million from a Justice Department spending bill.
Like them, dislike them
Among voters, lobbyists usually get a bad rap. In a November Gallup Poll, 64 percent of U.S. citizens surveyed said they had a "low" or "very low" opinion of lobbyists' honesty and ethical standards.
Before he was elected, President Barack Obama said lobbyists "won't find a job in my White House," a ban he subsequently softened. He imposed a two-year revolving door ban meant to stop former administration officials from quickly entering the lobbyist ranks.
On Capitol Hill, lobbyists have a markedly different reputation.
"I like lobbyists," said Scott Nishioki, chief of staff for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. "I tell people who are critical of lobbyists that they are there to represent interests, and everyone has interests."
Nishioki once represented telecommunications firms. He said he's noticed that lobbyists "who once wore out a lot of shoe leather" now rely more on remote, electronic communications.
Stricter gift bans limit the wining and dining long associated with lobbying.
Still, building and maintaining relationships remain crucial.
Elizabeth Moeller, a Modesto native who represents the city as well as Stanislaus County as a partner in Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, described this as "putting your shoes to the marble halls."
"That gets you in the door," said lobbyist Dan Haley, who represents farm clients, "but then you've got to make your case."
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-383-0006.