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Separated by Velvet Ropes

Published: Sunday, May 25, 2003 Hartford Courant NORTHEAST Magazine by Kevin Rennie, Part of the NOW YOU KNOW Series, Reprinted with permission


How would you like to face an army of Eddie Haskells every time you got up from your desk? That's what the next 10 days will be like for Connecticut legislators. With just over a week to the June 4 adjournment required by the state Constitution, House and Senate lawmakers will spend long days and nights at the Capitol.

It is the high season for flattery. Lobbyists, about 1,000 of them, need to get bills passed or killed, and there's not much time to do it. There are a lot of bills to be considered and not enough time to get to all of them. Plus, legislative leaders have made it tougher each year for the lobbyists to get to the legislators in the waning hours of the session.

Velvet ropes keep lobbyists many yards from the doors of each chamber. This isn't Nobu. Slipping a 50 to the doorkeeper won't get you in. No lobbyist is allowed beyond the velvet rope. And each year, the leaders push that rope back a littler farther. The advent of cable television cameras in the hall of the House and the Senate means legislators cannot abandon their seats for hours at a time. Remarkably, many people will forgo a repeat of "Law & Order" to watch the legislature at work.

When a legislator makes an appearance in the halls outside one of the two chambers, a flutter of lobbyists will appear to provide kind words.

"That color suits you," one slick creature purrs to a bedraggled public servant. "New tie?" another will ask.

One never dresses to such advantage, it seems, than during the long march at the end of legislative sessions. No one notices the toll a spate of 18-hour days takes on senators and representatives.

Jerry Seinfeld never knew an audience as appreciative as lobbyists listening to a legislator telling a joke. They laugh at the approach of a punchline and guffaw at its arrival.

And there's so much at stake. In 2002, the State Ethics Commission reports, about 900 businesses, associations, unions and other assorted interests spent $23 million on lobbying efforts. That includes a small amount for entertainment and other sundries, but the majority of it went to pay lobbyists.

Lobbyists need access. They need it to convey information and show influence. The last harrowing days of the legislative session make access harder to gain. There are nearly 350 bills on the calendar for consideration. Those bills have made it through the labyrinth of legislative committees since January. Their advocates persuaded, dissuaded, cajoled and convinced all sorts of leaders and others to support, change or defeat various proposals at the behest of paying clients. Often very high-paying clients. They do not want to slip in the race now as time's winged chariot beats ever faster.

It used to be so much easier. One way to spend a lot of time with legislative leaders at the end of the session was to throw a fund-raising event. It's embarrassing to think about it now, but just over a decade ago the legislature would recess for a few hours so leaders of one or both parties could mingle with people who were not only paid to be in their company but also had legislation pending before them. They would reconvene after sharing dinner and take up the business at hand. A very efficient and revealing way of doing business that was.

To be sure, in the past few years, plenty of ethics laws have been passed that block the more blatant and direct routes of access to the powerful. However, like water, influence always finds a way in.

Then there was the dinner break. The intermission between a long afternoon and an endless evening of doing the people's business would allow legislators to fan out around Hartford and enjoy dinner with each other and members of the lobbying community. Sullivan & LeShane, a lobbying fixture, used to penalize the member of its team who spent the least on wining and dining legislators each month, according to a former employee. They weren't racking up the credit card charges for the airline miles, my friends.

The post-dinner sessions provided great entertainment value. Some lawmakers - not many but enough to be noticed - would return from dinner lubricated and feeling expansive. The legend grew of the western Connecticut legislator who returned from dinner drunk and determined to speak on a transportation bill. Sadly, he kept raising the microphone to his ear instead of his mouth. Dinner breaks are rare now. Dinner is brought in by the party caucuses. Those cable cameras are taking the vaudeville out of politics.

With all those bills on the calendar and so little time left, some will be left behind. Veteran lobbyist Linda Kowalski says the final days of a session "are like flying standby on an overbooked flight. You don't know until the last minute if you will get a seat."

The ornate configuration of the Capitol building presents serious obstacles to efficient maneuvering. While the legislators are in session, access to the center of the building is blocked. The areas immediately outside the House and Senate chambers are lobbyist "no-fly zones." They must go up and down the granite stairs to get from one side of a floor to the next. The vigilant Capitol police force hustles to keep those sections of the building clear. "Sometimes they give you lip," says one peacekeeping officer, "but it never gets physical."

Lobbyists could rely on basic human requirements to drive legislators to the bathrooms throughout the day. Aggressive lobbying tactics drove one senator to complain. The velvet ropes have been extended to allow the men of the Senate a clear path to the gents.

I posit that successful lobbying requires a lot of standing around. Not everyone agrees. Clem Roy, lobbyist for tobacco giant Philip Morris and many others, claims, "The good ones never stand around. They run around." When they aren't waiting for a legislative potentate to appear in the hallway, lobbyists may be checking to find out what nefarious amendments may have been filed on their bills. A clean bill that will not provoke debate moves up. The Democratic majority does not want to spend time on bills that will provoke a Republican talkfest. Lobbyists will, therefore, ask the minority not to turn one of their bills into "a talker."

A week and a half ago, it was OK to spend an hour on a bill titled "An Act Reducing Outdoor Light Pollution at State Buildings and Facilities." Republicans could dissect the bill with the skill of a forensic examiner while Democrats warbled an ode to preserving the night sky. There is no time for that now.

A lot of interests and relationships come into play. Legislators will bargain with one another for peace on the floor. Friendships within and across party lines can keep legislation moving. Regional interests can blur party affiliations. Money matters, too. Those polished lobbyists represent constituents of all varieties. They also keep their fingers on the spigot of campaign contributions.

Legislators who rarely face a serious election challenge (and that's most of them) often raise little money in their own districts. Instead, they turn to the lobbying community to raise money. That means the lobbyists themselves and their clients. Add to that the discouraging trend of legislators maintaining permanent political action committees, and the quest for donations is rarely off anyone's mind. And no velvet rope can separate the alliances that form for that.

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