Media advance myth of McCain as lobbyist foe

Various media figures and reports have helped perpetuate the myth of Sen. John McCain as a straight-talking maverick who is feared by lobbyists and representatives of special interests. But McCain's campaign reportedly has more current and former lobbyists on staff or as advisers and more current and former lobbyist fundraising bundlers than any other candidate.

The media have long perpetuated a myth of Sen. John McCain as a straight-talking maverick who is feared by lobbyists and representatives of special interests. Media Matters for America has identified recent examples of media figures promoting just this image of McCain as hostile to lobbyists, and feared and disliked by them. However, the reality is very different. Even before the start of his current campaign, McCain was reportedly “court[ing]” lobbyists in preparation for a presidential run. The Hill reported on March 8, 2006, that “lobbyists say that McCain has been reaching out to K Street to strengthen his national fundraising network." The Hill also reported that “prominent lobbyists” say McCain was engaged in “a quiet effort by his political team to court inside-the-Beltway donors and fundraisers in preparation for a possible 2008 presidential run.” In a February 3, 2007, National Journal article (retrieved from Nexis), Peter H. Stone and James A. Barnes reported that McCain and Mitt Romney are “working overtime to line up influential allies on K Street who can deliver supporters and campaign cash,” citing as examples that on “January 22, David Girard-diCarlo, the chairman of Blank Rome, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania, escorted McCain to Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to meet with influential donors and fundraisers. And on January 31, the senator attended a Capitol Hill luncheon at the Monocle restaurant that drew two dozen trade association leaders and potential allies.” Stone and Barnes added that in “2005, then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia generated a lot of enthusiasm among GOP lobbyists. By the middle of last year, however, Allen's allure had ebbed, and many GOP clout merchants began to see McCain as their best shot to hold the White House in 2008.”

According to Public Citizen, which also recently defended McCain on the basis of his congressional record, McCain's campaign has more current and former lobbyist bundlers -- lobbyists who raise money by pooling donations from themselves and others -- than any other candidate. Further, according to Huffington Post political editor and former Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall, McCain has more current and former lobbyists on staff or as advisers than any other presidential campaign. Media Matters has also found numerous McCain staffers or advisers who were registered to lobby Congress as of year-end 2007 or were previously lobbyists.

Nonetheless, the media persist in advancing the image of McCain as anti-lobbyist. In a February 7 Wall Street Journal article (subscription required), reporters Jackie Calmes and Alex Frangos wrote that “party maverick” McCain has had “well-publicized battles with industry lobbyists” that “endear him to voters disgusted by the clout of special interests in Washington -- a sentiment that runs strong in this election year. That national reputation also meant Mr. [Mitt] Romney fell flat in his attempts to tar the senator as a Washington insider.” Calmes and Frangos added that “in late 2006, his run-ins with Washington establishment types were a hindrance, not a help,” and quoted Republican strategist John Feehery asserting that McCain “is not well-beloved by the lobbying world, to say the least, and he's used that to his advantage.” On the February 21 edition of CBS' The Early Show, host Harry Smith failed to identify McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis as a former lobbyist, and left unchallenged his assertion that McCain is “probably most feared by every lobbyist in this town of Washington.” The Washington Times' Wesley Pruden, in a February 22 column, referred to McCain as “the scourge of K Street.”

By contrast, a February 22 Washington Post article by staff writers Michael D. Shear and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum reported that “virtually every one” of McCain's “closest advisers” “was part of the Washington lobbying culture he has long decried.”

McCain, lobbyists, and fundraising

Two of the co-chairmen of McCain's national finance committee were registered to lobby Congress as of year-end 2007 (the latest disclosure data available), and a third previously lobbied Congress. (Note: Media Matters queried disclosure reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records under the Lobbying Disclosure Act; for example, Media Matters searched 'Berman, Wayne' under “Lobbyists” / “lobbyist name.” In some cases, permanent links to year-end 2007 disclosure reports are not available and a link to the searchable database is instead provided):

  • Wayne Berman, national finance committee co-chairman and “senior adviser,” according to a February 7 New York Times article. Berman is a lobbyist and the managing director of government relations at Ogilvy Government Relations. A January 25 Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) described Berman as a “longtime lobbyist for companies in the financial industry” whose clients include the “Carlyle Group and Citigroup.”
  • Former Rep. Thomas Loeffler (R-TX), campaign co-chairman and national finance committee co-chairman. Loeffler is a lobbyist and founder of The Loeffler Group. According to Shear and Birnbaum, he is “McCain's top fundraising official.”

    The Houston Chronicle reported on April 30, 2007, that Loeffler has “built a multimillion-dollar lobbying operation” with clients that have “included AT&T, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Port of Houston, Southwest Airlines and Toyota Motor Co. Loeffler's firm also has represented the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on trade issues.” The Chronicle added that Loeffler's “role as a lobbyist with influential clients such as drug manufacturers and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may pose a political liability for McCain.” A February 8 Politico article reported that Loeffler's “lobbying firm has made millions inserting earmarks into spending bills.”

  • Former Rep. James A. Courter (R-NJ), national finance committee co-chairman. Courter is the chief executive officer of the telecommunications firm IDT. He was previously a lobbyist for Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand from 1998 to 2001. His clients included Merrill Lynch, NBC, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and SBC Communications.

McCain, lobbyists, and campaign staff and advisers

In a June 23, 2007, item at the Huffington Post, Edsall reported that McCain's campaign has “11 current or former lobbyists working for or advising McCain, at least double the number in any other [presidential] campaign.” Edsall also wrote that while “lobbyists are playing key roles in both Democratic and Republican bids ... all the campaigns pale in comparison to McCain's, whose rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to his conduct.” Similarly, the Post's Shear and Birnbaum wrote that “the fact that lobbyists are essentially running his presidential campaign -- most of them as volunteers -- seems to some people to be at odds with his anti-lobbying rhetoric.”

Indeed, a Media Matters review of media reports, nonprofit interest group reports, federal lobbyist databases, and campaign releases on McCain's website identified numerous McCain staffers or advisers who were registered to lobby Congress as of year-end 2007 or had previously been lobbyists. In addition to national finance committee co-chairmen Berman, Loeffler, and Courter, they include:

  • Richard Davis, campaign manager. A July 11, 2007, Politico article reported that Davis, who also served as McCain's campaign manager in 2000, “founded a lobbying firm -- Davis Manafort Inc. -- which has made at least $2.8 million lobbying Congress since 1998.” According to disclosure reports filed with Congress, Davis registered to lobby from 1998 to 2005 for Davis Manafort. A March 2000 report by the Center for Public Integrity noted that Davis represented two telecommunication companies, COMSAT and SBC Communication Inc., that “had major (and controversial) mergers pending before the Federal Communications Commission in 1999, and both mergers were approved (the Commerce Committee has legislative oversight authority, and therefore quite a bit of political influence, over the FCC).” The February 3, 2007, National Journal article reported that “Davis, a longtime lobbyist and financial consultant,” is “on leave” from Davis Manafort to work for McCain's campaign.
  • Christian Ferry, deputy campaign manager. Ferry previously worked as a lobbyist for Davis Manafort from 2003 to 2005. His clients included SBC Communications and Verizon Communication Inc.
  • Charles R. Black Jr., “chief political adviser,” according to the Post's Shear and Birnbaum. Black is a lobbyist and chairman of BKSH & Associates. According to the Post's Shear and Birnbaum, even while working for McCain, Black has continued to work as “chairman of one of Washington's lobbying powerhouses” and even “does a lot of his work by telephone from McCain's Straight Talk Express bus.” The Post also reported that Black's current clients include “General Motors, United Technologies, JPMorgan and AT&T.”
  • David Crane, “senior policy adviser,” according to the Huffington Post's Edsall. Crane is a lobbyist and president of Quadripoint Strategies. According to his official biography, Crane “served as a senior policy advisor” to McCain on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He previously worked as a lobbyist and senior vice president for Global USA and The Washington Group. His clients have included Bank of America, the Financial Services Roundtable, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
  • Robert Aiken, “occasional” adviser, according to a December 31, 2007, Washington Post article. Aiken works as a lobbyist and vice president for Pinnacle West Capital Corp.
  • John Green, “occasional” adviser, according to the December 31, 2007, Post article. Green is a co-founder and lobbyist for Ogilvy Government Relations. His clients have included Bell South, the National Rifle Association, and the U.S. Telecom Association.
  • John Timmons, “occasional” adviser, according to the December 31, 2007, Post article. Timmons is lobbyist and founding partner for the Cormac Group and, as of mid-year 2007, a lobbyist for Time Warner. He was previously McCain's legislative director. His clients have included AT&T, the Association of American Railroads, and the National Association of Broadcasters.
  • Timothy McKone, “occasional” adviser, according to the December 31, 2007, Post article. McKone is an executive vice president of AT&T. He previously worked as lobbyist for Davis Manafort in 1998 and 1999, and for AT&T starting in 1998, with his last federal disclosure report filed in 2006.
  • Carlos Bonilla, economic policy adviser. Bonilla is a lobbyist and senior vice president for The Washington Group. His clients have included Freddie Mac, Time Warner, Motorola, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
  • Aquiles Suarez, economic policy adviser. Suarez was last registered to lobby in mid-year 2007 for the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, where he is a vice president for government affairs. He was a lobbyist for Fannie Mae from 2003 to 2006, where he was also the director for government and industry relations.
  • Grant Aldonas, economic policy adviser. Aldonas is managing director for Split Rock International, where he lobbied for Mittal Steel USA in 2006.
  • Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer, economic policy adviser. Pfotenhauer was a lobbyist for Koch Industries in 2001. She is the former president of the Independent Women's Forum.
  • James F. Rill, economic policy adviser. Rill was a lobbyist and senior partner for Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott from 1998 to 2000. He is currently a partner at Howrey LLP. His clients have included the Smokeless Tobacco Council, and Intel.
  • Anthony Villamil, economic policy adviser. Villamil was a lobbyist in 2002 for the Washington Economics Group, where he is also the chief executive officer. His client was the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), an energy and energy services company.
  • Joseph Wright, economic policy adviser. Wright was a lobbyist, and chief executive officer, for PanAmSat, a satellite service provider, from 2002 to 2006. After an acquisition, he became Chairman of the Board of Intelsat.
  • Former Sen. Phil Gramm (TX), campaign co-chairman. Gramm is the vice chairman of UBS Securities, and was last registered to lobby for the bank in mid-year 2007.
  • Former Sen. Slade Gorton (WA), honorary chairman for Washington state. He is a lobbyist for Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis. A March 26, 2003, Hill article (retrieved from Nexis) named Gorton as one of the “top lobbyists” in Washington, D.C. His clients have included T-Mobile, the Air Transport Association of America, Microsoft, and Delta Airlines.
  • Former Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ), state co-chairman for Arizona. Salmon is the president of the D.C.-based trade association COMPTEL, and worked as a lobbyist for Greenberg Traurig until the end of 2007, when he left the firm. According to a September 29, 2002, Time magazine article, Salmon also previously worked as a “six-figure” lobbyist for Qwest Communications.
  • Former Gov. Don Sundquist (TN), state co-chairman for Tennessee. Sundquist is a lobbyist for Sundquist Anthony, a firm he co-founded. His clients have included Freddie Mac, The Hartford, and Waste Management.
  • Former Rep. William 'Van' Hilleary (TN), state co-chairman for Tennessee. Hilleary is a lobbyist for Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. His clients have included: SMS Holding, AmSurg, and Militec.
  • Former Rep. Richard Zimmer (NJ), honorary vice chairman for New Jersey. Zimmer is a lobbyist for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. His clients have included: Network Solutions, the Business Roundtable, and T-Mobile.

Additionally, McCain's campaign staff and advisers include at least two individuals who are registered to lobby state governments in 2008, and one individual who was last registered to lobby a state government in 2006:

  • Mike P. Dennehy, national political director. Dennehy founded the political consulting and lobbying firm The Dennehy Group. According to disclosure reports on New Hampshire's Secretary of State website, Dennehy was last registered to lobby in New Hampshire in 2006. According to a December 2006 Concord Monitor article, as a strategist, Dennehy directed McCain's 2000 New Hampshire effort. McCain appears in a testimonial on the firm's website (under “Clients” ), stating: “The Dennehy Group is well positioned in the New England region to identify a challenge, make the connection and get the job done. They are a firm with strong work ethic and the highest integrity.”
  • Brian Ballard, national finance committee co-chairman. Ballard is a lobbyist with the Florida-based firm Smith, Ballard & Logan. He is registered to lobby for 2008. The St. Petersburg Times on October 1, 2006, described him as one of Florida's “most powerful lobbyists.” The firm's clients have included Florida Power & Light; GTech, the state lottery vendor; and Honda North America.
  • Former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, state co-chairman for Virginia. Kilgore is registered to lobby for 2008 with the firm Williams Mullen. His clients have included Shell Oil and coal producer Alpha Natural Resources.

McCain, lobbyists, and his 2000 presidential campaign

McCain also routinely associated with lobbyists during his bid for the presidency in 2000, relying on lobbyists and former lobbyists to staff and advise his campaign and to engage in fundraising. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported on February 4, 2000, that “the McCain campaign is crawling with lobbyists ... raising money for Mr. McCain's campaign, helping him formulate policies and representing well-heeled clients in Washington.” The Journal added: “Of every $10 the McCain campaign raised last year, $1 came from the Washington area or from political action committees, a bigger ratio than that at the Bush, Gore or Bradley campaigns.”

From the February 21 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

SMITH: Joining us now is John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis. Good morning, sir.

DAVIS: Good morning, Harry.

SMITH: This article seems to imply, but doesn't flat out say, that Senator McCain had an affair with Vicki Iseman. You want to respond to that?

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, this is like the worst kind of tabloid journalism on the front page of The New York Times. And we deplored it last night. We're going to push back today. We think it's unfair, unjust, and inaccurate, and I think The New York Times has a lot to explain for.

You said it best, all these things are implications -- two unnamed sources and no facts in the article. If anything, they try and drudge [sic] up all the old Keating Five stuff, 20 years old, to try and legitimatize [sic] what's nothing more than a tabloid story.

SMITH: Let me ask you this, though. Because The Washington Post also reports in the paper this morning that Senator McCain's staffers tried at some point to deny Miss Iseman access to the senator's office or try to encourage the senator not to see her. Can you deny that?

DAVIS: You know, it's right out of The New York Times piece. And what they did in The New York Times is they claim unnamed people indicated that that was the case, but John McCain's own chief of staff, Mark Salter, said it never was the case. So, somebody who's quoted and willing to put themselves on the line says, “No way,” but The New York Times, picked up by The Washington Post -- and by the way, many other newspapers across the country -- print basically the fabrication from the Times.

SMITH: All right. Maybe the most significant allegations in this, though, is that Miss Iseman is, in fact, a lobbyist. She's a partner in an important firm. McCain has flown on some of her clients' private jets. And the notion here is that because she had extraordinary access to him, that he, in fact, tried to influence legislation on her clients' behalf.

DAVIS: I agree, Harry, that that is the most outrageous thing because they show absolutely no evidence of anything that he ever did for this lobbyist. And ironically, they take the man who is probably most feared by every lobbyist in this town of Washington, the man who's never done a favor for a lobbyist or a special interest, a man who has authored the ethics legislation, gone after the Jack Abramoffs of the world and really set the standard for ethical behavior in this town, and without one shred of evidence, after talking to dozens of his former staffers, all of whom said this was not the case, didn't name a single one of them or even reference their interviews.

SMITH: Did Senator McCain directly contact Bill Keller, the editor of The New York Times, to try to get him to not run this?

DAVIS: No, he never even tried to get him to not run it. He contacted Bill Keller because their journalists, the four mentioned earlier in your article, were running around town, spreading this gossip to try and see what they could dredge up, and it was inappropriate and unprofessional behavior by The New York Times. And what John McCain called, is that that was what he was calling about. He's never tried to influence an article, never tried to plant a question. I mean, John McCain has spent his entire career on the back of that bus having a dialogue with journalists. Everybody knows it. He's the most successful politician in America. And yet, you know, they try to run a story that basically is full of innuendo and implications.

SMITH: All right, we shall see. Rick Davis, thank you very much for your time this morning.

DAVIS: Thank you.

From Pruden's February 22 column in The Washington Times:

If John McCain doesn't send a couple of cases of Budweiser over to the New York Times, he's an ingrate. Bill Keller, this Bud's for you.

Nobody on the right believes the story, printed yesterday in Manhattan's juiciest tabloid, that Mr. McCain carried on with a yummy blond telecommunications lobbyist, and besides, that was eight years ago. Even if he didn't do it, he won't do it again. Besides, the story was in the New York Times, so it doesn't count.

Not only that, the lobbyist is definitely of the female persuasion, and if you're a Republican or even a conservative you have to be grateful for that much in Washington, circa 2008.

Both the senator and the lady lobbyist say there was no romance, no hanky-panky, no lurid trysts, no attempt to trade favors for a favor for a lobbyist's client, and that's probably good enough for nearly everybody else. The senator is, after all, the scourge of K Street, where every defeated pol yearns to land after voters throw him out of office, to collect the big lobbying bucks. He voted against the lady's clients on several occasions.

The New York Times, like the rest of the media, is hardly interested in the morality of anyone's playing around on a mere spouse. The culture long ago rendered philandering harmless fun, and anyone measuring anyone against any standard as ridiculously quaint (except that you wink your eye at a pretty girl at your own risk). The New York Times attempted to employ the scam of the carnival midway to lure the suckers into a story about greed and avarice but offered no evidence of greed and avarice. No letters, no e-mail, no recording of pillow talk. But sex sells with such efficiency, as any tabloid rewrite man could tell you, that even the accusation of something steamy fools the unwary reader. This is not Abe Rosenthal's New York Times.

From the February 7 Wall Street Journal article:

A big test of Sen. McCain's outreach to the Republican Party base comes today, when he will speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual Washington gathering of the right's leading activists, theorists and politicians. Last year Sen. McCain skipped the conference while other Republican candidates came courting, reflecting his campaign's fear that the conservatives would give him a hostile reception. Many conservatives took it as a snub.

Now, with the nomination in sight, the McCain campaign is showing up -- but not exactly bending to hard-core conservatives. “There are some specific issues they consider constitutional issues -- like campaign finance [limits] -- that they just disagree with Sen. McCain,” senior adviser Charlie Black said yesterday aboard the McCain campaign plane. But, he added, “When they understand, 'OK, there's nothing else we can do; it's McCain versus Clinton or Obama,' the huge difference will cause them to support McCain.”

It's not always an easy sell. CPAC's chairman, veteran conservative activist David Keene, recently endorsed Mr. Romney. And yesterday morning, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh continued to lead the post-Super Tuesday lamentations of conservative broadcasters about a McCain nomination. The senator can surely work with Democrats -- because he's one of them, Mr. Limbaugh said.

While Sen. McCain's well-publicized battles with industry lobbyists are unusual for a Republican lawmaker, they also endear him to voters disgusted by the clout of special interests in Washington -- a sentiment that runs strong in this election year. That national reputation also meant Mr. Romney fell flat in his attempts to tar the senator as a Washington insider. Sen. McCain “is not well-beloved by the lobbying world, to say the least, and he's used that to his advantage,” says John Feehery, a former adviser to Republican congressional leaders.

When Sen. McCain's presidential campaign began taking wing in late 2006, his run-ins with Washington establishment types were a hindrance, not a help.

Current and former associates say Rick Davis, then a top adviser and now campaign manager, assured the senator, who loathes fund raising, that he wouldn't need to solicit many donations on the phone or attend endless fund-raisers. Instead, money would flow from the Internet. It didn't, in part because of Sen. McCain's unpopular stands for the Iraq war and for giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Many deep-pocketed, business-oriented Republicans kept their wallets closed.

Executives and employees from the politically active tobacco industry gave Sen. McCain's presidential campaign just $10,700 last year -- about one-tenth of what former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani got, and well below the totals of Sens. Clinton and Obama.

The once front-running campaign ran deep into debt last summer, provoking a staff shake-up and layoffs. Pundits wrote Sen. McCain's political obituary. But the senator, more comfortable as an insurgent than a front-runner anyway, fought back on a shoestring budget. After his third and biggest primary victory in Florida last month, he held fund-raisers in every big city he visited in the frenetic week of campaigning coast-to-coast for Super Tuesday -- knowing donors would want to get on the apparent winner's bandwagon.