Lobbyist Insider: Craig Chick

Retaen CEO Jeff Allan chats with seasoned lobbyist Craig Chick, Director of Public Affairs at Foley & Lardner LLP, to discuss the ins and outs of the lobbying world.

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Jeff

I’m Jeff Allan, I am the CEO and founder of Echo Ridge, which is the parent organization of Retaen.com, and with us today is Craig Chick. Craig, who I’ve been acquainted with for many years now, is currently with Foley Gardere in Austin. Craig, is that correct? 

Craig

Yes sir, Foley Gardere. 

Jeff

Would you like to give us a 30-second intro of yourself? 

Craig

Sure, so I’m a native Texan, been working around the Texas Legislature and in politics since the mid-early 90’s. I have worked my way up from campaign politics, as a copyboy at the Capitol to doing contract lobby work for a number of fortune 500 companies in various trade associations throughout the state. We work in multiple states and also do stuff at the federal level with our parent firm Foley and Lardner, but my primary focus is Texas Legislature. 

Jeff

Okay and would you say that your career path is a common career path for getting into the lobbying game or are there multiple ways into the industry? 

Craig

I would say that a lot of people started out in various kinds of lower-level entry points of the political process, whether it be volunteering on campaigns or being a runner at the Capitol. As you find your way through the process, you find opportunities along the way, but there is always some sort of a lower-level entry point for most folks, typically a lot of campaign volunteers and things like that.

Jeff

What would be the split for those who were previously with an elected office or maybe senior staffers like Chief of Staff versus the people who work their way up from the ground level? What’s the split like with that? 

Craig

I think most folks when they go into lobbying they graduate from one of those higher level positions. There are definitely those who come out of, say the legislative director realm or campaign consulting or something like that, but I’d say it’s probably kind of a mixed bag – probably 50/50 – folks that were Chief of Staff or something like that for a higher more relevant elected official. 

Jeff

That’s helpful because I think there’s this perception of the revolving door, that the majority of lobbyists took that route, but having worked with the industry for many years, that’s never been really my perception. I tend to encounter people more like yourself who come from not a direct role like that but more worked your way up to increasing levels of responsibility within the Statehouse.

Craig

I may be a little bit of an anomaly in that respect because I did work my way up. I worked in both the House and the Senate and then back over to the Senate. When I began lobbying I actually tried to leave the Capitol and start my own business with several investors and some family members and found myself not enjoying that after a fairly short period of time. I was asked to apply for a job with a major trade association so I did that for several years.

I went back in to the revolving door at the request of the Speaker of the House. We had a speaker change in ’09, I went in to give a good friend of mine, who had gotten hired at a pretty high level in the speaker’s office, a set of resumes to help them cull through options to build their policy staff and during that conversation they asked me for my resume which kind of threw me for a loop. Two weeks later I was changing jobs after I was first laughing off that request for my resume. I found myself all of a sudden back in the Capitol and did that for about 3 years. 

People do go back and forth and those folks who were asked to do that, they don’t take it lightly. Typically you’re not asked to go back and forth unless you really know how to handle yourself in a very very upstanding way in high ethics and so forth so there are definitely those that go back and forth. It’s not something you want to do too often, but there are times when that institutional knowledge is really needed and that was where I found myself in ‘09 when I went back into the Capitol. 

Jeff

Okay so segwaying from there, what do you think are some of the more common misperceptions about lobbyists that people from outside the realm have? 

Craig:

I think the most common misperception is that there is some sort of a quid pro quo or a payoff to get elected officials to vote a certain way or think a certain way or something like that, but really I’m no different than your average sales person. I’m selling a product just like somebody selling a car down at the car dealership. I’m selling a public policy issue or some sort of concept that we hope we’ve designed in a way that betters the state of Texas or whatever jurisdiction that we’re working within. 

I think the most common misperception is that we’ve taken people out to dinner and done all these different things to buy their favoritism and that is just not the way this works. I mean you do develop relationships with folks, just like in any industry, they develop an interest whether you’re selling computers or servers or anything like that. You develop relationships with certain IT departments that like your product and like the level of support that you give and things like that. 

Jeff

So you think it’s fair to say that lobbyists actually fill an important role? Because given the multitude of different issues a particular elected official might have to deal with and the lack of depth they can have on any issue in particular, lobbyists fill the role of providing subject-matter expertise and the ability to bring these officials up to speed quickly.

Craig

No question. Take for example the Texas Legislature, so we’re only in session 140 days every 2 years. These guys are businessmen, they get paid $600 a month, they are very sharp and that’s why their constituents have often times sent them to Austin. It’s because of the way they conduct themselves and their business prowess and so forth, but because it’s such a truncated time period – every 2 years – there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made very quickly. It’s our job to try to provide accurate consistent information for these members to make their minds up on whatever policy decision is that is in front of them. 

I have a number of members who know issues that I’ve worked on in the past or we’ve had coffee or something and they know that I’m interested in a particular policy subject and they’ll call me as they’re developing some sort of a bill just to get advice on the topic or even who’s the best person to start this subject or discussion, and who out there in state government has the best expertise. It’s our job to point them in the right direction. I may be doing that for a client I may be doing that for a friend but we always try to point them in the right direction and be as forthright as we possibly can.

Jeff

Businesses that haven’t hired a lobbyists – aside from those who don’t deal in any kind of regulatory or legislative policy issues –  those who should but haven’t yet, what’s the common reason you find that they haven’t taken that step yet? 

Craig

I think most people don’t realize that they need that. You know I tell people all the time who are just getting into the contract lobbying business who may be leaving a trade association or something and starting their own consulting firm: don’t go out and try to convince somebody they need a lobbyist because you’re gonna waste your time. Look for the folks that know they need a lobbyist. 

I did this only one time and only in that time it was actually successful. We had a project last year where we went to a group of companies that didn’t realize the extent of what was happening to them. Because it was such an egregious thing, they didn’t have much of a choice but to fight the other industry that was attacking them. What was happening was they were basically creating an embedded monopoly for themselves restricting these other companies’ products from the marketplace and they were using local governments in order to do it. 

We were able to pass a piece of legislation that preempted those local governments and it was quite amazing because they had cherry picked the most hotly active jurisdictions in the state and really controlled a massive amount of this particular industry. When we took it to these corporate executives, they knew there were some regulations out there but they had no idea how widespread it was and they were left with no choice. 

These were multiple publicly traded companies, they didn’t have the first idea of how to fight this stuff and we were able to hit a grand slam home run for them. But that’s really an anomaly and it’s not something that I would normally advise someone to go out and try to undertake – in convincing someone they need a lobbyist. 

Jeff

Ok now saying they are already to the point where they realize that a lobbyist is necessary or they’ve had a bit of success in one jurisdiction one state with the lobbyists and now they feel like more of a multi-state national or multi-state strategy combined with national as the way to go, what should they be looking for as they go out there and hire a lobbyist – what kind of characteristics, traits, qualities?

Craig

They need to hire someone who is really best suited for whatever governmental entities are a problem. There’re a lot of people that will misrepresent their expertise and things like that. I’m the first to tell you, hey this is not really for me, I’ve got a buddy over here who really works that agency or that group a lot more than I do and I always try to refer those issues to those other colleagues. 

The number one reason is, first of all, I’m pretty busy – I have an established practice and it would cost me twice as much time in order to have an impact as it would the next guy who does have a better relationship with that organization or that regulatory body. So the first thing I would do is really look at their background, what their conflicts might be, and figure out what their real expertise is with that regulatory body. 

I had a guy call me the other day wanting me to work on a specific agency and I said you know I’m really not the guy for that. You’re talking to someone though that is and what you need to realize is that’s one step of your issue, while there’s gonna be this rulemaking going on at this agency you’re gonna need somebody who is great at that agency but you’re not going to find somebody who’s great at the agency and also at the legislative body that does the appropriations for this particular issue. 

You need to think about this in a more holistic fashion. A lot of times people don’t quite accurately see what all of their problems are in the second steps and things like that. We also had another client who was running into some issues at the political level and we’re looking at some proposals to engage it. There are things all the time that can really make or break a particular issue and you just have to be careful that you look at everything in a very holistic fashion every step of the process.

Jeff

I can definitely identify with that. I think my common go to used to be to try to find a lobbyist who specialized with legislative issues to primarily lead the charge in the state and then I would bring in a specialist for more acute things, for example, dealing with the Governor’s office. So that said, I think we’re going to shift gears here a little bit and go into our next couple of questions which is something I also get asked a lot and I don’t always have a good answer for, but I’d like to get your take on, which is why has lobbying lagged behind in terms of technology and the way they do business?

I think it’s pretty fair to say aside from the advent of maybe smartphones, that lobbying still runs as it did 10 or even 20 years ago. 

Craig

That might be because we’re all old, but I think it’s one of these things where the institutions that you’re dealing with are also behind the times. I don’t know a state government agency anywhere in the world that has up-to-date technology. In the Capitol it’s one of the worst. They still run the bills on the floor the same way they’ve been doing over the last 25 years, there’s a little bit of technology here and there to streamline the process but unfortunately most legislatures are the biggest killers of trees. 

They still make 21 copies of a bill before it goes to a hearing with 9 people on the committee which has never made a whole lot of sense to me – it didn’t make sense to me in 1997 when I first became a committee clerk but they’re still doing a lot of that. There are some technological advancements but they’re pretty few and far between and I think that just kind of breeds into the lobby as well but it comes from where we all started too.

Jeff

Do you ever encounter, and I know you dealt with some tech clients in the past, do you ever encounter any dissonance with their expectation versus the way things actually work in the Capitol?

Craig

Yeah, one of the biggest misconceptions is when somebody goes up and testifies, they’ve prepared themselves for days in order to go up and get their 3 minutes. They go up there and you have to really prepare these people that there may be only like 2 people standing up there. Now there may be 7 people watching this thing on a closed-circuit TV behind the dice in a backroom, but you’ve got to understand that standing in front of you there may only be 2 or 3 people. There are things like that that definitely frustrate the client, they’ll ask you why didn’t you have the room full, why didn’t you tell him to come back in or whatever. 

Jeff

They thought it was gonna be a Zuckerberg in Capitol Hill. 

Craig

Right, that’s one. I think the other thing too is, your bill could be just trucking along at lightning speed and everything is set, then something so random that has nothing to do with your bill that is purely based on nothing but sheer personalities or some other collateral issue, all of a sudden kills your bill. 

I had a bill last session with a client where there was this big industry fight that’s been going on for 4 or 5 years. My client had a bill that really had nothing to do with this issue and the chairperson of the committee hijacked the bill from the member of legislature that that was supposed to be picking this bill up when it came over to the second chamber and this chairperson hijacked the bill, stuck this other super controversial issue into it, and just blew our bill up and it ultimately died. 

This is a bill that got, out of 150 members of the House, it passed the House by 145 members maybe 140. It had a little bit of controversy to it but it was something that should have passed and this other issue just blew it up. Explaining that to a client is difficult, you’ve already done many monumental tasks and they just cannot understand how you allowed this to happen. 

I mean this came all the way from the leader of that chamber all the way down the chain of command and it was just so outside your paygrade. I don’t care what kind of lobbyist you are, there was no way you were gonna keep them from doing what they did. It was pure politics between both chambers and it was something very very difficult to explain to this association. Luckily they did kind of get it but they really still didn’t and they’re still frustrated about it and that’s been over a year. 

Jeff

So actually on that topic if I can ask just one last question here. How do you manage expectations of success, and I know this can be difficult and I often explain it to people like this: if you were on trial for some criminal events and your lawyer plead you down to 3 years probation on what should have been a 5 years minimum sentence, is that success? 

Right? You’re not in jail so by its definition he’s done what he should have. Now, how often do you face things like that where success doesn’t really look like what the client expected initially but ultimately it’s a win?

Craig

You definitely run into that. I think that one of the other pieces of advice I always give folks who are new to lobbying is, do not guarantee success. You just cannot. I mean there’s a component of the process where there are 370-something ways to kill a bill and only 1 way to pass it. There’s a reason why so few bills pass in the Texas Legislature or at Congress or whatever governmental body it is. 

There is only one way to pass these things and you have to provide that expectation that anything can go wrong. Until they’ve experienced it, they really don’t have a concept and they’ll keep asking you, well what do you mean, what’s gonna happen, what are you not telling me and they start to question what’s going on and you’re just like, I just don’t know, I know that we have the votes and there’s only one dissenting vote coming out of committee, we should be in good shape but until it happens, until that paperwork is turned in I just want you to know anything could happen.

You just always have to make sure that your client understands that. After a while, they’ll see the process and how chaotic it can be and it starts to make more and more sense but until they’ve actually experienced it, it’s really hard to explain. 

Jeff

Alright, well, thank you once again. We’ve been talking to Craig Chick of Foley Gardere in Austin, Texas. Craig, thank you for your time, we appreciate it.