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The crowd of well-dressed 20-somethings clustered around the bar at Vapiano in Chinatown is full of a strictly professional kind of good cheer. The men, with suits and well-knotted ties and names like Brent and Dakotah, drink Peroni and Pilsner Urquell. The women, in dresses and suit jackets, mostly sip wine. They introduce themselves with their first and last names and regale one another with stories from their work on Capitol Hill.
“In one of my lobbying meetings today,” says Dakotah Smith, a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, “the Hart [Senate Office] Building got evacuated. It was one of their emergency drills. But we caught the staffer coming out of the building, so it was perfect.”
A knowing chuckle arises from the two or three lobbyists he’s addressing. The other 30 or so attendees of the Young Lobbyists Network’s recent monthly networking happy hour engage in similar banter as the hours slip pleasantly by.
In a city full of journalists, lawyers, and congressmen, lobbyists have kept an unfortunate claim on being the most despised profession in town. But unlike some of those other punching bags, they know what to do about it. For the past 30 years, the American League of Lobbyists has worked to dispel the stereotype of money-grubbing, briefcase-toting palm-greasers. They are the lobbyists’ lobbyists.
And the Young Lobbyists Network, with its cheerful happy hours, is Exhibit A in the campaign to change their public image—to spin the professional spinners.
“By providing young professionals with meaningful professional programs and social events,” explains the ALL website, “YLN will seek to raise positive awareness of the League’s core mission of helping Americans understand the critical roles that lobbyists play in our society.”
In recent years, with the Obama administration imposing tighter (if frequently circumvented) restrictions on lobbyists and watchdog groups applying greater scrutiny to the industry, lobbyists have fought back with a public relations effort to persuade the world of their good deeds. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “The amount of money spent lobbying about lobbying has steeply increased during the past decade, reaching $14.6 million in expenditures in 2009.” Just under a year ago, the ALL launched the YLN as part of its continued effort to demonstrate that lobbying isn’t a dirty profession—or a dirty word. Even the network’s name reflects the group’s efforts to turn lobbying into a badge of pride.
“It started as the Young Leadership Network,” says Brittany Carter, who serves on the YLN board and organizes the monthly happy hour. “We’re making a move to make it the Young Lobbyists Network. Just ’cause we’re like, ‘We’re not ashamed of that name.’”
And why should they be ashamed? If the YLNers are to be believed, lobbying is just about the noblest work around. Anthony Dale speaks with great passion about the lobbying firm he founded that specializes in juvenile criminal justice reform. Smith explains that his lobbying for Bayer focuses on making commercial buildings more energy-efficient. Chatting with the members of the YLN, you’d get the impression that lobbying for oil companies or big banks was a thing of the past. (Quick fact check: The finance, real estate, and insurance industries spent $475 million lobbying Congress last year, and energy and natural resource companies spent another $450 million.)
But when business hours simply won’t suffice to fight the good fight, these young lobbyists join together and devote their spare time to the cause. In July, members of the YLN will participate in a Habitat for Humanity build, about which they’re already battling to one-up each other in their excitement. (“I really like wearing a hard hat.” “It’s gonna be my first time. I’m jazzed.” “Oh really? It’s so much fun.”) Outreach, according to one of the young lobbyists, is one of the three pillars of the YLN’s mission, alongside mentoring and networking. But of this tripod stubbornly propping up the image of lobbyists as valuable members of society, it’s the networking pillar that’s the main support. By bringing the YLN together on a regular basis, the happy hours help young members of a profession reviled by the outside world connect to one another and reaffirm that most lobbyists are just normal people doing honest work.
“I think that the vast majority of lobbyists are like us in the room, maybe a few years older,” says Nate Smith, a lobbyist for the American Traffic Safety Services Association, which represents companies that make road safety products like highway guard rails. “And then there’s only a couple who are the traditional stereotype.”
At first glance, the Vapiano crowd could easily be a group of Hill staffers or non-profit workers, if perhaps a bit better dressed and coiffed. (Carter contests the latter notion: “Really? I just feel like everyone in Washington looks put-together.”) But few other organizations in town feel such a need to justify their existence and their members’ work. The young lobbyists of the YLN are all about it, at least in the presence of a reporter; after all, they’re message people. Case in point: The morning after the happy hour, I receive almost identically worded emails from two YLN members thanking me for attending and asking to see this story before it ran in the paper. Per Washington City Paper policy, I politely decline.
At times, the young lobbyists’ eagerness to buck the stereotype and prove their normalness smacks of Shakespearean protesting too much. Carter, after excusing herself to chat with “a long-lost friend, an old co-worker,” feels compelled to explain herself. “You may have seen him handing me $100,” she says. “No shady things—he was paying me for the Glee ticket we’re going to.”
Yes, lobbyists watch Glee, just like ten million other normal Americans. They also, as they point out, mostly don’t work on K Street these days, nor do they carry briefcases or smoke cigars.
“We’re young, and living in Washington, and no one makes a ton of money,” says Carter, straining credulity just a bit: The median salary for lobbyists in D.C., according to Salary.com, is $107,254 a year.
Of course, the bulk of the chatter at Vapiano has nothing to do with the lobbying industry or stealth meetings with congressional staffers. The lobbyists discuss the D.C. Council at-large special election, the utility of time capsules, the difficulties of wearing a ring that’s often confused for an engagement ring. When, halfway through the happy hour, the news breaks that Sen. John Ensign will resign, the lobbyists do what any good D.C. yuppies would, pulling out their smartphones en masse and prognosticating.
After two hours of schmoozing, the young lobbyists slowly begin to file out of Vapiano, onto their normal evenings as normal people. The next day will be another full of modest-paying work, far from K Street, as they and their young, ambitious colleagues fight to make the world a better place—one bill at a time.