George Skelton

Gingrich bristled at Romney’s L-word tag, but it’s all semantics.
By George Skelton Capitol Journal
January 30, 2012

From Sacramento

Without picking a side in the entertaining Republican presidential contest, let us stipulate that Mitt Romney was smack on target when he called Newt Gingrich an influence peddler.

A lobbyist? No, not in a legal sense. But did he lobby? Yes, in the common usage of the word.

An influence peddler? That pretty much covers it.

Many Sacramento lobbyists and their cousin “consultants” got a chuckle out of the fiery Romney-Gingrich exchange in the Jan. 23 Florida debate.

There was Romney, pulling out the old pejorative “lobbyist,” and the former House speaker resisting it as if he were being called a con man or a pimp.

“Even Romney was putting lobbyists in a bad light,” notes longtime Sacramento highway construction lobbyist Dave Ackerman, who began his career working for Republican politicians.

“Obama hasn’t said anything about lobbyists yet,” he adds tongue-in-cheek, referring to the irony of his livelihood being picked on by a fellow Republican. “I guess we’re just fun to take shots at. It’s a free shot and no one’s going to defend us.”

Ackerman has a little sign in his office that reads: “Don’t tell my mother I’m a lobbyist. She thinks I play the piano in a whorehouse.”

There are hundreds — maybe thousands, no one keeps count — of Gingrich-type non-lobbyist consultants in Sacramento. Many, like Gingrich, have learned the legislating ropes, developed relationships and earned redeemable chits in the legislative or executive branches.

They have influence and peddle it to special interests of all kinds.

It’s the American way. We all have a right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. You can look it up in the 1st Amendment.

Of course, some have more money to spend on exercising this right than most. They hire influence. And many arrange to nourish the politicians with campaign contributions, what the late Assembly Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh famously called “the mother’s milk of politics.”

There are roughly 1,200 lobbyists registered and regulated today in Sacramento. And there are the countless consultants. They all have the same basic mission: to influence public policy.

In the Florida debate, Romney brought up Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage guarantor, a GOP villain in the housing meltdown. Gingrich’s consulting firm was paid $1.6 million by Freddie — not to lobby, he has insisted, but to provide perspective as “a historian.”

“They don’t pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians,” Romney said.

The former Massachusetts governor also mentioned Gingrich’s work for healthcare companies. And he articulated common sense:

“If you’re getting paid by health companies … that could benefit from a piece of legislation, and you then meet with Republican congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you’d like. I call it influence-peddling.”

Romney added that “it is not right.” But I wouldn’t go that far. It’s legal, far as we know.

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