When the Secretary of State’s Office reports six-figure incomes for Mississippi lobbyists, most people assume they’re rolling in dough. But top lobbyists say nothing is further from the truth.
“It’s like going to a bank and saying they made $14 million last year because they had $14 million in deposits,” said longtime lobbyist Buddy Medlin. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Lobbying is a business, he said, that requires “tremendous overhead.”
“Normally, I have two assistants in the lobbying arena, which requires pretty good salaries, two secretaries, a CPA, a janitor, and I rent my own office,” he rattled off. “I’m different from executive directors of associations who are furnished automobiles, offices and secretaries and insurance. In my particular case and others, it all comes out of the gross income. Plus, we pay to attend all the campaign fundraisers to understand that political arena. I was at one last weekend for our state auditor, which was attended by Sen. Trent Lott. I felt honored to be invited, but that’s a hefty expense.”
Because lobbyist Clare Hester’s office has seven employees, the additional expense of workers’ compensation insurance is paid.
“It’s so silly for people to think we’re making a gazillion dollars because of what we’re reporting,” she said.
Lobbyists’ income statements don’t reflect the sweat equity involved in the profession, said Hayes Dent, president of Southern Strategy Group in Mississippi, who served as director of legislative affairs for the late Gov. Kirk Fordice during his second term.
“In a state like Mississippi, you’ve got to put your time in,” he said. “To be a good lobbyist, you’ve got to be good at the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. Lobbying is not the place for glamour people who enjoy the marketing and name-dropping. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is taking on your client and moving their agenda forward in whichever jurisdiction you’ve been hired to advocate in.”
The political landscape has changed dramatically since Medlin started out as a lobbyist. During Gov. John Bell Williams’ administration, “we brought the park system out of the woods,” he said. “I got to know the leadership that could give us the funding we needed, by going to key people. (Long-time House Speaker) Buddy Newman and people like that had a great deal of respect. When they spoke, everybody listened. I’m not saying it was bad, good or whatnot, that’s just the way it was. More people today are thinking individually and separately, and now you’ve got more than two parties. You’ve got Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, the Black Caucus and a lot of different factions.”
Dent said some people still react to lobbying “as almost a bad word.”
“Way back when, I was young and naive about what lobbyists did,” he said, with a chuckle. “Now I tell people all the time there’s not a client I have that I wouldn’t be willing to make a Rotary Club speech over.”
Public perception of the profession has improved, said Medlin.
“I used to hear people (react negatively) years ago and I’d say, did you know the Baptist church has two lobbyists at the Capitol, and they’d say no! I’d say, they sure do,” he said. “With 3,000 to 5,000 bills introduced each year, legislators must have correct resources to rely on. They need the data we can provide them. That’s one reason I’ve been there so long. I tell it like it is.”
Medlin stopped short of predicting the highlights of the 2005 legislative session.
“If I could tell you that, President Bush would be sending a jet down here for me this afternoon,” he said, with a laugh.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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