A month after Republican Haley Barbour was elected governor of Mississippi, Delta Regional Authority executive director Hayes Dent received a call from lobbying powerhouse Southern Strategy Group.
“I knew who they were, so I was eager to hear what they had in mind for Mississippi,” said Dent.
Known as “business-Republican oriented lobbyists,” the firm’s three founding partners — Paul Bradshaw, David Rancourt and John Thrasher — who have close ties to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, established the Florida firm when Republicans took over the state legislature and the governor began pushing for private business to take over an array of government functions.
The Tallahassee-based firm quickly amassed an impressive track record, prompting the St. Petersburg Times to call it “the most powerful lobbying firm in Florida,” with its diverse representation of clients including AT&T, Time Warner, Tampa Electric, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Walt Disney World, the City of Jacksonville, The College Board, Florida Bar Association and the Florida Hospital Association.
In Florida, where Thrasher was House speaker from 1998-99, delivering votes during Bush’s most accomplished era as governor, Southern Strategy Group has produced client-pleasing results. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida snared a $2.7-million-a-month contract to manage the state employees healthcare plan while Caremark inked a $153-million deal for state employees’ prescription drug services. Bearing Point nabbed a share of a $150-million state technology contract.
Soon after Sonny Perdue was elected Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction in 2002, Southern Strategy Group opened an office in Atlanta. The fastest-growing lobbying firm in Georgia, it represents a mix of associations and corporations, including Motorola, Ernst & Young and United Healthcare Services.
Southern Strategy Group also has offices in Louisiana, with clients such as Atmos Entergy, Louisiana Community and Technical College System, State Farm and Sportsmen for Fair Competition, and the founding partners are mulling plans to open offices in California and Texas and another Southern state in 2005.
When they contacted him in December 2003, Southern Strategy Group’s partners were straightforward with Dent. They wanted him to open a Mississippi office in Jackson.
“I enjoyed my job at Delta Regional Authority, but I wasn’t prepared to be involved in seven other states on a daily basis,” said Dent, who has worked in state government since 1991 and served as the late Gov. Kirk Fordice’s second-term director of legislative affairs. “My interest, from a standpoint of public service, has always been in Mississippi. To be associated with the nation’s largest state government lobbying firm was exciting. They felt the changing of the guard here was good timing.”
Since opening the Mississippi office March 1, 2004, Dent has picked up 14 clients.
“Our goal as a firm is to be one of the dominant lobbying forces in every state in which we’re located,” said Dent. “Mississippi has a lot of good lobbyists, so that’s a tall order, but it’s one that’s going well.”
Dent said Southern Strategy Group is successful “because our clients understand that government operates differently than private business.”
“It is a slower, more deliberate work schedule,” he said. “Some people are very critical of that process, but I always tell clients that the money we’re talking about using and spending in the public sector is public money. It requires a more deliberate, measured approach. It can be a frustrating process, but one that you cannot get away from.”
Executive branch business development is a primary focus for Southern Strategy Group, said Dent.
“Competition is good in the marketplace,” he said. “Therefore, competition in government is no different. We’ve got to get to a point in government where there’s good, fair, honest competition. For example, a state employee shouldn’t be limited to one health insurance provider. He should be able to choose one of three or four different companies. There’s no way that wouldn’t stimulate lower prices.”
More cities and municipalities are contracting with lobbyists, just as they outsource work to attorneys and engineers. “We’re not talking about, ‘hey, can you get this bill passed for me?’ but rather an ongoing relationship,” said Dent.
Regardless of the expertise behind Southern Strategy Group, the 2005 session of the Mississippi Legislature is “going to be really tough,” said Dent.
“Senior legislative members have talked in terms of a $650 million to $800 million hole in the budget,” he said. “This will be a real challenge to watch.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.