POLITICS
02/12/2018 05:45 am ET

Lobbyists Mingled With State Lawmakers At Democrats' Closed-Door Policy Retreat

The predominance of corporate interests underscores the ongoing tension between the party's centrist and progressive wings.

When Democratic legislators gathered in a hotel in Portland, Maine, for a two-day policy conference last August, they were joined by a host of corporate interests who have good reason to want in on those conversations.

The meeting of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party arm responsible for supporting state legislative candidates, was closed to the press and billed as an off-the-record event, but HuffPost has exclusively obtained a copy of the agenda, which shows the members of the DLCC’s finance council.

The finance council includes companies, trade groups, labor unions and public interest organizations, who pay anywhere from $12,000 to more than $100,000 to the DLCC. In return, the conference provided an opportunity for donors to interact with state legislators ― many of whom head their respective chambers ― from around the country.

The Portland conference included prominent representation from the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries, including lobbyists from America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national trade group that is currently lobbying against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All bill. Representatives from the Association for Accessible Medicines, Eli Lilly, Sanofi, Sunovion Pharmaceuticals, Anthem, Merck, Novartis and Vertex also attended.

There was also a panel titled “Nicotine Without Smoke: How to Reduce the Harm of Smoking,” featuring Dr. Saul Shiffman, a University of Pittsburgh professor and adviser to Pinney Associates, a pharmaceutical consulting firm that works with tobacco giant Reynolds American. The company, which also produces e-cigarettes and is currently lobbying Congress for “harm reduction” approaches to tobacco regulation, sent no fewer than four lobbyists to the conference, according to the agenda.

Representatives from the Edison Electric Institute, the powerful national trade group advancing utilities’ interests, were also present, as were the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the Nuclear Energy Institute, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Monsanto, eBay and Wells Fargo.

Major labor unions also attended, including the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Iron Workers International and International Brotherhood of Teamsters, as well as a representative from Americans for Responsible Solutions, which advocates for gun control.

The finance council members who paid $35,000 or more to the DLCC were granted the opportunity for one-on-one meetings with state legislators slated for 90 minutes during the second day of the conference, according to the agenda.

DLCC communications director Mara Sloan said the policy conferences are forums for legislators to engage with each other and share new ideas, as well as “an opportunity for legislators to interact with industry leaders and learn more about policy positions of both the legislators and the organizations.”

Sloan said that finance council members take part in setting the agenda, as part of “a collaborative process, with those planning to attend weighing in on what they would like to see in upcoming policy sessions, breakout panels or skills building workshops.”

Council members have historically attended, and at times presented at, such conferences in order to “talk with legislative leaders about their priorities in states, such as expanding access to affordable health care, fixing crumbling roads and bridges, expanding broadband access to rural areas, and beyond,” said Sloan. She added that public policy challenges often require public-private partnerships, and conferences such as the one in Portland provide “an opportunity for that dialogue” that includes industry, unions and progressive groups.

But one state legislator, who asked not to be named because he’s received assistance from the DLCC, said he “felt uncomfortable” about the abundance of corporate interests.

Other legislative attendees HuffPost reached out to declined to comment on the relationship with the council. Democratic Maine state Sen. Rebecca Millett focused on the value of sharing strategies with colleagues across different states and campaigns.

“There has been real excitement about seizing the momentum that began with the marches last year and the wins across the country in state legislatures,” she said. “In my six years as state senator, this is the most excited and motivated I’ve seen our base about running and supporting local and state campaigns.”

The DLCC conference also featured former Democratic Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who joined the legal and lobbying firm Brownstein, Fyatt, Farber & Schreck as a strategic adviser after leaving Congress in 2015. Begich backed Alaska’s oil and gas industry in his six years in the Senate and co-founded the NewDEAL, a centrist Democratic group initially described as supporting “pro-business progressives” that now defines itself with the more neutral “pro-growth progressives” tag. Brownstein, Fyatt, Farber & Schreck’s robust energy and mining practice includes such clients as Freeport LNG, CITGO Petroleum, Cobalt International Energy and Colorado Oil & Gas Association.

Begich also runs his own Anchorage-based consulting shop, Northern Compass Group, and in late 2016 called for opening the Arctic to offshore drilling.   

Begich’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Sloan said he “talked about connecting with voters on the issues they really care about and the strategy it took to win the Alaska House in a red state like Alaska,” and was not “attending as a representative of any company.”

 “The DLCC does not take policy positions, and there is no quid pro quo expected from anyone attending our conferences,” said Sloan. “We are working every day to close the fundraising gap with Republicans, who regularly outraise us.”

Still, as the DLCC gears up for many crucial 2018 state races ― seats in 87 of 99 state legislative chambers are on the ballot ― it will need to reckon with thorny questions over political identity and policy, the merits of courting corporate and wealthy donors, and the role of lobbyists and high-powered consultants.

And there’s a growing chorus of progressive activists surrounding the party that won’t let those issues go away, including groups like Our Revolution and the Working Families Party, who have recently proved successful in running more progressive Democrats at the state level.

It’s no secret the same powerful corporate interests that own the Republican Party are trying to buy access and influence in the Democratic Party too,” said Nelini Stamp, organizing director for the Working Families Party. “Democrats should resist. We won’t beat Trump and the Republicans by compromising our values. Voters want leaders who will fight for the many, not the few.”

CONVERSATIONS