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Taking special interest

There’s more to a relationship with a lobbyist than the legislative process

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- (ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT F. RUSSO)

Tracey McClain gained her expertise in the post-disaster home elevation business during Hurricane Katrina. When Sandy hit, seven years later, she knew her company, TMB Services, could help with the reconstruction.

She also knew she would need a lobbyist.

McClain didn't doubt her company's capabilities. TMB has continued to lift houses in New Orleans; meanwhile, she said, other contractors have been weeded out, for lack of experience or outright fraud.

But she wanted her company to be registered in the state's Sandy rebuilding program, which will give homeowners grants, then match them up with qualified contractors to fix their damaged houses. She submitted a 72-page application — then called Michael Turner, a lobbyist at Burton Trent Public Affairs, in Trenton, to get her in front of New Jersey's elected officials.

“Me personally, I would have never gotten those meetings,” she said. “We possibly wouldn't be up there (in New Jersey) if it wasn't him putting us in front of the right people.”

Lobbyists are best known for kneading politicians for a favorable vote on behalf of a company or organization. It's an industry built on influence, relationships and negotiation, which all come in handy when dealing with officials.

But executives find use for lobbyists even when there's no immediate stake in pending legislation, industry heavyweights said.

Dale Florio, a co-founder of Princeton Public Affairs Group, said lobbyists can serve as a liaison between businesses and government even outside the Statehouse, leveraging relationships built on years of interaction. They can build coalitions, forge compromises, manage social media campaigns, navigate the fine print of regulations and provide strategic advice on a variety of issues.

“How you blend the politics with the substance of the rules and the regulations is something that firms like ours would bring to the table,” said Florio, whose lobbying firm is the state's largest.

That value isn't always clear to businesses.

Florio said he got a call recently from a developer looking to build a hotel along a major artery in New Jersey, but was running into a roadblock with an agency. The developer had never worked with a lobbyist before, but someone told him he could use one. So he called Florio and somewhat sheepishly asked, “So, uh, what do you do?”

Florio told the developer he could help move the discussion forward, analyze how the agency had viewed past projects and find a way toward compromise.

The developer hired him.

“In their business model of projects, it was lawyers, architects, engineers, groundwater consultants — you know, all those people,” Florio said. “There's maneuverability within the statutes and regulations that often times aren't fully exploited by a lawyer or an engineer.”

Sometimes the payoff is direct — like scoring an approval for a major project. Other times, it's subtle, like strengthening a brand or building credibility within a community.

Turner, the Burton Trent lobbyist who works with TMB Services, got the company an audience at the governor's office and with legislators from areas of the state hit hard by Sandy to discuss best practices gleaned from Katrina. TMB has since been accepted into the rebuilding program, and is moving its operations from Louisiana to the Garden State.

Turner also helped arrange a town hall meeting at a high school in Brick, where several hundred residents came to ask questions of TMB, as well as representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other contractors. TMB wanted to use the opportunity to teach people what they should expect from home elevation companies, what equipment those companies should be using and what insurance they should have. So Turner shepherded people in and out of that room for hours.

There were no business deals made at the town hall meeting, but Turner said his work isn't always about that.

“I always say to prospective clients, 'Do you ever run into areas of government oversight which you think to yourself, you know what, if they just did this a little bit better, it would make life a whole lot easier?' ” Turner said.

“It could be something very, very simple, but you just don't know how to get to the person who makes that decision,” he added. “In that respect, lobbyists can be helpful. It's a business consultancy whose business is the government, all levels of government.”

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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