Politics of persuasion: Dozens of lobbyists now work the legislature for more than 200 groups

DOVER — Some say they harm the public interest, promoting large corporations at the expense of the common man.

Others say they are a necessary part of keeping government running effectively and provide an important service to help legislators stay informed.

Whatever your views on lobbyists, there’s no doubt the men and women representing companies, nonprofit groups and local governments are a fixture around legislative bodies.

Delaware’s General Assembly is no exception.

Data from the Public Integrity Commission lists 3,060 acts of lobbying undertaken by dozens of lobbyists representing more than 200 organizations in 2017 — and no one lobbied more than the Delaware Healthcare Association.

The group, which represents hospitals and other health care organizations throughout the state, weighed in on bills on 233 separate occasions, easily surpassing the second-place finisher.

Lobbyists, defined as individuals who are paid to attempt to sway lawmakers or other state officials on legislation and similar proposals, are required to report to the Public Integrity Commission “the identity by number of each bill or resolution, and by number and/or title of each regulation, in connection with which the lobbyist has made or intends to make such direct communication, and the name of the employer on whose behalf such direct communication occurred.”

Individuals who are not registered as lobbyists can still provide their thoughts on bills and resolutions in official forums, and many do by attending and speaking in committee hearings.

The Delaware Healthcare Association was the most active organization, providing input on measures as disparate as the budget bill and a resolution declaring June Post-Traumatic Stress Injury Awareness Month. All of its lobbying was done by Wayne Smith, the association’s president and a former state representative, and Lisa Schieffert, the group’s director of health policy.

Second among organizations was the Medical Society of Delaware, which used five different lobbyists in the 152 reported instances. Third was the Delaware Charter School Network, a pro-charter school organization. It was active on 132 occasions.

The Delaware State Education Association provided input 103 times, and the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee Inc. had 98 instances of activity.

The tally includes multiple instances of one organization or company lobbying on the same bill. As one example, all three members of the lobbying firm Ruggerio Willson & Associates weighed in for the American Council of Engineering Companies on a measure that would have temporarily exempted the Department of Transportation from prevailing wage.

Although government relations firms like Ruggerio Wilson are active on hundreds of bills, their lobbyists do so on behalf of other businesses or organizations and thus are recorded as representing other entities.

Five bills saw at least 50 instances of lobbying activity: the grant-in-aid bill, the draft bond bill, the draft budget bill, the final budget bill and a proposal to raise the minimum wage,

There were 105 separate lobbying acts on House Bill 25, the governor’s recommended budget bill, which was filed in January.

Lobbyists are required to regularly report the amount of money they spend on goods or services for lawmakers or other state officials, and combined, lobbyists reported spending $47,111.23 this year. Nearly 90 percent of that is categorized as food and refreshments.

The three busiest individual lobbyists according to the Public Integrity Commission’s data are all members of the Byrd Group, a powerful firm that represents Anheuser-Busch, Dover Downs Hotel & Casino and the Medical Society of Delaware, among other companies and nonprofits.

The company is run by Bob Byrd, a former state representative whose bio on the company’s website calls him “a Jedi Master of government arts.” Mr. Byrd was active on 233 proposals, but someone else from his firm topped him — by one instance.

Kimberly Gomes reported 234 solicitations, representing clients ranging from Amazon to the Maritime Exchange for the Delaware River & Bay.

Third among individual lobbyists was Rebecca Byrd, Mr. Byrd’s daughter, who was active on 232 occasions. She is ex-deputy legal counsel to former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

Chris DiPietro, owner of CDi Consulting Services in Baltimore, lobbied 222 times. He was followed by the three members of Ruggerio Willson: Verity Watson, Kim Willson and Rhett Ruggerio. Ms. Willson and Mr. Ruggerio both previously worked for Democratic politicians and with the Democratic Party on campaigns, and Ms. Watson is a former aide in the General Assembly.

The count for busiest lobbyists includes the same bill multiple times when necessary. Mr. Byrd, for instance, provided input on a measure enabling Dover to create a Municipal Special Development District on behalf of Bayhealth Medical Center, Calpine Corporation, Dover Downs and Dover Motorsports, although his firm does not represent clients with conflicting interests.

Relationships matter tremendously when it comes to succeeding in the government-relations business, Mr. Byrd noted.

He said he spends less time meeting with lawmakers over lunch or dinner than he did 10 years ago, instead often communicating over the phone and by email.
And of course, there’s no substitute for being in the state capitol for the action.

“I tell people that you have to spend the time in Legislative Hall and you spend 12 hours to get the right 12 minutes,” Mr. Byrd said.

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