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Would-be lobbyists need strategy, fat Rolodex

By Ellen McCarthy
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Exuding confidence as they walk through the corridors of power, Washington’s well-tailored lobbyists (and a few scruffy ones as well) are legendary for their deal-making, their influence on elections and their command of arcane — but high stakes — issues.

But lobbying, unlike other professions, doesn’t come with a clearly defined career path. It’s not exactly a common undergraduate major. So how do you climb those ranks?

The ways are as varied as the organizations and interests lobbyists represent. But, since Capitol Hill is a major focus of lobbying, finding a job somewhere there — regardless of title, glory or pay — is a good place to start, industry veterans say.

“Washington is about contacts, and if you spend some time on the Hill, your credibility and marketability is much higher than in the private sector,” said Paul J. Hirsch, president of Madison Government Affairs. “The best way to do this is get some experience when you’re young, and you can live on the Hill with four or five other people. Even if it’s unpaid or a fellowship, work your tail off.”

Spending a few years working for a member of the House or the Senate provides a front-row view of the action as well as lessons in where power lies and how the government actually operates.

Relationships built with peers and superiors on the Hill can lead to opportunities to work with lobbying firms, trade associations, corporations and nonprofit groups.

Working on Capitol Hill allows you to “become an expert on that issue area and develop a network of contacts that you could sell to a lobbying organization. ... That’s essentially what you do — you sell your Rolodex,” said Steve Billet, director of career and external programs at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “If you want to be a lobbyist, you have to have either access or knowledge — and preferably both — that would make you valuable to a lobbying organization.”

Volunteering in support of an issue or organization is another way to get started. Grass-roots campaigns, marches and fund-raising events offer opportunities to learn the intricacies of a given topic, to meet others working on behalf of that cause and to build political skills. Nonprofits and associations are often receptive to people willing to donate time.

A key is learning how to communicate your ideas.

“You can’t sit back and think that good ideas will win the day,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “Learn your stuff. Learn your subject area so that you know it more than the person you’re likely to sit down with on the Hill.”

Cook recommended that beginning lobbyists find mentors to show them around and introduce them to other players.

Washington is not the only place to build a lobbying career. Betsy Loyless, vice president for policy and lobbying for the League of Conservation Voters, began her career promoting issues with the Georgia Legislature. Loyless believes state legislators can be more accessible than lawmakers in Washington.

“I think it’s easier to get a handle on who the players are, to master the subject,” Loyless said.