It's a losing fight, but cigarette lobbyists won't quitTalented charmers make some legislators rethink $1 tax hike
May 12, 2006
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Cigarettes were supposed to be the easiest target of all, but when the high-powered Light 'Em Up Lobby hit the marble hallways of the Capitol, nobody saw what was coming.
Legislators, once set on a simple $1-per-pack tax increase, began talking about a complicated bond program to phase in the hike. They brought up money-starved health programs and addicted veterans and faltering small businesses.
That gave the lobbyists an opening.
"I've noticed when they put on the big push," said David Marwitz, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society. "They get in the backroom ... decide a strategy, put ads in [lawmakers'] districts, [activate] phone banks ... and they've got the big lobbyists."
The biggest, in fact. Big Tobacco's toughest fight in years is being waged by a band of highly paid, talented and experienced former legislators, political appointees and close friends of the most powerful people in Texas. They're fighting an uphill battle with such finesse that they're actually, occasionally, winning.
Their effort shows the creativity and resourcefulness that lobbyists of all stripes bring to the Capitol. Their success is driven by personal charm, pushing the right buttons to motivate different lawmakers, and sheer relentlessness.
Tobacco lobbyists show all these qualities, managing to notch small victories despite representing an industry widely seen as no less than evil.
They seem destined to lose – a $1-per-pack tax has passed both the House and Senate, but it is held up over the Senate's desire to spend some of the money on stop-smoking programs. And they've had some stumbles, crossing other powerful lobbyists and losing ground when their clients launched ill-conceived radio ads.
Still, even their opponents are impressed by their effort.
"They're pretty resourceful," said Rep. John Smithee, an Amarillo Republican who successfully batted away the phase-in plan a few weeks ago.
Among those working for tobacco giants Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds are the intense and driven Mike Toomey, a former state representative and former chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry; the imposing and raucous Stan Schlueter, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; Gwyn Shea, former secretary of state under Mr. Perry; former Republican Sen. David Sibley; and former Rep. Bill Messer, a friend and adviser to House Speaker Tom Craddick.
They are tasked with defending the indefensible against mom-friendly, pro-kid, anti-cancer advocates with an easy sound bite and overwhelming public sentiment on their side.
"They've got a bad product," said Rep. Ken Paxton, a McKinney Republican and member of the House Ways and Means Committee that approved a weakened version of the cigarette tax. "It harms people."
Some of the lobbyists have suffered cancer themselves or have loved ones battling it. Some are still struggling to quit smoking, while some gave it up years ago for health reasons.
But like a defense attorney trying to keep a confessed murderer off death row, a cigarette lobbyist finds an angle he or she can live with – firmly believing that it's pretty hard to sell something if you wouldn't buy it yourself.
"It's definitely an uphill battle, but everybody deserves to have their story told and represented," said one longtime tobacco lobbyist, speaking only on condition of anonymity to keep tobacco as a client. "Believe it or not, lobbyists will refuse clients if they don't agree with them or if they don't think it's a good thing to do.
"And it's not about whether you can smoke or not. A product is being singled out for a tax. You just stick to the tax."
Other lobbyists contacted for this story, either personally or through their firms, either did not return calls or declined to comment on the record, citing instructions from Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds.
Bill Phelps, spokesman for Philip Morris, said the company wants to talk about the overall message – that the tax hike is too much all at once – and let lobbyists talk to lawmakers.
That's where the arguments are carefully tailored for an audience of one.
Lobbyist Ed Lopez of San Antonio visited representatives from his city and urged them to think of the blue-collar workers that populate their districts.
"They're saying, 'Think of the working-class people who can't afford to get away, and taking a break and having a smoke is their version of a vacation,' " said Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat who is on the House Ways and Means committee.
Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, was approached by the friendly, popular and slightly shy lobbyist Mario Muñoz with a reminder about how convenience stores in her districts could suffer if people leave the state to find cheaper smokes.
He pushed for her support on a version of the bill that would hike the tax by $1.05 over three years.
"They're supporting the phase-in as a way to allegedly assist retailers, so they won't be hurt all at one time," she said. "I understand what Mario's saying, but I haven't heard from any retailers about it in my district."
Trying to lessen the blow, tobacco lobbyists even suggested that the state phase in the tax but issue a bond to get immediate revenue. That approach won support in the House initially but then fell apart.
"They felt that ... knowing that some of us want to provide more funding for public schools, and everybody wants to provide some property tax relief, the tax on cigarettes seems to be an easy target," said Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio. "They're aware of that, and they felt they'd come up with a solution."
Sometimes, the lobbyists' aggressiveness gets them in trouble.
Last week, lobbyists for beer distributors got a rash of reports that a corporate-sponsored phone bank was instructing constituents to call their elected officials and demand to know why cigarettes were being taxed but not alcohol.
The beer guys struck back immediately. Lawmakers warned that the beer distributors were ready to pit their own talents and connections against Big Tobacco.
The tobacco companies backed off.
Ultimately, the tobacco companies might have been their own lobbyists' undoing.
Sen. Bob Deuell, a family physician and Republican from Greenville, was all set to block the tax by using a rule that requires two-thirds of the senators in the chamber to consent before a bill comes up for a vote. His main contact with the tobacco lobby had been Mr. Sibley, whom Dr. Deuell called "one of the most honorable people I've ever met in my life."
Then the senator heard a radio ad paid for by Philip Morris that he found "offensive," "demeaning," "sarcastic" and "condescending." The ad, which accuses legislators of "leaving their common sense behind" when they go to Austin, was so disrespectful, he said, that he changed his mind.
"I'm tired of the rhetoric and the nastiness," Dr. Deuell said. "In fact, some of their lobbyists told me they had advised them not to run those ads, and they did anyway. ... The only recourse I have is to send a message."