Wined, dined and rubbed the right wayWine and cheese give way to massages, manicures and charitable donations.
By Laylan Copelin
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Chardonnay and cheese are no longer enough to draw a Capitol crowd to receptions hosted by trade associations or their lobbyists.
Tonight at the Four Seasons Hotel, the "ladies of the Legislature," as the invitation from Texans for Lawsuit Reform refers to them, will be offered mini-massages (feet, hands and necks only), manicures and pedicures, along with "food and cocktails galore" at the tort reform group's "girls' night out."
Last week, it was the Texas Statewide Telephone Cooperative offering lawmakers a chance to win a $1,000 scholarship for the school of their choice. It wasn't much of a gamble; 16 of the 18 or so lawmakers who attended had their business cards pulled out of the hat.
With the Legislature's committee machinery only now gearing up, January is the slowest month of the 140-day session and the best opportunity for receptions that target legislators and their staffers.
"We were just looking for a more relaxing forum to acknowledge how hard people are working," said Sherry Sylvester of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. "It's a fun event. Some male members have expressed an interest in attending."
The legislative reception traditionally has been a poor cousin to other lobbying efforts, and the events are sometimes poorly attended by lawmakers, who are too busy, too bored or too booked up with better offers.
Capitol staffers are a different matter. The food, drinks and entertainment (music is popular) are weeknight perks for staffers who face several months of long hours tending to their bosses' business.
To attract more elected officials, some associations are adding perks such as pedicures and scholarships.
"It kind of entices them to come," said Cammie Hughes, an official with the telephone cooperative that gives the scholarships. "It's amazing how excited they are about it. They seemed to linger a little longer."
Hughes said 200 people, including 18 or so lawmakers, packed last week's event at the Austin Marriott at the Capitol. The telephone cooperative is a group of 39 mostly rural phone companies that want to make sure the subsidy for rural phone service continues to be paid by phone users statewide.
The time-honored receptions during the Legislature's lumbering start come between last fall's campaign donations and post-session invitations to lawmakers to give speeches on trips to association meetings at exotic locales. (There also will be opportunities during the legislative session for the most influential state officials to attend the Super Bowl, the NBA playoffs or major-league baseball games.)
From the lawmakers' point of view, winning money at a reception, even if is just the reflected glory of it being donated in your name, is nice. Taking your shoes off in public and being captive while your nails are done at a reception with business leaders agitated about the judicial system might not be everyone's first choice.
"I wouldn't want to take off my shoes and show off my unmanicured feet," said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. "My door is open. I don't expect a manicure to listen to people."
Then again, the tactic must work, because the lawsuit group did it two years ago to a big audience.
"They really enjoyed a women's event," Sylvester said. "Bipartisan, of course."
She said the "girls' night out" — there are no plans yet for a "boys' night out" — follows a more typical luncheon last week in which legislative staffers were sent home with briefing books provided by the association.
"Our agenda is pretty complex," Sylvester said. The group works to make the judicial system work favorably for business interests.
Lobbying, in all its forms, is an evolving practice that ebbs and flows with public opinion and changes in the law.
Austin, over the years, has flirted with keeping up with the lobbying efforts of Washington, but that was a fast crowd with which to compete even before Jack Abramoff got his federal prison number.
A $1,000 scholarship to a lawmaker's favorite school back home can't be compared with former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's plan to trade access to him and special events at the 2004 Republican National Convention in return for $10,000 to $500,000 donations to his charity.
And it's hard to imagine that a pedicure or manicure adds much to the $3.9 million that Texans for Lawsuit Reform's political committee poured into last year's campaigns, according to Texans for Public Justice, a group lobbying for campaign finance limits.
Still, from time to time, the Austin crowd has stirred the public's attention — and the Legislature passes laws that tend to the perception of money or good times sullying the state's business.
The more things change, however, the more they stay the same.
For example, when East Texas poultry magnate Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim passed out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor in 1989 before a vote on legislation he wanted, a law was passed for him to take it outside — literally.
Today, campaign donations are still unlimited in amount, but they must be given before or after the 140-day legislative session and not under the Capitol dome.
Likewise, the images from the 1980s of beer kegs and margarita machines being rolled into the Capitol for a final-day bash have given way to lobby-sponsored parties around town.
Sometimes outlawed practices return in a different form.
In 1991, the Legislature prohibited members from spending campaign donations to buy homes in Austin, but during the 2006 campaign it was revealed that several lawmakers outside Central Texas were paying political donations to their spouses to buy Austin homes.
With more than 1,300 registered lobbyists and more associations competing for attention, it's only natural that the time-worn reception is evolving, too.
"People enjoy coming to events that are unique," Sylvester said.
These 16 lawmakers won the right to designate $1,000 scholarships to the schools of their choice:
Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; and Reps. Charles 'Doc' Anderson, R-Waco; Fred Brown, R-Bryan; Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake; David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls; Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon; Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton; Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville; Chuck Hopson, D-Jacksonville; Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola; Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton; Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock; Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin; Nathan Macias, R-Bulverde; Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin; and John Otto, R-Dayton.