Seeking to sway politicians: Lobbyists savor the challenge of playing the game, which requires chess-like strategizing

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When Maureen Ferguson was a lobbyist for the Indiana Petroleum Council, she went skiing for the first time, in Colorado. As her ski instructor was taking her up the mountain, he asked her what she did for a living. When she told him, he “went off” on how the oil industry was corrupt and running the government, and she recalled that she found herself fearing for her life.

Now when someone asks Ferguson what she does, sometimes she tells them, but “other times, it’s easier to just say, ‘I work with government.'”

Ferguson, who is now director of government affairs for the Indiana Statewide Rural Electric Cooperative, is among a growing number of women who find lobbying to be a challenging and rewarding career.

She’s also not alone in finding it difficult to explain what a lobbyist does, which is seeking to influence public officials-primarily politicians-to act in favor of the business or organization the lobbyist represents.

Kim Dodson, director of government relations and development for The Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with mental retardation and related disabilities, said it’s always tough to explain what she does. She thinks it’s best to describe a lobbyist as an educator to elected officials.

“Indiana has a part-time legislature, so legislators are not experts in everything, and they really depend on the lobbyists to educate them about the issues and the impact of legislation,” Dodson said.

Pat McGuffey, senior vice president of BoseTreacy Associates LLC, the public-affairs arm of the locally based Bose McKinney & Evans LLP law firm, said when she talks to students about what lobbyists do, she explains that virtually everyone-from teachers and laborers to businesspeople and Girl Scouts-has someone representing their interests in the Statehouse.

McGuffey, who declined to give her age, said her areas of concentration include mental health, agriculture, the environ- ment, budgets and transportation. She started her career with an education degree but fell into lobbying when she was working with the locally based Mental Health Association in Indiana.

“I started working with the lobbyist for MHA on some legislation involving children’s mental health, and when that lobbyist left, they named me director of public policy,” she said.

McGuffey, who’s been a lobbyist for more than 20 years, said lobbying combines many of the things she likes to do: educating, selling and interacting with people. She also went back to school later in life to get her law degree. “I think I’m a better lobbyist for it, because law school teaches you to analyze,” she said.

The Electric Cooperative’s Ferguson, 47, said she also sort of fell into lobbying. After she got an undergraduate degree in public and environmental affairs, she did an internship with the former Indianapolisbased Amax Coal Co. while working on a master’s degree in public administration. Amax then hired her to work in its federalaffairs department, a job that involved lobbying, and she eventually became Amax’s state lobbyist. Ferguson also then went back for her law degree.

Lobbying is nothing more than communicating a point of view, so it’s important to be able to adjust your form of communication depending on whom you’re Continued from page 23

talking to, Ferguson said. “Some [legislators] react more favorably to strongly factual information, while others are interested in the emotional impact an issue might have on constituents.”

You have to be a people person, because lobbying is all about relationship-building, said Arc of Indiana’s Dodson, 35. “You have to be willing to get to know legislators and how they work, and you have to adapt to them.”

Dodson took a more conventional route into lobbying. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science, she worked briefly for a congressman before joining the Democratic staff of the Indiana House of Representatives as a legislative assistant. Next she worked in the legislative services office of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. She then became a contract lobbyist for a local law firm before taking her current job with Arc.

Dodson enjoys the political games that are played in her field. “It’s like a very weird chess game; you’re always thinking two steps ahead, and I like that,” she said.

BoseTreacy’s McGuffey also likened lobbying to a game of chess. “It’s a combination of negotiating and knowing how far you can push, and when you need to back off,” she said.

Ferguson enjoys discussing the issues and “the fact that there are always at least four sides to every story,” she said. “And the most satisfying thing is being able to reach a compromise with all the parties involved, if possible, and achieve a good end result.”

Lobbying can also be very stressful, Ferguson said, “because you’re expected by your client to procure a particular outcome, which of course you have no control over-the legislator controls the outcome.”

McGuffey agreed there can be a lot of pressure to make sure clients are wellrepresented, because the stakes are high. “It gets tiring reading all these bills, but it’s important that we read everything, because we don’t want to miss something for a client,” she said.

Dodson said it’s ironic that what she enjoys most about lobbying, the political games, are also what she enjoys the least-“the ugly games that are played sometimes just because they want to play games, not because it’s going to get anything done quicker.

“I think all legislators are good people who want to do the right thing, but unfortunately, politics gets in the way sometimes, and you have to work around it,” Dodson said.

Although women lobbyists are still in the minority, Dodson thinks her gender sometimes gives her an advantage. “With women legislators, there’s a bond there; women want to see other women do well,” she said. And she thinks it’s easier for women lobbyists who have outgoing personalities to get male legislators to sit down with them for coffee.

There were so few women lobbyists when McGuffey started in the early ’80s that “a lot of the old-timers wanted to protect us and were very helpful,” she said. “At the same time, there also was that barrier of the ‘good old boys club,’ where they had time on the golf course and around the poker table, and had access we didn’t have.”

But it’s pretty much a well-integrated group now, McGuffey said. “I seldom feel like I’m being closed out because of the gender issue.”

When asked whether they’d ever had a legislator seek sexual favors in return for his support, all of the women said no. McGuffey said she has heard stories, but she thinks it might have been the Gary Hart scandal that cleaned things up. “A lot of folks realized if they cross that line, especially as a lobbyist, you’d lose all your professional credibility,” she said.

Integrity is extremely important for lobbyists, who have to be frank with their clients about what’s reasonable and honest with legislators about both sides of an issue, McGuffey said. “If you don’t tell the truth, you’re through in our business.”

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