Lobbying in the time of the COVID: The new normal in Georgia’s Statehouse

At least for now
A group of lobbyists speak with Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, second from right, in the hallways of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. COVID-19 has brought a lot of changes to the way lobbying is conducted at the Statehouse. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A group of lobbyists speak with Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, second from right, in the hallways of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. COVID-19 has brought a lot of changes to the way lobbying is conducted at the Statehouse. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Lobbying at Georgia’s Statehouse is all about making and building on relationships with the people you’re trying to persuade to either pass your bill or kill the competition’s.

How the paid influencers on the Capitol’s third floor do their work has changed — sometimes in profound ways — with COVID-19.

While lobbyists are still wining and dining lawmakers, there are fewer big committee dinners, and going out often means checking into the layout and seating arrangements of restaurants, ruling out regular haunts.

Some legislative committee meetings are off-limits. The rope line, where lobbyists normally call lawmakers out of the chamber to buttonhole them about a bill or state funding for their clients, is gone.

In some cases, they need an appointment to meet with lawmakers for more than a few minutes, and they have to give staffers their information for contact tracing in case they or the lawmaker comes down with COVID-19.

Some older lobbyists or those with medical issues are staying away, sending younger colleagues to hang out at the Capitol to monitor the goings on while they are watching meetings on stream. Phone calls and texts have replaced some in-person conversations. Everyone is masking, making it harder to gauge reactions when they do talk to lawmakers.

“I really miss the personal interaction,” said Trip Martin, a 38-year lobbying veteran of the Capitol who has among the longest client lists in the Statehouse. “I am a face-to-face, eye-to-eye kind of guy. I like to see people’s expressions.”

Martin and his team spent $5,800 buying breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks for lawmakers during the first month of the 2021 session, so they’re still getting plenty of face time from individual lawmakers.

He’s 69 and has gotten his COVID-19 vaccinations.

Still, when asked whether he’s worried about wining and dining in the time of COVID, he said: “Hell yes, I got my shots. But I am still concerned.”

A COVID Capitol

A job built on professional relationships was certain to see changes from the COVID-19 pandemic, where mask-wearing and social distancing are recommended and group gatherings often make headlines. And not the good kind.

A typical legislative session is a perfect superspreader event — hundreds of people, sometimes well over 1,000, jammed together on the third floor of the Capitol for hours, talking close to each other and often meeting in crammed, poorly ventilated rooms that can feel like a sweat lodge in February.

On days when groups hold their annual “Day at the Capitol” — from teachers and nurses to disability advocates — it is nearly impossible to move about and can feel claustrophobic to those prone to having problems with crowds in tight spaces. Children serve as pages, scurrying about, bringing messages to lawmakers to come outside their chambers to talk to the supplicants who are standing — sometimes three deep — behind a rope line.

It is democracy writ large — and the perfect environment to spread a deadly virus. A winter session doesn’t go by without some legislators, staff, lobbyists and the journalist who cover them coming down with a nasty bug.

And that was before COVID-19.

After the 2020 session was suspended due to the COVID-19 outbreak, lawmakers returned for a few weeks in June and most lobbyists wore masks, taking a cue from legislative leaders such as House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who required face coverings in his chamber.

Lawmakers spread out in the chamber or nearby rooms and were urged to regularly get tested at medical aid stations in and around the Capitol. The rope line disappeared, as did the crowds of citizen lobbyists visiting the Statehouse.

Fewer lobbyists took fewer lawmakers for a night out, and fewer lobbyists hung out in the halls outside the chambers.

Some things got back to normal when lawmakers returned in January. Leaders of the Republican majority held the same kind of fundraisers they hold every year in the days before a session, with lobbyists invited to come by with a check to help pay for the next round of campaigns.

But other things had changed. Once the session began Jan. 11, Ralston and other legislative leaders required lawmakers and staff be tested twice a week. Ralston had one lawmaker who refused to do so escorted from the chamber and told him not to come back until he complied. The speaker said he’d just lost two friends to COVID-19 and he was in no mood to have his mandate ignored.

House members remained spread out, and committee and subcommittee meetings were streamed, limiting the need to attend them in person. In at least some committees, lobbyists and their clients were told to submit written testimony why lawmakers should pass or kill a bill, rather than have them testify in person.

Lobbyist-funded dinners and drinks have picked up again. About $75,000 in spending on lawmakers was reported during the first month of the session, according to disclosures reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s typically closer to $200,000 or so, but the most costly events — such as those sponsored by chambers of commerce to promote Savannah and other cities — weren’t held this year. Neither was the Wild Hog Supper, the traditional event the night before the start of a session where visitors communally try to pick roasted hogs clean.

One of the strongest traditions at the Capitol is the committee dinner. Groups of lobbyists take entire committees of lawmakers out, typically for a fancy dinner that can run well over $1,000.

David Pratt, a 19-year lobbyist whose client list runs the gamut from AARP and autism advocates to pharmaceutical and private prison companies, is a veteran of the committee dinners, as is his wallet.

“It’s entirely possible there won’t be any of those this year,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, agreed that those regular big gatherings are less likely.

“The part I miss about the committee dinners (not happening) is not the food as much as they are bipartisan,” Dugan said. “You get to engage with people you typically don’t spend too much time with during the day. That’s been put on the back burner.”

Dugan, who tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of the session but has since returned, said the pandemic hasn’t stopped him from going out with lobbyists.

“I am not one of those who is typically in fear of something going bad,” he said. “I do it as safely as I possibly can. It’s not something I really think about.”

Pratt said he takes lawmakers to places that have spread-out dining and outdoor patios, and he mentioned Kevin Rathbun’s and Murphy’s as places he feels comfortable taking people. “We love to patronize those places,” he said.

Another lobbyist said he’s invited lawmakers to his condo and ordered steaks to be delivered. A third said her company won’t let her go to the session because of COVID-19, so she’s had lawmakers over for food and drinks in her backyard.

Chuck McMullen, a veteran lobbyist whose clients include Anheuser-Busch, the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians, Microsoft, the Wellstar Health System and the Wynn Resorts casino company, said COVID-19 hasn’t slowed the traditional after-hours get-togethers that much.

“I am still getting invitations from people calling me up and asking, ‘Hey, do you want to take me to dinner?’ ” he said.

Other things have changed

But McMillen said other things have changed. Lobbyists have to get written testimony on bills prepared to submit because they may not get to speak in subcommittees. In-house lobbyists working for some big corporations have been told to stay home, so the sheer volume is down.

Fast-moving lobbyists can still catch lawmakers in the hall as they walk to and from chambers, but often they have to schedule appointments to get more than a few minutes with a legislator during the workday. Many lobbyists regularly get tested for COVID-19, even those such as McMullen, who’s had the virus.

Ben Harbin, a former House budget chairman turned lobbyist representing the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, Georgia Power and the Georgia Military College among other clients, said he’s not going to the Capitol as much as he normally would. He’s making a lot of calls and texting with a cellphone number list he and many top lobbyists have built up over years of working the Capitol.

“What has changed is you are more respectful of legislators and the system,” he said. “We are all out and about during the day, and we don’t want to expose anybody. You’ve got older lobbyists, older legislators.”

But McMullen said there is a certain amount of time you have to spend at the Capitol working legislators and legislation, COVID-19 or no COVID-19.

“At the end of the day, to get a bill passed, you still have to be down here,” he said.

Dugan expects the new normal to revert, for the most part, to the old normal once the pandemic is over.

“It won’t be like a switch getting turned on and it (instantly) goes back to the way it was before,” he said. “I think you will see a constant migration back to it.”

The first thing that will happen, he said, is committee meetings will all be opened back up to lobbyists and the public. And the “Day at the Capitol” for professional associations and other groups will eventually return, bringing back the jam-packed third-floor halls and hurried conversations with citizen lobbyists.

“The convenience factor goes way up by not having them here, but we’re not here for our convenience,” Dugan said. “Half of our responsibility is to engage with those that have concerns.”