In Defense of the Lobbyist, by Gianno Caldwell

caldwell_smLobbyists have a bad reputation because it’s said they are in it for themselves.

It’s said lobbyists will do anything to make a dollar and that special interest lobbyists are ruining America. But what is a lobbyist? Are they all the same? Do lobbyists contribute anything positive to society?

Almost everyone has lobbied for something. Have you ever, for example, asked an elected official not to support a bill because it would raise taxes? You’ve lobbied.

Lobbying, in the simplest definition, is advocating for a cause.

Federal lobbyists are often attacked for supporting special interest groups. What exactly is a special interest group? Think about the teachers who teach our children, nurses who care for us when we need it most and firefighters who help us all. All of these groups have federal lobbyists speaking on behalf of their special interest.

Ever the scapegoat, federal lobbyists seldom get credit for the positive things they do. A colleague of mine, for instance, represents a safety-net hospital. This hospital was on the verge of closing its doors in one of America’s poorest communities, where the nearest other health care facility is more than 30 miles away. My friend took on this hospital as a pro-bono client because they could not afford to pay. In the end, the hospital got the funding it needed to keep its doors open. Things like this happen often.

The first time I ever heard the word “lobbyist,” I was a young teen at a political event in Chicago. An elected official yelled, “Lobbyists are what’s wrong with this country!” I had no idea what a lobbyist was. Of all the professions my teachers told me about in school, not once had they told me I could be a lobbyist when I grew up. Yet it was a profession so powerful that an elected official called them out.

After doing some research, I couldn’t really tell if lobbying was on the same level as being a movie star or if the profession crossed so many ethical lines I risked landing in hot water. Throwing caution to the wind, I became a lobbyist.

I am a 27-year-old African-American man from Chicago who has worked in politics and government for over ten years. I started out volunteering for my local alderman at age 14. This led to opportunities such as legislative jobs at the local, state and federal level.

After I learned the intricacies of lobbying through research and experience, I decided it was a profession for me because it gave me an opportunity to help both small and large businesses make their voices heard. A voice like my grandfather’s, who ran a small business in Chicago and often said, “New regulations are so expensive we may get put out of business.”

Some may say businesses can speak for themselves. This is true. It’s just like as a person going to court has an opportunity to defend themselves without the assistance of an attorney. Usually, however, those situations don’t end too well. In both situations, I recommend having an advocate who knows the process to champion the issues.

I came to Washington, D.C. hoping to land a federal lobbyist position on the strength of my substantial state lobbying experience. When I could not find an opportunity that aligned with my vision, I created my own firm to best utilize my gifts.

Caldwell Strategic Consulting is a bipartisan consulting and lobby firm focused on issues such as health care, financial services, banking, energy, emergency management, transportation and local government.

Helping people navigate the legislative process, and add value so that someone else can have some certainty is a talent that I’m proud to possess. Corporations are not people, but they employ people who depend on that certainty in order to send their children to college, help their kids pay for a wedding or start their new life.

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Project 21 member Gianno Caldwell is the founder and principal of Caldwell Strategic Consulting. A version of this commentary appeared in the Washington Times online magazine AmericanCurrentSee on June 5, 2014. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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