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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Lobbyists Fete Washington Lawmakers At Fundraisers

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, in his home office in rural Pierce County, says campaigns require shoe leather and money. But he says lobbyists who host fundraisers for him don't get more access than anyone else.

Lobbyists are paid to try to influence legislation. One way they build relationships with lawmakers is by hosting political fundraisers. And that’s happening a lot this election season with lobbyists for business, labor and other interests.

On a Wednesday afternoon in downtown Tacoma, Washington, a group of mostly business lobbyists hosted a fundraiser for House Republican Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox. He’s up for re-election, but he’s also a key player in Republican efforts to take control of the Washington House this November.”

Arriving for the event in his trademark blue jeans and cowboy boots, Wilcox took a few minutes to talk before going inside.

“First of all it’s people that I know anyway,” Wilcox said. “I don’t keep track of who brings money, who doesn’t.”

The lobbyists on the invitation for this event represented banks, oil companies and restaurants. Also, doctors, dentists and farmers. There were lobbyists for Amazon, Costco, FedEx and Monsanto.

How concerned should the public be about the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists?

“I think that people should scrutinize contributions to politicians of both sides,” Wilcox said. “I don’t think that money itself is the problem. It’s whether or not people are providing quid pro quo.”

That, as Wilcox points out, would be illegal. But what about access?

‘If they need a meeting, they get a meeting’

John Dunbar, from the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., said lobbyists host fundraisers because it helps cement their role as a conduit between their clients and elected officials.

“So these lobbyist get their phone calls returned,” Dunbar said. “If they need a meeting, they get a meeting and very often they actually write pieces of legislation or put the kibosh on certain types of legislation.”

That characterization bothers longtime Washington state lobbyist Charlie Brown -- one of the hosts for the J.T. Wilcox event.

“The relationship between a lobbyist and a legislator is fundamentally similar to that of a constituent and a legislator in terms of sharing information and concerns that they might have over issues,” Brown said.

Brown also noted Washington has strict campaign contributions limits and disclosure rules. So far this year, Washington lobbyists have reported $5 million in campaign checks they personally wrote or delivered on behalf of clients. It’s not clear how much of this money changed hands at lobbyist-hosted fundraisers. But these events are popular.

Different from D.C.?

“I think there was shrimp cocktail. A couple lobbyists brought a couple of bottles of wine,” said Democrat Roger Goodman, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, recalling a July reception at the home of a lobbyist in a gated community in Olympia.

But he said it’s not what you might think.

“It’s not just corporate lobbyists, big money lobbyists,” Goodman said.

He said there were lobbyists for cities and courts -- interests that can’t even make political contributions. As for undue influence, Goodman pointed not to Olympia, Washington, but to Washington, DC.

“Democrats and Republicans are bought and paid for there,” he said. “And I saw that and I actually had to participate in that as a chief of staff to a member. And I expected the same thing in Olympia, but it’s entirely different.”

He called Olympia collegial, not corrupt.

‘Looking out for the taxpayer'

Over and over again state lawmakers told me their door is open to anyone -- not just lobbyists and campaign contributors. As if to prove the point, J.T. Wilcox invited me to come out to his house in rural Pierce County.

Wilcox showed me the view of Mt. Rainier from his back deck before we sat down to talk about who has more sway: lobbyists or the public.

“Your job is not just to make a few people happy,” he said. “It’s to balance the interests of many and if you don’t do that, if you don’t look out for the taxpayer and the voter, they find out and you’re not going to be here.”

As for how the fundraiser in Tacoma went, Wilcox said he raised “a little bit of money” and ate a leathery piece of chicken.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."