Record number of new Virginia legislators means more work for lobbyists
Virginia legislators gathered in a committee meeting room in the new legislative building in late November to discuss the workload of the state's lobbying oversight board.
“Registrations are going up and emails are going up,” said Stewart Petoe, the Executive Director Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council and its main legal advisor. “I’m gonna do the best I can, but if something happens to me there could be problems.”
The emails and phone calls his office was getting, as well as the more than 20 annual training sessions he helps facilitate, are part of the state’s lobbying system.
The word ‘lobbyist’ can send chills down some people’s spines. But in Virginia, where a part time legislature leaves little time for elected officials to dive deep into complex subjects, they serve an important role.
Elected officials say the knowledge those lobbyists have is important, especially in the face of a record number of new legislators.
“People think of lobbying as big business buying access, that’s very much not what it is in Virginia,” said former Republican Delegate Greg Habeeb.
He remembered his first day as a new legislator in 2011. He returned to his office from his first-floor session and said there were 10 lobbyists waiting to meet him.
“I thought that’s how it would be every day, but it turned out to just be a chance for them to introduce themselves to me,” he said.
And as a freshmen member he didn’t get much interaction from there. He said he was on their “low on their list,” but as he gained experience and seniority, he started to get approached more - and by then he’d learned more about who was a straight shooter and who wasn't.
After leaving office in 2018, Habeeb joined Gentry Locke Consulting’s lobbying firm. He admits there are business interests who lobby legislators, but with such a short time spent in the capital every year, there’s little time to understand most issues.
Lobbyists, from corporate entities to Planned Parenthood, all must act as educators as well as power brokers.
Habeeb said the wave of new legislators entering Virginia’s legislature this year will pose new challenges for both those in power and those seeking to sway that power.
“[Newly elected people] can be too cynical or not enough, and there was a high level of distrust of lobbyists from that,” he said, before noting the wave of elected officials that came into office after he left were particularly distrustful of lobbyist input. But he thinks the new class of elected officials have since shifted to a better understanding of how lobbying works in the state.
“Amongst this new group, people want to hear what we have to say,” Habeeb said.
Tim Cywinski has been lobbying for different progressive issues for more than a decade. Now a lobbyist with the Sierra Club, he’s helped pass bills like the Virginia Clean Economy Act in 2020. But that took time breaking down the bill's complex details to officials.
“There are 5,000 to 6,000 bills that go through the General Assembly every year,” Cywinski said. “Lobbyists play the role where they fill that gap of knowledge, at least we hope we do.”
He called the work he and others do invaluable, but he recognized the new elected officials will take time to warm up and trust them.
“People with 12 years of experience like myself are going to make sure they are going to feel comfortable and be encouraged to use the full power they were elected to do,” he said.
Among those now on the receiving end of calls from lobbyists is Leesburg-area Delegate-elect Marty Martinez. The Democrat said his earlier work in the federal government made him think lobbyists were some of the worst people in government, but he started to hear from Virginia’s lobbyists as early as this spring, and he’s since changed his tune.
“I’m finding a lot of lobbyists are more solution oriented than self-centered,” Martinez told Radio IQ. “Yea, they want what’s good for their clients, but they also want what's good for the community.”
“They live here,” he added.
Back at the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council meeting, Petoe said over two thousand new lobbyists were registered in the last year, a decrease from the year before. But the number of requests for information and help - those emails and phone calls mentioned earlier - along with few other lawyers on the committee, may lead to a funding increase request in the future.
“Pay attention to [appropriations] meetings…all of which said 'there’s a budget issue here,'” said retired judge and former Delegate Malfourd "Bo" Trumbo, who sits on the ethics committee. “I would suggest there may be a need that may not be met this year, but there still may be a need.”