Patt Morrison Asks

The principled lobbyist: George Steffes explains why real people think the government's for rent

He went to Sacramento as Ronald Reagan's legislative aide and has been there ever since, helping to found the first multi-person lobbying firm there, Capitol Partners.

George Steffes

George Steffes helped to found the first multi-person lobbying firm in Sacramento, Capitol Partners, where he's now "senior advisor." (Los Angeles Times / April 9, 2014)

George Steffes was a boy standing on Wilshire Boulevard when Dwight D. Eisenhower rolled by in a motorcade, and he was mightily impressed. But that's not what got him into politics. He went to 5 o'clock Mass one day in 1966 and ran into an acquaintance who was working on Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial campaign. Steffes volunteered. He went to Sacramento as Reagan's legislative aide and has been there ever since. He helped to found the first multi-person lobbying firm in Sacramento, Capitol Partners, where he's now “senior advisor,” no longer running the firm day to day. Almost 50 years in Sacramento have given him a long view of its roller-coaster politicking, including low points like the recent indictment of state Sen. Leland Yee. The ride has left him a bit queasy.

How different was the job when you started ?

The book [of registered lobbyists in Sacramento] is now 2 1/2 inches thick, 1,500 or 2,000 registered lobbyists. The first one I remember had about 50 lobbyists in it. Companies and special interests didn't take part like they do today. A lot of people didn't see the need or desirability of taking part in this process, and now almost everybody does.

Lobbying got professionalized, and legislators did too.

Even after term limits, they don't come up here — as the intention of term limits — to be citizen politicians. They are for the most part professional politicians. That's good in a way and bad in a way.

What's the right relationship between lobbyist and legislator?

It should be like the judicial process. In court, you are entitled to a lawyer who builds your case effectively. That's the way I'd like the system in Sacramento and Washington to function. Many, many people who are opposed to the current [problems] are totally negative about the system itself; I'm not. I think the government system functions well and provides good things for society. I don't mean that it can't be better. And the money part is corrupting it.

There are a lot of good people in this Legislature. I went to a legislator on an issue. One of her main backers was on the other side from us, and we did nothing for her, not even intimating doing anything for her. And she voted for us. But [overall] you've got a dysfunctional Legislature. With term limits, you destroyed institutional memory of how the system was supposed to function.

What makes a successful lobbyist?

A successful lobbyist is a person who, supporting an issue for a client, can go to the office of a legislator who's going to vote against that interest and come out having changed the legislator's mind.

You didn't change that mind by sliding a check across the desk?

No. In fact, if a client came to us with a single issue, like wanting a bill killed or needing a bill passed, we had a policy that the client did not give campaign contributions at all. You have one bill and you're trying to kill it or pass it and you give money to members of the committee [handling the bill], that's pretty obviously what you're doing.

It's a standard operating procedure [now]. If you were to talk to the people who do it, they'd say we're not doing it to get a specific vote on a specific bill. We're doing it to be part of the process. I think a lot of them believe that. My thinking was, regardless of what the reality is, what it says about the system is just wrong.

Why did the money part change?

Legislators to a great extent raised [campaign] funds in their home districts, from constituents. Today, that's hardly a significant part of money for campaigns. That's a huge change and not a good one. What was the cause? One was that campaigning got so much more expensive than in the 1960s. You could run for Assembly in Glendale and raise [enough] money from your friends and neighbors and the party establishment in the district. You can't do that anymore.

When Great Britain felt the need to change their system, one thing they did was to limit the length of campaigns. I think that can really hold down expenditures. Particularly after the Supreme Court decisions, it's Katy bar the door, as far as the ability to spend money. It's really out of hand.

What about public financing?

I have mixed feelings about that. I've not always been a big proponent of public financing, but I'm getting to the point that if we can't improve this system, then maybe we ought to have public financing. Causing taxpayers to involuntarily support people they may not [really] support still kind of gets me, but it may be better than the present system.

Last year, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said legislators evaluate legislation regardless of campaign contributions, and that was received with an eye roll.

Saying, "I don't consider who's given me money when I'm voting on an issue" — in almost all cases, legislators believe that. We believe we can rise above being influenced by people who build relationships with us and who support us at critical times. They are just kidding themselves, because we're human beings.

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