A California Lobby Regains Power
Sacramento, Calif. -- When a Republican last served as California's governor five years ago, aides posted this mock order at the reception desk: "Only one Flanigan allowed at a time." Aides to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joke that they might have to repost the sign, given the deep ties among the four Flanigan brothers -- partners in an influential lobbying firm here -- and top officials in the new administration.
With Republicans back in power in Sacramento, the Flanigans are sure to gain an audience. Each of the brothers -- Jack, Mike, Tim and Terry -- has worked for, or helped run the campaign of, a former Republican governor. Jack, the oldest at 58, is a partner in a separate political-consulting firm with Bob White, chief of staff to former Gov. Pete Wilson, who helped guide Mr. Schwarzenegger's campaign and remains an influential outside adviser. Jack Flanigan previously managed campaigns for Mr. Wilson, several of whose former aides have top jobs in the new administration. Terry Flanigan, 56, served briefly as Mr. Wilson's appointments secretary.
Lobbying has long been a state phenomenon as well as a national one. But California, with its sprawling government and regulation-happy legislature, has some of the most entrenched lobbyists around. How this particular "Third House," as the lobbying industry is known, works in shaping rules and laws in the nation's biggest state economy has big implications for some of the country's largest companies.
Already, the Flanigan brothers say their Flanigan Law Firm has received more than a dozen inquiries from prospective clients since the historic Oct. 7 recall election in which Mr. Schwarzenegger ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. That would be a sizable increase from their current roster of 21 blue-chip clients, including General Motors Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc.
It also would cement the firm's role as one of the biggest lobbying outfits in town. In 2002, the Flanigans generated $2 million in lobbying fees, according to state records. The Flanigans' firm does legal work as well, although they decline to say how much is earned from legal fees.
The Flanigans' reascendancy reflects the typical realignment of power after government changes political hands. But the imposition of term limits on California lawmakers during the 1990s has made lobbyists more powerful, permanent fixtures of the political landscape -- so much so that the Flanigans' lobbying practice didn't suffer much under Mr. Davis. Lobbyists have "become the institutional memory," says Mike Flanigan, 53.
Moreover, the Flanigans have shown that they can reach across the political aisle. In 1999, they recruited former Democratic legislator Curtis Tucker Jr. to the firm.
Other Democrats testify to the Flanigans' persuasive powers. In 1998, then-Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg bucked fellow Democrats by supporting a bill to prevent the Orange County assessor from effectively increasing local property-transfer taxes. Mike Flanigan, representing Irvine Co., a big Orange County developer, says he and his brothers convinced Mr. Hertzberg the increased assessments amounted to double taxation.
Mr. Hertzberg says other Democrats pressed him to change his mind. But, he says, "I'd given my word to the Flanigans," and that he voted for the bill, which ended up being passed. Mr. Hertzberg says he lunched frequently with one or more Flanigans during his six years in the legislature. But he says the Flanigans generally treated these as social affairs, saving the lobbying for Mr. Hertzberg's office, typically with his staff present.
Flanigan clients say the approach works. The brothers are "always personable but never personal," says Marc Madden, assistant general manager of Schnitzer Steel Products Co., an Oakland, Calif., recycling firm, who is active on government issues for a recyclers' trade group. In an e-mail, Mr. Madden says the Flanigans "recognize that opponents on one issue often become allies on another."
Of course, not everyone is enamored of the Flanigans or lobbyists in general. Consumer watchdog groups say lobbyists such as the Flanigans exert an undue amount of influence on legislators, not only in Sacramento, but all across the country, by virtue of having so much direct access to politicians through luncheons, meetings and other functions. For example, the Washington-based watchdog group Common Cause recently issued a report that criticized the California Legislature for passing a 2003 budget that failed to increase taxes on cigarettes, despite the state's enormous fiscal deficit. According to the October report, the legislature also cut funding to tobacco-control programs amid an upsurge in lobbying by the tobacco industry. Overall since 1997, tobacco concerns have spent $9.1 million lobbying the state's legislators.
The Flanigan brothers, whose clients include R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., say they don't abuse the process, and the legislators they lobby say they are able to make decisions freely. "All we ask of any decision maker is to please listen to us," Tim Flanigan said. Sons of Jack and Virginia Flanigan, the brothers were raised in San Diego. Their father wanted them to go into business together. But the four went their separate ways, even as each earned a law degree. A common love of politics eventually brought them together again. "We're political junkies," says Tim, 56.
Mike Flanigan began working as a Sacramento lobbyist in the 1970s. His three brothers joined to form the firm in 1991, to exploit their ties to Mr. Wilson after he became governor.
Many longtime clients remained with the Flanigans even after Mr. Davis took office in 1999, in part to defend themselves from unfriendly bills in the Democratic-controlled legislature.
For example, the Flanigans represented GM in its unsuccessful effort to stop a proposed state law regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from cars.