'The Other K Street'

Published on
by
Washington Post

'The Other K Street'

In the Concrete Canyon of the Business Lobby, a Pocket of Liberal Activists Settles In

by
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

WASHINGTON - Brad Woodhouse tapped the mute button on the gray speakerphone, scanned the faces of the half-dozen other people listening to the conference call and said with a sly grin, "Good spin."

The spiky-haired Woodhouse had just heard a fellow member of Change America Now, a Democratic-leaning coalition, argue that legislation pending in Congress to raise the nation's minimum wage represented a victory because it contained fewer corporate tax cuts than an earlier version. 0507 05

Turning the sound back on, Woodhouse suggested "taking a victory lap," thanking Democratic lawmakers for their votes. But voices chimed in from around the table and by phone from across the country, hooting him down. So he demurred. "We ought to do what we do best," he said. "Retribution on people who voted against us."

"Collins and Snowe are two of our biggest targets," he added, referring respectively to Susan and Olympia, moderate Republican senators from Maine.

The rest of the 45-minute call covered details of rallies, editorial board meetings and telephone calls to constituents that the coalition was ginning up to support the Democratic agenda.

It was a classic Washington lobbying scene, bringing together advocates from all sorts of organizations. But it had a couple of unusual features. While the participants represented liberal, pro-labor causes, they were meeting in the heart of K Street, the boulevard normally associated with business lobbyists. And although they represented disparate groups, every person in the room that morning had offices in the same building.

The farthest anybody had to travel was down two flights of stairs from the fourth floor.

* * *

Welcome to 1825 K St. NW -- what inhabitants of the building call "the other K Street." The 13-story structure looks like any other boxy building along the congested avenue, and it has a wide range of tenants, including Associated Press Broadcast and the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. But in the past year and a half, two of its floors have turned into a clubhouse and clearinghouse for liberal causes. Its most prominent tenants form an abbreviated who's who of well-funded allies of the Democratic Party.

The convergence began in January of last year when USAction, a grass-roots organization with eager activists in two dozen states, was hunting for additional space and leased more square footage than it needed on the second floor of 1825. It ended up subletting to Americans United for Change, its rapid-response confederate in the successful fight in 2005 to defeat President Bush's plan to add private accounts to Social Security. (Woodhouse is president of that group.)

Soon thereafter, Campaign for America's Future, which promotes liberal causes mostly on the economic and domestic fronts, was also seeking a new home and decided to alight on the fourth floor. It moved there in mid-February of this year and soon took on a tenant of its own -- Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a coalition directed by Thomas Matzzie, who is also the Washington director of MoveOn.org Political Action.

Now every weekday is a rolling meeting with staffers from each of the organizations mixing with one another on such issues as lowering prescription drug prices and increasing funding for children's health programs.

Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, called this clustering of a critical mass of these groups "a happy accident," and a very useful one.

"The ability to walk down the hall and see somebody and get things done is great," agreed Jeff Blum, executive director of USAction. Then, sounding just as corporate as anyone on K Street, Blum added: "We believe in synergy."

* * *

"Our job is to focus on the Republicans," the dark-bearded Matzzie said. "How can we juice up the attacks on them?"

So began another morning conference call in the same second-floor conference room that USAction shares with its like-minded neighbors. This one was about ending U.S. involvement in the Iraq war. Matzzie sat in shirt-sleeves at the head of the long wood table, with about a dozen others gathered around and the speakerphone on.

"Our poster child for this should be Collins," said Robert B. Creamer, a silver-haired consultant to Matzzie's antiwar coalition. He recommended an all-out assault, including instigating phone calls to the senator's office and holding demonstrations in Maine's larger cities.

Matzzie agreed. "I want all of our targets to feel regret" for voting against a timetable for withdrawal, he said. He listened approvingly to reports from staffers around the country discussing plans to stage rallies the day after the president's expected veto of the legislation.

(More than 350 such rallies, from Anchorage to Miami, took place last week, thanks to that plan.)

Matzzie also considered less-familiar types of persuasion. "What about a blimp?" he asked, wondering aloud whether the coalition should rent one to fly an antiwar message over the California site of last week's debate between Republican presidential candidates.

There were a few quiet snickers.

"Then maybe a plane with a sign coming out of the back," he said. "It's only $700 a plane. It's really cheap."

Certainly it would feel cheap for a lobbying campaign like his with a budget of $9 million to $12 million.

* * *

The halls and offices on the second and fourth floors of 1825 K Street look very much like the halls and offices of any other commercial building in downtown Washington.

USAction could easily be an accounting firm. Campaign for America's Future has as much wood on its walls as any established law firm.

And that is a definite change. Liberal groups have for years been notorious for maintaining a studied grunginess in their decor, a kind of milk-crate chic. Stacks of paper and scattered fast-food wrappers were regular features of the "good government" groups that once crammed into older, shabbier places like the United Methodist Building across from the Capitol.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

Chronic under-funding was largely responsible.

But now the money is more plentiful on the left, and, as a result, its grass-roots lobbying has become far more systematic and professional. "We've learned over the years how to do better," Woodhouse said. "And the scale of things is much greater."

Big money from unions such as the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as well as the Internet-fueled MoveOn, has provided groups like those at 1825 K Street the wherewithal to mount huge campaigns.

The senior officers at 1825 K Street dress like any other executives, not like underpaid counterculture dissidents. Woodhouse sometimes looks like he walked out of a Ralph Lauren catalogue. Creamer, constantly checking his BlackBerry, sports suspenders. Hickey wears silk ties.

* * *

After yet another meeting in the conference room, staffers from various organizations hurried down the second-floor hallway and gathered around a TV monitor in a small office. Time to preview the attack.

On the screen appeared an image of President Bush, followed by the famous "Mission Accomplished" banner. "After four years with no end in sight," a voice intoned, "thousands of Americans wounded, Iraq in civil war and over 3,000 Americans dead, Heather Wilson is still voting with the president on Iraq." The image on the screen was replaced by a photograph of Wilson, a Republican House member from New Mexico. "Tell Heather Wilson: After four years, it's time to end the war."

Staffers cooed as the ad, produced by the consulting firm GMMB, played over and over, with a different Republican lawmaker featured each time.

Creamer sounded triumphant at the generally unflattering pictures of the congressmen that were used. "He's weird-looking," he said about one House member.

But when a certain California Republican appeared on the screen, smiling brightly into the camera, they all shook their heads.

"What can you do?" Woodhouse said with a shrug. "They had a hard time finding a bad picture of Mary Bono."

* * *

Congressional Republicans have been renowned -- and often criticized -- for harnessing the clout of special-interest groups and lobbyists to advance their agenda. Grover Norquist, president of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, continues to host a weekly cheerleading session for conservatives from inside and outside government, known simply as "the Wednesday Meeting."

After the 2006 elections, left-leaning groups now conduct their own, similar meetings to advance the Democrats' cause. Held every other Tuesday, often at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, it's called "the Tuesday Group," and the people who attend come from the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, the American Association for Justice, several women's organizations and, of course, the folks who work at 1825 K Street.

Norquist is not impressed by his imitators. He notes that not a single major item on the Democrats' legislative agenda has become law. He also believes that the elation on the left -- as well as its unity -- will be short-lived. "When they run into a limit on government spending, they will fight each other for their part of the pie," Norquist said. "They'll slap each other silly."

But so far, they're sticking together. Woodhouse, Matzzie and other denizens of 1825 K spend part of each week on Capitol Hill meeting and coordinating with aides to the Democratic leaders. "We have a close relationship," Woodhouse said with pride. "It's an exciting period. President Bush and the Republicans are on the defensive and it's nice to be on offense for a change."

* * *

"Would banging on Domenici be helpful?" Woodhouse asked.

He was not kidding.

On the conference call were lobbyists for the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. They were strategizing with a pack of 1825ers about how best to promote a set of conservation measures opposed by the oil industry and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).

"We can do some discreet banging," Woodhouse said. "Our press operation is ready to support your efforts. And we have phones when phones make sense. If you need us, use us."

Hickey, who had come down from the fourth floor and taken a seat, changed the topic to a seminar he was planning.

"I want to enlist everybody," he said. The subject of the event: the failure of conservatism.

"It will go beyond indicting conservatives for their incompetence," said Hickey, who was wearing a white dress shirt and a purple tie. "Conservative failure grows out of conservative ideology; it grows out of what they stand for," he asserted. He offered a sound-bite-size description of his theory: The Big Con.

"Fantastic," Creamer said.

"Awesome," Woodhouse agreed.

"That's a theme we've been working on," Hickey said. "Now it's a project."

© Copyright 1996-2007 The Washington Post Company

Share This Article

More in: