From lobbyist to legislator

Former professional advocates take on role of lawmaker

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To get a bill passed in the statehouse often requires legislators to do a little lobbying — a requirement that especially suits North Carolina Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake County, current lawmaker and former registered lobbyist.

While a Center for Public Integrity analysis focused on former state legislators who registered to lobby at some point after leaving office, Ross is among the rarer individuals who were lobbyists and who then became legislators.The process includes speaking with all committee members involved and following the bill when it crosses over to the other legislative chamber for consideration, Ross says. But she believes legislators sometimes think such tasks are reserved only for lobbyists.

"I haven't stopped approaching bills that I want to get passed [in the same way I did as a lobbyist] just because I'm a member," she said. "Not all members understand that to do as much as you can for your constituents on the issues you care about, you really have to be a lobbyist, too."

Ross said she avoided perceived conflicts of interest by resigning her post with the ACLU before May 2002, since the legislative session started that month.During her seven-year tenure with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, where her "client was the Constitution," Ross served as both its executive director and legal counsel. She also revamped the organization's legislative program, and, as part of that, became a registered lobbyist.

For some, like Missouri Sen. Timothy Green, D-St. Louis County, term limits and redistricting made continuing to serve in the state legislature impossible. So after 14 years in office, Green had to leave his seat as state representative in 2002 and turned to lobbying for two years before being elected to the state Senate in 2004.

Although Green received offers to join several firms as a lobbyist in Missouri, he said he refused and remained a self-employed lobbyist because he knew he wanted to return to the legislature.

In his two years as a lobbyist for SBC Communications Inc. (now AT&T Corp.), an insurance company and a hot rod group, Green said he purposely chose clients for whom he could lobby issues he agreed with politically.

"Lobbyists, a lot of times, will be hired to push issues in which they have no care of the repercussions," Green said. "For me, I couldn't sell my principles for a dollar amount … Now that I'm back in [the legislature] I haven't changed my beliefs or my principles. The only thing that's changed since I was first elected is my waistline and the color of my hair."

A distinct advantage for Ross came when she had to determine which lobbyists she could trust when deciding how to vote on a particular bill. As a lobbyist, Ross had quickly learned the personalities and reputations of other lobbyists, even if they were not working on an issue together.Ross, ranked the 15th-most effective lobbyist in the North Carolina General Assembly in 2001 by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, says that being a "fairly well known commodity" helped make the transition to lawmaker a smooth one. She also already knew how state government worked, avoiding the learning curve most freshmen legislators have.

"That part has made it easier for me to weed out information [as a legislator]," Ross said. "Frankly, there were some lobbyists who I didn't have any respect for when I was a lobbyist and so I already knew who to trust and who not to trust. … I didn't have to go through the school of hard knocks on that one."

Besides the benefits that come from such experience, people might cite conflicts of interest in the quick turnaround of Ross from lobbyist to legislator. A six-month "cooling-off" period recently passed for former legislators wishing to lobby in North Carolina.

In states with term limits, like Missouri, Green said there are few alternatives for former lawmakers who want to stay involved in state government.

"No matter what, a legislator, if he has the experience and knowledge and he can no longer serve the public, then he can use his knowledge in the private market, so be it," Green said.

Currently in her second term as a state representative, Ross is running for re-election in this November.

"My goal is to be as good a legislator as I can for my constituents," she said.

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