Story By Ken Krayeske • 12:35 PM EST
Former Congresswoman Nancy Johnson couldn't win enough votes in Connecticut's Fifth Congressional District to secure re-election in 2006.
Come Monday, January 12, Johnson needs only five votes in Hartford's Court of Common Council to win a $13,000 a month, six month lobbying contract for her new employer, the Tennessee law/lobbying firm of Baker Donelson.
That's more than $65,000 from January to June 2009, with an option to renew for another six months, to lobby for Hartford's wish list of $50 million for levee repair, and a few million more for a new public safety complex.
The city put the federal lobbying contract out to bid, and Mayor Eddie Perez's chief of staff Matt Hennessey and former mayoral aide Derek Donnelly winnowed the responses down to five finalists based on price, experience and other factors, according to City Councilman Matt Ritter.
Ritter and Council President Calixto Torres helped Hennessey and Donnelly, who was recently laid off, interview the five finalists. Baker Donelson gave the best presentation, Ritter said.
"Nancy Johnson was in the interview, but she was not the lead presenter," Ritter said. "She had three other people with her. She talked about what she does, more health care and things like that."
If Johnson will not lead Baker Donelson's team of former Congressional staffers to lobby for Hartford, why does her mug grace page one of Baker Donelson’s proposal? Ritter acknowledges may be a misplay on their part.
"It's probably because she is from Connecticut," he said. But the voters of Connecticut showed her the door, and voted in Chris Murphy, whose father is Ritter's boss at the Hartford law firm of Shipman and Goodwin.
Baker Donelson won because it has expertise in environmental issues, which would help with the levee, Ritter said. Nor does Baker Donelson represent a lot of other cities.
Even still, Ritter does not know if Johnson's lobbying proposal will pass.
"I don't know if we will have five votes," Ritter said. "It is a gamble. The fee is not contingent on them giving you success. They may not be able to get you success. I think it is a calculated risk worth taking now."
Councilman Luis Cotto doubts the need for such a $13,000 a month roll of the dice.
"That is hard pill to swallow," Cotto said. "$13,000 a month is more than I make a year. There is no guarantee. What has been our track record with lobbyists? Maybe we are wasting our money."
The $13,000 comes from a letter to the City, Cotto said. Baker Donelson's September 16, 2008 proposal calls for an $18,000 a month fee.
If it brings home $50 million, Cotto said it is probably worth it. But hiring a lobbyist begs the question – isn't this what Hartford elected Congressman John Larson to do? After all, Larson sits as one of the five most powerful Dems in the House of Representatives.
"This resolution speaks to the fact that municipalities have to compete with other municipalities," Cotto said. "It's not as simple as don't pay and yippee yiyay, Larson will get us some money."
Many constituent groups peddle different visions of Hartford to Larson, and he also has to address the needs of East Hartford, West Hartford and the rest of his district, Ritter said.
"Hartford needs to do well in this stimulus package," Ritter said of President-elect Obama's proposed trillion dollar infrastructure and economic rejuvenation bill.
"John Larson is a dear family friend, and a great Congressman for our district," Ritter said. Larson has spent time on the Capewell project, and sees that as key to Hartford's future, Ritter said.
"But he can't do everything, and it is unfair for him to do everything for us," Ritter said. "That is the decision we have to make on Monday night."
But Baker Donelson's proposal doesn't inspire much confidence. Baker Donelson is historically a Republican firm. Howard Baker, the former Tennessee Senator and one-time Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan, is the grandson of the firm's namesake. Baker, at 83 years young, is listed in an "of counsel" capacity in the firm's materials.
The Baker Donelson proposal advertises the presence of Linda Daschle, the wife of Tom Daschle, Obama's nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Linda Daschle resigned from Baker Donelson around November 18, and Baker Donelson's website has scrubbed any references to her.
Considering that this is a Democratic Congress, Ritter said he thought Daschle's departure doomed Baker Donelson, leaving it without a heavy-hitting Democrat.
"We took them off the list," Ritter said. "But according to Derek Donnelly, they have assured the city, they are hiring another major Democrat to take Linda Daschle's spot. That comforted Matt and Derek enough to go for Baker Donelson."
Big lobbying firms in Washington understand how the game is played, Ritter said, and they know they need to bring in another Democrat.
The rest of the Baker Donelson's RFP reads like boilerplate slag from the firm's website, and not just the Public Policy section directed at Hartford.
The RFP runs through pages of Baker Donelson’s commitment to diversity, its Women's Initiative, and a six-page newsletter on the Federal Gulf Coast Reconstruction Bulletin, Baker Donelson’s post-Katrina contract.
None of which immediately impacts Hartford. The parts of the RFP directed to Hartford should give any takers pause. For example, in the general work plan, it says Baker Donelson will "Invite key agency officials to take firsthand tours of pressing needs in the county." County? Connecticut doesn't have a county system of government, and why is Hartford paying to support the interests of suburbs?
Hartford isn't. This is just a sloppy presentation. Considering that Baker Donelson's other clients ante up anywhere from $20,000 to $900,000, according to OpenSecrets.org, one might expect better.
Baker Donelson's general work plan for Hartford gives no insight into Eddie Perez's vision for the remainder of his term, rather, the plan provides insight into what Baker Donelson imagined it could extract from the federal government for a prospective client in a pre-Obama world.
The response doesn't talk about environmental hurdles to rebuilding levees or how a new public safety complex would help to fight crime. Instead, Baker Donelson focuses on transportation dollars from SAFETEALU - the $300 billion pork barrell surface transportation funding act that expires in September 2009.
Congress will renew SAFETEALU in 2010, funding highways and other pork transit projects like the "Bridge to Nowhere." Yet neither levees nor public safety complexes are covered in SAFETEALU's surface transportation description.
Say this for Baker Donelson – it knows where in Congress to look for dough: "Schedule City of Hartford representatives for appearances before the Appropriations committees and develop written testimony justifying City of Hartford's projects requests and policy requests, if any." Although its grammar seems a bit off.
One would hope that Johnson, Perez et al push for mass transit and bicycle and pedestrian project funding from SAFETEALU, rather than federal funding to rebuild the Aetna Viaduct. Yet since ConnDOT has no ready plans for I-84, will shovel-ready projects get Obama's nod over Hartford's pipe dreams?
Ahhh, don't worry. Baker Donelson covers its ass: "While the federal public policy process often does not lend itself to predictable timetables, the firm constantly monitors [government actions] which could affect the client's needs."
Caveat emptor. Congress may change its mind. And Ritter said he can't disagree with this criticism.
"We won't know for six months to a year whether it was the right decision," Ritter said. "There may be five people on Council who agree with you."