Lobbyists in Los Angeles fall into two categories: land-use attorneys and pure lobbyists. Both have to register with the Ethics Commission.
"Land-use practice is so complicated, you can't get through it without a lawyer," says Bill Delvac, one of the top land-use attorneys in the city. "And then you get tagged with using a lobbyist."
Delvac's job is, typically, equal parts attorney, negotiator and PR guy. He's hammering out deals, talking to the community about their concerns, preparing environmental impact reports and trying to manage the public image of the project. He is currently the lead lobbyist on AEG’s proposal for a football stadium in downtown L.A., Farmers Field.
Then there is the lobbyist. His career started out in government, or working on political campaigns, or both. Like land-use attorneys, he too works on development projects but also does contracts. All cab companies need a permit with the city in order to operate. So all cab companies hire lobbyists. Same goes for food vendors in LAX, construction companies, telecom companies, advertising companies and bus lines.
These lobbyists (or advocates, as they like to call themselves) are extremely well connected, with friends and acquaintances up and down city hall. Take Steve Afriat. As a campaign consultant, his past clients include three sitting city councilmembers (Herb Wesson, Paul Koretz and Jan Perry), two sitting L.A. County Supervisors (Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky) and Sheriff Lee Baca. Or take Harvey Englander, whose nephew Mitchell just got elected to the City Council. Englander’s partner, Matt Knabe, is the son of County Supervisor Don Knabe. Relationships are an essential part of a lobbyist's effectiveness.
"A lot of it is based on relationships," says Arnie Berghoff, a lobbyist who shares an office with Englander. "If I moved to New York, who's gonna talk to me? Many of the councilmembers I've worked with and have been friends with."
"The elected officials and the self-appointed important people in town, they all travel in this herd of fundraising dinners and charity events," says Delvac. "That's a whole little subculture socially. There are a lot of advocates in town who go to these events just to get face time, three minutes of talking to someone."
And even though they are often competing against each other, they all seem to get along.
"We compete, but we have a common enemy — the Ethics Commission, journalists, homeowners associations," says Afriat, only half-jokingly.
And then of course, there's money. By some strange quirk of Los Angeles' campaign-finance laws, lobbyists can't contribute money to campaigns, but they can raise money. So Berghoff and Englander, every so often, invite their clients, friends and a candidate (usually an incumbent, never a challenger to an incumbent) over to their conference room for early-morning bagels and coffee.
"They chat for 10 or 15 minutes about the issues that are important to them and how they see the city going," says Englander. "[The candidate] will ask for questions. And he's out the door by 9 o'clock."
Lobbyists raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for candidates. According to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, Steve Afriat raised almost $60,000 for candidates in 2010.
"Does that mean that I can get an appointment scheduled in two weeks instead of four weeks where they tell me no? It could mean that," he says. "Do they try a little harder to help me? Some do, some don't. Do I get returned calls a little bit more quickly than other people? Probably."
Not everyone sees the flow of money from corporations to lobbyists to politicians as benign.
"Lobbyists are the conduit of corruption in the city," says the blogger and former editor of the Daily News, Ron Kaye. "Which doesn't make them all corrupt, but the flow of money to politics, and the influence of that, is what the game's about."
"Government, with staff cutbacks, doesn't have the resources that we can bring to educate an elected official. Lobbyists are the institutional memory."
—Harvey Englander, lobbyist
Payments made from clients to lobbyists, 2010*:
"Lobbyists are always very important in L.A., more than in most big cities, because very few people pay attention to governing in L.A., compared to New York."
—Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton
*Los Angeles Ethics Commission
Top political fundraising by lobbyists, 2010*:
Total political fundraising by lobbyists, 2010*:
Total raised for candidates challenging an incumbent*:
"I don't know if fundraising makes a difference. It probably makes a small difference in access. It probably makes a much smaller difference in decision making."
—Steve Afriat, lobbyist