Not Your Grandparents’ Lobbyist

Schneider16Worried your kid might turn out to be a lobbyist? Gabe Schneider, owner of Northern Strategies 360 in Traverse City, doesn’t share your concern. And he has two children of his own.

“In fact, we need more lobbyists,” argued Schneider, the former regional representative for Senator Carl Levin.

It is a view that is perhaps not widely held. But Schneider explains.

“We live in a democracy founded on representative government. If officials don’t know the views and thoughts of their constituents, they can’t do their jobs.”

Ideally, he said, more individuals would make their views known to public officials. “Everyone should be their own lobbyist.”
But he acknowledges a problem: Not enough people speak up.

“Maybe they don’t have the time. Or they think their views don’t matter. Or they’ve become cynical about government and think legislators just won’t listen to them.”

He said that if only a few citizens speak up, public policies get created in an information vacuum or end up reflecting only the views of vocal minorities. “Good legislation only comes from having the best info available,” he said, adding one of his favorite quotes: “If you don’t have a seat at the table you’re on the menu.”

Schneider said that need to speak up also extends to his non-profit clients like Munson Medical, Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Traverse Conservation District, as well as to for-profit corporations and manufacturers he represents.

But Schneider is not your grandparents’ lobbyist. Gone, he said, are the days of the arm-twisting, cigar-chomping gumba who feels free to buy off officials.

Today’s lobbyist works under public scrutiny and government regulation. More than ever, lobbying now involves openly representing clients, helping them understand state and federal rules and analyzing the effects of current or proposed legislation.

“Basically clients hire me to do what they don’t have the time or staff to do on their own,” he said.

On behalf of Munson Healthcare, Schneider’s sets up meetings between health care providers and lawmakers to discuss rural healthcare issues.

Working for NMC, he researched and wrote a $2 million state grant for program upgrades and equipment. Schneider coordinated the complex project with the Governor’s office and Networks Northwest, which administered the program in this region. Part of his challenge was to make sure new, high-tech training programs at NMC would fit the needs of potential employers like Hagerty Insurance but also dovetail with high school curricula at local the ISD’s – the Intermediate School Districts.

Another client, Grand Traverse Conservation District, which manages the 1,300-acre Brown Bridge Quiet Area in the southeast corner of Grand Traverse County, hopes to install a pedestrian bridge over the Boardman River to connect different parts of an existing trail network. The challenge is how to transport the pre-fab bridge to the remote, off-road site. At this point, the easiest solution may be to have a large helicopter from the Michigan Air National Guard to airlift the 2,500-pound bridge to the river. Schneider is working with all involved parties – including Traverse City officials since the city owns the property – to come up with a solution. That takes time and an understanding of all interested stakeholders.

None of this work fits the simple, traditional definition of “someone who is employed to persuade legislators to vote for legislation that favors the lobbyist’s employer.”

So why does Schneider register as a lobbyist? Because the Michigan Lobby Registration Act, which is administered by the Secretary of State’s office, sets precise income and spending limits above which lobbyists must register. At last count, the state has nearly 3,000 registrants – a number split almost evenly between two official categories, “Lobbyist Agents” and “Lobbyists.”

“I register as a ‘Lobbyist Agent’ just to be safe,” he said. “There are probably people out there who should be registered, but they don’t know it.”

Schneider takes pride in his above-board lobbying practices. “You’d be doing a disservice if you weren’t able to communicate a clear and concise position, but most I’m simply telling politicians the potential impact of legislation.”

For that reason, he thinks of himself more “as government affairs strategist.”

For me, it’s become less about influence and power and more about sharing information.”

As for the “gumba factor,” Schneider said there might still be some practitioners who take lobbying to an extreme. But he said they’re in the minority.

Laws enacted on the state and federal levels serve as further incentive for lobbyists to avoid the abuses of the past.

“I have a strong moral code, and have not only my own business reputation to maintain, but also have to think about how I represent clients – whether they are for-profit businesses or nonprofits.”

Michigan Lobby Registration Law in Plain English

There are two types of registrants: “Lobbyist Agents” and “Lobbyists.”

You must register as Lobbyist Agent if you are paid more than $600 in a 12-month period to lobby.

A “Lobbyist” is usually a company or trade group that must register because they have $2,375 in expenses for lobbying activities in a 12-month period or they spend more than $600 to lobby a single public official.

According to the latest report, there were 1,444 registered lobbyists and 1,504 registered lobbyist agents (2,948 total) in Michigan.