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DNC chair candidate Jaime Harrison: lobbyists can be good Democrats

A photo of this summer’s Democratic National Convention, which welcomed corporate lobbyist contributions after they were initially scaled back by President Obama. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

From 2008 until 2016, Jaime Harrison was a lobbyist for a powerful lobbying firm called the Podesta Group. The former whip for the House Democratic Caucus, Harrison relied on his Capitol Hill contacts to help clients like Lockheed Martin and Walmart press their cases to the federal government.

Now Harrison is running for chair of the Democratic National Committee in a bid to lead the party through the Trump era. He believes the party needs to embrace corporate lobbyists rather than vilifying them, as many Democratic politicians do.

"I'm no longer a lobbyist, but a lot of good Democrats are. ... I won’t participate in this blanket assassination of various folks because some members of our party don't agree with what their jobs are," he told me in an interview on Wednesday.

“Part of the rejection we saw in this election was this elitism within the Democratic Party about people who do certain jobs. I can't just have that blanket statement saying, ‘Yes, if you're a lobbyist and even if you're a good Democrat, you can't contribute to get Democrats elected,’” he said. “We need to be a party of addition, not one of subtraction.”

DNC chair candidate Jaime Harrison.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The leading contender in the race is Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who thinks corporate lobbyists should have no place in the party. On Wednesday, the Huffington Post published an interview in which Ellison vowed to reinstate a ban on lobbyist contributions.

Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the second most prominent candidate in the race, has landed somewhere between Ellison and Harrison. He’s refused to either rule out lobbyists' gifts or commit to them.

In a piece last week, I argued that one of the storylines about the DNC chair race was how it had become a personality contest over Bernie Sanders rather than turning on any specific policy debate. The question of corporate lobbying is shaping up to be an important exception. In our interview, Harrison stressed that he sees corporate lobbyists very differently than the Ellison and Sanders wing of the party — not as influence peddlers leeching, pariah-like, off the public dole but as often benevolent actors who can care deeply about important causes.

An edited transcript of my interview with Harrison follows.

Jeff Stein

I saw that Keith Ellison said today Democrats should reject corporate lobbyist money like the policy under Obama before Debbie Wasserman Schultz changed course. Do you think Ellison is right?

Jaime Harrison

Listen, as someone who has been a lobbyist — there are a lot of former Democrats and current Democrats, including those in the Obama administration, who looked hard to change this country and are looking for something to do. If you live in Washington, DC, if you work in the government or are working with the government in some aspect — many times that often turns into lobbying.

There are lots of good Democrats who each and every day represent as lobbyists universities and nonprofits. We in the Democratic Party have to stop the castigation of various people for the jobs they have. Lobbying is a profession I did for a number of years and represented the Port of Charleston, where a third of the jobs are tied to that. I'm very proud of the work we did to get the port dredged. People in my family were looking for our opportunity.

Yes, there are some bad actors. There are bad Cabinet officials and bad folks across the board. Part of the rejection we saw in this election was this elitism within the Democratic Party about people who do certain jobs. I can't just have that blanket statement saying, "Yes, if you're a lobbyist and even if you're a good Democrat, you can't contribute to get Democrats elected." We need to be a party of addition, not one of subtraction.

We've run into a problem when we tell American citizens — people who vote like everybody else — that you can't donate to the people you vote for or the people you believe in. I'm no longer a lobbyist, but a lot of good Democrats are, and I don't want to participate in that type of thing. If that means I lose some support, so be it. I won’t participate in this blanket assassination of various folks because some members of our party don't agree with what their jobs are.

Jeff Stein

Do you think it was right for Hillary Clinton to take [high speaking fees] from Goldman Sachs before running for president?

Jaime Harrison

There are a lot of people who take speaking fees. When she took them, she was a private citizen — right?

Jeff Stein

Yes, but she was about to run for president, and Goldman would have billions of dollars riding on her decisions.

Jaime Harrison

I think if you're thinking of running, you need to consider how those things are perceived. But if she's a private citizen and she has a job and is trying to make money, I don't see [the problem]. That's the society we live in. You get a job, and you try to make money for your family.

It's this thing; we put up these false things. If she was an elected official who was taking speaking fees from groups — yeah, I have a problem with that. But I don't know if when she took them, she knew she was running for president.

Jeff Stein

In several polls during the election, the Democratic Party and Clinton were less trusted by the American public to take on "special interests" than Trump. Why would that be, and what would you do about it?

Jaime Harrison

Hillary Clinton had been dogged for over a decade in terms of negative publicity from Republicans. Some could be justified, and some could not. Donald Trump, in the whirl of politics, was very new — he said he was going to take on this and that, and there wasn't much besides his word. She had been around forever, and that dogged her.

When you look at both parties, and look at who has been fighting for ethics reform — the party, hands down, has been better. Just look at the congressional ethics office a couple of days ago. That set of rules and restrictions were some of the most restrictive in the history of Congress, and it was Democrats under Nancy Pelosi that did that.

The American people are starting to realize that. [Trump] isn't about draining the swamp — he's swimming in it.

Jeff Stein

I want to press you a little more on your position on corporate lobbyists. Why would it be anti-elitist to oppose people who can make millions of dollars off trying to influence the government? Most people seem to see it the other way. And they seem to pull the Democratic Party to positions that make them less popular.

Why do you not see it that way?

Jaime Harrison

There are lobbyists for everything. The general perception is, "If someone is a lobbyist, they're making a gajillion dollars with wine and cheese parties." That's not the case. Universities have lobbyists, in these days where tuition is going up and public dollars are rare. I represented the University of South Carolina for several years. There are a lot of lobbyists for civic rights organizations, from the NAACP to defense funds.

Jeff Stein

So should the Democrats limit donations of companies like Exxon?

Jaime Harrison

I think we as a party — if we want to restrict that, and say, "These people are counter to what we believe in as a party,” we're all in our right to make that restriction. But to have a blanket rule because we're defining a whole class of people as bad, I think it's disingenuous, and I don't think it's right.

I say that because I know a lot of folks who [lobbied] and are great Democrats. And when Bill Clinton lost, Republicans controlled the White House and the Senate and the House. The question is: All of these smart Democrats who fought for Obamacare and equal pay — and everything Democrats have fought for for eight years — where do these people go?

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