Lites, camera, action!

Police officers have the Academy, pilots have flight school, doctors have
their residency. And lobbyists have the Capitol, that cauldron of policy and

Lobbyist Jim Lites, whose firm, Schott & Lites, represents such diverse
clients as Bay Area Rapid Transit District, Pardee Homes, Cingular Wireless
and the city of Gardena, paid his dues in the Capitol for nearly a decade,
including stints as former Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante’s chief of staff and
as a consultant on the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee. The hours
were long, the pressures intense, the stakes high. It’s a familiar career
path for many of California’s 1,100 registered lobbyists, who spend years
learning how government and politics interact–and how to get things done.

“It [lobbying] turned out to be a good move,” Lites said. “After nine years
as a staff person, there was still quite a bit to learn about the technique
of advocacy.” Those techniques include persistence and the ability to
negotiate on the fly, learning the intricacies of legislation, of defending
a client’s position against assault. The public perceives lobbyists as the
consummate insiders, wheeler-dealers crafting public policy in the shadows.

But many lobbyists say that their most important function is to provide
accurate information, and that their most important tool is the
relationships they build over time. If the information isn’t accurate, if a
lawmaker decides an issue based on faulty information provided by a
lobbyist, that lobbyist is in big trouble. There aren’t many second chances
here. “Toast” is the way one lobbyist described it. Lites agrees. “It can
hurt my credibility.”

“It’s really the education role, of learning how to talk to people,” he
says. “You’ve got 120 people [legislators] from all different walks of life
who are asked to cast votes on issues to which they may have no personal
exposure. It’s vital that they have the information they need to make
informed decisions. They can call you at nine at night and need answers to
questions, and you have to make sure that you have the answers.”

Getting that information to them is the key. That means getting directly to
the lawmaker or to a trusted staff member, and it means being available at
all hours when a lawmaker has a policy question that demands a fast answer.
Lobbyists may handle a dozen or more bills at a time, which means they have
to be up to speed on all of them. No easy feat, especially in the final days
of the legislative session, when key bills often change hourly. Schott &
Lites actively lobbied 95 bills during the 2005-06 session.

“I have to turn to people I’ve known a long time, and you have to make sure
that people understand when something is really important. When I really
need to get to them, I will. But you deal with people as completely above
board as possible,” Lites says. “The key here is that you tell the whole
story the first time, you don’t leave anything out, especially anything that
is negative about your story that you would not want someone to find out
about later on down the road.”

Perhaps his most satisfying moment as a policy advocate was successfully
blocking covenants, codes and restrictions–so-called CCRs–for a local
housing development that were racially discriminatory on a broad scale. For
Lites, who is African American, such victories are particularly satisfying,
because minorities are dramatically under-represented in the Third House.

But the defeats are there, too, such as the clients’ bills that disappear
into the limbo of the Appropriations Committees’ suspense files, or the
bills that get surprise rewrites at the eleventh hour, or the bills that are
pushed into the following year. “Hopefully, you have a pretty good sense of
your issues, and you know what the prognosis is so you are not entirely
surprised. Of course, you get surprised more often than you’d like, and
almost nothing comes out the way it goes in. But compromise here is a very
key part, and an expected part, of the process.”

What’s harder, presenting a client’s interests to elected politicians or to
the bureaucracy?

“I would think it is harder to lobby the bureaucracy. Typically, the
regulatory agency is looking at the policy only. But politics is always a
factor, and sometimes it’s a little easier to influence a political decision

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