Meet The Senators: Former lawmakers, Dem consultant form new legal, lobbying firm

A pair of termed-out legislators are joining forces with their former political consultant to create a new political consulting and lobbying firm. Former Democratic senators Martha Escutia and Joe Dunn are teaming with longtime Democratic strategist Richie Ross in the new venture dubbed The Senators Firm.

Dunn and Escutia will also be partners in a new law practice that will operate under The Senators moniker.

The new firms are part of a growing trend in Sacramento, with former lawmakers joining forces with well-established consultants into new political super-firms. In this era of term limits, the creation of the Senators Firm symbolizes the continual hemorrhaging of the Capitol’s institutional memory into the private sector.

But unlike firms like California Strategies, KP Public Affairs, Aaron Read and others, Dunn and Escutia plan on spending time in the courtroom.

Dunn will be the CEO of the law firm. He refused to disclose who the firms initial clients are, but said the firm would be surfacing soon in a very public way.

Dunn said the firm will be involved in “a number of the large pharmaceutical  medical device cases that are already in play or just getting under way. And we are about two weeks away from filing our first very large case involving public entities who were harmed by certain conduct of large financial institutions.”

Generally speaking, Dunn said, the law firm will be involved in “mostly high-end contingent-fee work. We’ll be involved in high-end contingent cases involving the financial collapse and representing entities whose harm may be significant but do not have the wherewithal to hire a large firm and pay large hourly rates.”

During their time in office, Dunn and Escutia headed the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees respectively. Escutia is also the former chairwoman of Senate Health. Since leaving the Legislature, Dunn served as CEO for the California Medical Association, while Escutia practiced law at Mannat Phelps.

The two said their legislative experience is reflected in their client base. Again while divulging no names, they said they had clients in the health care, educational and legal arenas.
For Escutia, the firm represents a return to her professional roots. “For the first time in a long time I’m going back to litigation. I started as a street brawler. At this level, it’s a whole different thing. It’s much more civilized.  Three years as research attorney for LA County superior court. It’s almost like going back to when I was a 25-year-old lawyer.”

Ross will continue to represent legislative clients he said, but his association with Dunn and Escutia will force him to operate by a slightly different set of rules. “I’m so used to being kind of ride-em-cowboy, just going out there in the lawless world,” he said. “The biggest change for me will be emotional. I’m going to have to learn to be extremely sensitive to the very, very professional standards Joe and Martha will need to abide by as members of the bar.”

Dunn and Escutia will also be involved in the political consulting side. “It’s going to be a true partnership,” Ross said. “We’re not going to follow the account executive model.”
He hailed both of his new partners as “the kind who can change public policy by moving a comma. There aren’t too many of those types of people around.”

Both Dunn and Escutia said, without hesitation, that they would still be in the Legislature if not for term limits. While they relished their new opportunity, which will surely be more financially lucrative than serving in public office, all three of the partners expressed some dismay at the current state of Sacramento governance.

“I had the opportunity to serve under experienced legislators which really sped up the learning process,” said Escutia. “Now that those mentors aren’t around, the learning curve for legislators today is, I think, much, much slower.”

The three said they were not sure which of them, if any, would formally register as lobbyists. “We’re seeking the advice of counsel over who’s going to register,” Escutia said.

Ross has taken heat for multi-tasking in the past. He was the target of legislation from  heat for being both a political consultant and a registered lobbyist. He was the target of legislation from former Assemblyman Dario Frommer and now-Senator Lois Wolk that would have barred consultants from simultaneously lobbying the candidates whose campaigns they advised. Ross was the only person who would have been affected by the bill.

Over the last several years there has been a rise in consultants who do not formally register as lobbyists, but are often seen walking the halls of the Capitol. “Lots of people were doing it. I was the only one who actually registered,” Ross said of his dual professional roles.

Ross said avoiding public disclosure is not a factor in deciding which members of the firm formally sign up as lobbyists. “I didn’t (lobby without registering) before, and I’m not going to do it now,” he said.

“Quite frankly, our clients and people we’re looking for – it will be very public. It won’t be like we’re going to be some dark force. We’ll be right out front.”

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