AT THE TABLE: Behind the Influence
Bobby Byrd, the state's top lobbyist, has helped shape public policy for more than 30 years. Now he reveals some of the tricks of the trade--like the power of free tickets to the Sixers.
obert L. Byrdbetter known as Bobbyis one of Delawares most prolific lobbyists. This month, Byrd begins a new chapter in his career. After serving 18 years as a partner in the states largest lobbying firm, Wood, Byrd & Associates, he joins Wolf Block Public Strategies Delaware, an offshoot of a Philadelphia-based law firm. He will continue to focus on government relations.
DT asked Byrd to lunch at the Hotel du Ponts famed Green Room in October. If the Wolf Block deal was in the works then, Byrd didnt even hint at it.
Two days after the interview, one of Byrds colleagues and competitors, Edward R. Ned Davis, died. Davis, known as the dean of Delaware lobbyists, is credited with establishing the modern lobbying business in the First State.
Like Davis, Byrd, 57, has served as a confidante to many Delaware governors. Of course, hes also developed tight relationships with many lawmakers. During his 32 years in Dover, as a legislator or lobbyist, Byrd has missed only a handful of work days while the General Assembly was in session.
During lunch, Byrd is greeted by a few of the states whos who, including Robert V.A. Harra Jr., president and CEO of Wilmington Trust. State GOP chairman Terry Strine, seated a few tables over, also makes a special trip to shake hands with Byrd.
Byrd orders his customary turkey club sandwich, a cup of carrot soup and a glass of iced tea. He is agreeable, keen witted and deliberate about how he answers some questions. Of course, what else would one expect from someone whose success depends on diplomacy, discretion, tact and good old-fashioned communication skills?
Before getting down to business, DT notes that it is surprisingly difficult to find information about Byrd on the Internet. He chuckles as if hes heard it before.
Do you want to know why? he says. When you do a Google search, no matter how you put my name in, 20 or 30 sites on Senator Robert Byrd (the U.S. senator from West Virginia) come up.
There have been a few cases of mistaken identity through the years, such as when Byrd makes reservations at restaurants in D.C.
There have been some times when they thought the senator was coming, he says.
How did that work out?
Byrd smiles. I got some good tables.
DT: Would you mind giving a short description of your job?
BB: Not at all. Were lobbyists, and there are two sides to lobbyists. Number one is dealing with legislators and government officials. Its dealing with a policy maker to attempt to get accomplished whatever youre trying to get accomplished.
And the other part of it is dealing with the clients and discussing with the clients what can and cant get done. So its a lot of relationships. Its a lot of back and forth. It certainly takes as much time with the clients. And its not 50-50. There are a lot of times when you work for the clients a lot more than you work with the policy. And the reason is you pretty much know what the policy makers can or cant do. Legislators all have a set of values. Theyre either conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, so you know pretty much how theyre going to vote on a specific issue. So a lot of what we do is mold the ideas from the clients into what the possible is.
DT: How has the business changed over the years?
BB: Youve got to know whos saying what about an issue. Twenty years ago you would read the News Journal and listen to the radio. Thats where everybody was getting their public opinion from. Now thats changed with all the things that are happening on the Internet.
DT: Does the Internet make your job harder or easier?
BB: Im an old guy. Im not as technically proficient as I need to be, so sometimes its a challenge. There was a timeI want to word this properlythere was a time in this business when you got your messages. You could take an hour at the end of the day and return your phone calls. Those days are gone. First of all, everybodys carrying a cell phone, so people have instant access to you. Theyre probably carrying a BlackBerry, which gives you another way to instantly access people. And I dont think this is true just about lobbying. This is just the business world in general. Everything is instant access. I was in a meeting the other day and the leader of the conference said, I dont expect you all to be available 24-seven, but I do expect you to be available 21-six.
DT: How many hours do you work a week?
BB: This is not an eight-hour-a-day, 40-hour-a-week job. Ive never kept track of my hours. My guess is Im probably working 60 hours a week with travel. You leave the house at quarter of eight in the morning and do a conference call at eight somewhere, and another one at nine. Drive to Dover, do Dover in the afternoon. Stay in Dover for a cocktail party or dinner or whatever you do in Dover. You know, a lot of nights youre not home until nine or 10 or 11. I try to be home every night before the 11 oclock news. Thats my goal.
If youre going to break the year down, when the legislature is in session, youre obviously in Dover all the time. Ive been in Dover every day that the legislature has been in session for the last 32 years. I missed about 10 days. I went to the Masters one year. I think I missed one day because I was sick. But if the General Assembly is in session, Im working.
DT: Can you give a preview of the upcoming legislative session, touching on issues that are important to your clients and also some of the bigger overall issues?
BB: Theres a large education reform thats going to come forward: Vision 2015. The rollout is tomorrow (October 17). The business community is very involved in that. Well be involved on behalf of the Delaware Business Roundtable. This is a vision that is being put forward by a number of members of the business community. Really, what theyve decided is they want to make a major effort to improve Delaware schools and make them world-class schools. Well start that in January.
Well have a number of little issues that are really not yet defined for various and sundry clients. There are always railroad issues. We represent Norfolk Southern. There are always alcohol and beverage issues. We represent Anheuser-Busch. There are always tax issues that come up toward the end of the session.
We were successful in getting a major piece of legislation passed last year for Dover Downs and the racino industry. We increased the number of machines at the tracks and increased the hours a little bit, and we made some technical changes in the way the whole thing operates. Pennsylvania will be coming online in December, so well be watching that stuff very closely.
In the alcohol and beverage industry, well look at some franchise law changes. Delaware wholesalers have contracts with their manufacturers. Thats governed by an equity agreement, and the state franchise law governs the equity agreement. So there are always some changes that have to be negotiated out about how the whole equity agreement works. Its really technical stuff. Were always talking about hours and Sunday sales. We did that a few years ago. Grocery stores came up last year.
I think there will be a compromise on workers comp, and it will probably pass in January. It might be done before that. (See related story, page 45.)
DT: Youre close friends with Governor Minner. Why didnt she call the legislature back into a special session to address the workers comp reform, as she had threatened to do?
BB: There was a lot of discussion and negotiations that started to happen as a result of what she did. The bill wasnt quite ready to go in June, but with her commentsand obviously shes supporting the legislationa number of people sat down and were negotiating over the summer. A bill cant pass until its done. Its just like soup. Theres got to be a lot of consensus built. Everybodys got to negotiate things out. Thats the Delaware way. We negotiate things here. And thats probably 90 percent of what we do, negotiate things and try to figure out what can workfigure everybody gets a little bit and keep everybody happy.
DT: What about other legislation that seems to come up every session? For example, are we going to see another attempt at a gay rights bill?
BB: Yeah, itll come back. Itll come back. The legislature does not like to make decisions that offend one Delawarean or another. They like things to be worked out so that nobody is opposed to the legislation. They like it to be worked out ahead of time, before it gets to the floor.
DT: You served two terms as a legislator. What did you accomplish as a state legislator and how did that help prepare you for what you do now?
BB: I was very fortunate. I was elected to the legislature when I was 25. I quickly got into the legislative side of it and the negotiations and the whole legislative game, to the point that the thing that keeps you as a legislator suffered. What keeps you a legislator is doing your constituent homework. I didnt do that as well as I should have, and I got beat. But I had established a reputation in Dover as someone who could negotiate and compromise and make things happen. And that helped me a lot as I got into this business.
DT: Do any bills or laws that you worked on stand out?
BB: I was always chairman of the labor committee, and I worked on really technical stuff. I worked on unemployment compensation. I worked on workers comp. I was there, and supported and worked on two constitutional amendmentsone that said it takes a three-fifths vote to raise taxes. It used to be a simple majority. But Ive been very fortunate. Ive worked on every major issue in Delaware for the last 35 years in some way or another, either as a legislator when I was there or as a lobbyist. I worked on the Financial Center Development Act. I was one of the lead lobbyists for slot machines. Pick a big issue, Ive been there.
DT: At 25, you had to be one of the youngest legislators ever.
BB: I was the second youngest. Tommy du Pont was elected to one term, and he was 24 when he was elected.
DT: How do you know all of this?
BB: You have to go back and look at all the ages of all the legislators for 300 and some years. Actually, (former state senator) Roger Martin did that.
DT: Why did you become a lobbyist?
BB: I dont think I really knew a lot about the lobbying profession until I became a legislator. But once I became a legislator, I said, Here I am, a legislator. Im working for half pay, and youve gotta do something else to supplement that. But these guys are paid full time. Theyre doing what they do. I was very close to the lobbyists. Im sure there were constituents who thought I was too close to the lobbyists, but thats always a natural progression.
DT: Why did they think you were too close to the lobbyists?
BB: Well, theres a whole negative version out there of lobbyists. People question what we do, and a lot of people think we shouldnt be there. But having said that, everybody has a right to speak to their government. Its constitutionally guaranteed. Were representing the people who want to have contact with their government.
DT: What makes you good at what you do?
BB: Youve got to be willing to work very, very hard because youve got to figure out what everybody around that table wants. You have to be an extremely good listener. And you have to put in the time with the people so that they get comfortable with you and tell you what it is that really makes them tick. When you know those kinds of things, then you can bring them solutions to problems and ideas, and hopefully theyll listen to you. But you cant do this by not working very, very hard and meeting with people and talking to people and listening to what it is they have to say. Thats probably the skill that you need most. Youve got to be able to listen. Youve gotta have the other skills, too. Youve gotta be able to work the computer. You have to be able to write a little bit. Youve got to be halfway smart. You cant be dumb. You have to be able to figure things out. Youve got to be able to see into the future a little bit. If its a big balloon and you push your finger in here, you have to know where its coming out on the other side and whats going to happen. You have to be able to prognosticate the results of your actions.