Department: David Urban: The Patriot

He’s a decorated war hero, an accomplished lawyer and an all-around good guy. So what’s David Urban doing in a racket like lobbying?

 

You see it in the way he walks the Senate office buildings’ halls, like he belongs. And you see it in the company he keeps. After a morning fund-raiser with Utah senator Orrin Hatch falls through, for example, Urban hustles and lines up breakfast with MSNBC host Chris Matthews at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, where, at another table, Karl Rove is dining.

An hour into breakfast with the ever-loquacious Matthews — an experience not dissimilar to watching his TV show, except that he has a tendency to spit his eggs when he gets excited — Matthews chides Urban for his friendly relationship with GOP political operative Roger Stone, an unreconstructed Nixonite and reputed dirty trickster. (In 2008, Stone founded the anti-Hillary Clinton group Citizens United Not Timid; the acronym was not unintentional.)

“How do you defend this guy?” Matthews asks incredulously.

Urban shrugs. “I have lots of friends.”

His Lobbying Rule No. 1 is just that: “You have to like people. All kinds of people,” he says. He understands lobbying isn’t so much a political business as it is a relationship business that happens to trade in politics.

Which means you sometimes end up with some strange friends. Last year, after Joe Sestak defeated Urban’s former boss Specter in the Democratic primary for Senate, Urban promptly threw his support behind — and began raising money for — Pat Toomey, whose insistence on conservative purity had driven Specter from the GOP in the first place. Politics, after all, is no place for those who hold grudges; you never know who you’ll need down the road.

A look at Urban’s political donations over the years shows similar ambiguity, or, more cynically, a sense of expediency: He has given to a long line of Republicans from all over the country, along with a handful of Democrats — Bob Brady, Chaka Fattah, Bob Casey, Chris Coons, Patrick Leahy. Most of them represent the Philadelphia region, where a large number of Urban’s clients are clustered. (Leahy, the Vermont senator, is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees intellectual-property law, one of ACG’s biggest areas of expertise.)
There are other qualities that make one a good lobbyist — political adroitness and strategic thinking help, of course. But ultimately, those are subordinate to Rule No. 1.

There’s a symbiosis between lobbyists and policymakers that must be fed. Lobbyists need policymakers and their staffers not just to fulfill their clients’ requests, but also to gather the kind of information you can’t get on the outside. Policy-makers, meanwhile, need lobbyists to educate them on myriad issues they can’t keep track of on their own. That’s why Urban speaks so frequently of trust — “I’m a fairly honest broker; I try to tell people the truth,” he told me in our first phone conversation — and reiterates again and again: If people don’t trust you, they won’t listen to you. If they won’t listen to you, you’re done.

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