DAVID URBAN has one goal today: Run out the clock.
It shouldn’t be hard. The lame-duck session of the 111th Congress is already awash in chaos, and the chances of anything substantive passing before law-makers adjourn in a few weeks appear, at this point, infinitesimal. But there’s still uncertainty. And David Urban doesn’t like uncertainty.
Uncertainty means that unfriendly legislation could get tucked into an eleventh-hour bill, which Urban might not be able to head off. Worse, no one — from senators to their staffers to the lobbyists scurrying around the Senate’s hallways this December morning — has a clue as to the ever-fluxing state of play. Anyway, Urban didn’t get where he is by taking victories for granted.
So the 46-year-old president of American Continental Group, a multi-
million-dollar lobbying firm that represents a who’s who of Pennsylvania powerhouses, will spend the day on Capitol Hill, mining for information and marshaling his troops. His target is a little-known piece of legislation championed by the Federal Trade Commission that would end the practice known as “pay for delay” — patent agreements that keep generic drugs off the market for a few extra years. According to the FTC, these agreements cost consumers $3.5 billion a year. Urban’s client, a Philly-area pharmaceutical company, wants the legislation banning the agreements spiked — or at least punted to the 112th Congress, which will be considerably more Republican and, presumably, more amenable to the pharmaceutical industry’s concerns.
In a series of brief meetings — “If you can’t state your case in under five minutes, you shouldn’t be here,” Urban says as we walk briskly from one powwow to the next — with the staffers of four northeastern Democrats, Urban reiterates his argument that the bill isn’t a good one.
This is “an assault on the patent system in general,” he tells the glazed-eyed staffers. He implores them “to stiffen everyone’s spine,” to lean on their party’s leader-ship not to let this thing sneak by. And then everyone gets up, and he’s onto the next meeting, which will be almost exactly like the last one, except with new glazed-eyed faces around the table.
These meetings don’t occur in a vacuum. They’re the end products of months of groundwork and years spent cultivating relationships. After all, David Urban is no stranger to these corridors of power: Like many of the 12,488 registered federal lobbyists roaming Washington, he once sat on the other side of the tables — as Arlen Specter’s chief of staff. Before that, he was a public finance attorney at politically connected Philly law firm Ballard Spahr. Since leaving the government in 2002, Urban — a burly, booming man whose outsize personality sucks all the oxygen from whatever room he’s in — has built a small lobbying empire from those long-ago-forged relationships and political connections. He has become, in so many words, our guy in D.C. — if by “our” you mean the companies and government agencies that can afford his retainer: Comcast, Independence Blue Cross, SEPTA, to name just a few.
When he talks, members of Congress listen. This is why he’s helped bring home tens of millions of dollars for local government agencies in recent years. And why in 2010 Comcast paid Urban’s firm $180,000 to help shepherd through its controversial $30 billion merger with NBC-Universal. And why, over the past two years, the aforementioned Philly pharma company has shelled out $630,000 for ACG’s services.
“What people pay for is results,” Urban says later that day, relaxing in his office.
And few people in Philly’s power orbit have gotten results like David Urban.
METION THE WORD “LOBBYIST” these days, and the name most people think of is Jack Abramoff, the disgraced slimeball who traded expensive gifts and trips for political favors for his clients. Fairly or not, “lobbyist” has become pejorative, a symbol of the corrupting influence of money in politics, a manifestation of our government’s most undemocratic tendencies.
But David Urban is no Jack Abramoff. In fact, he’s nothing at all like what you’d expect a lobbyist to be. He’s a West Point grad and decorated combat soldier, the oldest son of an Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, steelworker who still fervently believes in “duty, honor, country” and who still speaks of politicians with an almost Mr. Smith Goes to Washington idealism. He’s eloquent, passionate, gregarious, quick-witted and razor-sharp — basically, one of the most immensely likeable people you’ll ever meet.
So how the hell did he end up in such a sleazy profession?
That question turns on a concession that Urban is unwilling to make — that lobbying is, in fact, sleazy. To him, there’s little difference between what he does and what lawyers do. “I’m an advocate,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything my clients do or say.”
If power is a drug, it’s easy to call Urban an addict, but that doesn’t do him justice. He’s more a connoisseur, someone who respects and savors power the way a wine enthusiast would a 1999 Château Le Pin Pomerol. It is, in no small part, why a man with his résumé and smarts chose to become a Washington lobbyist. The allure of politics, as both sport and art, was too great.
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.
URBAN, NOT SURPRISINGLY, never envisioned becoming a lobbyist. A standout scholar-athlete in Aliquippa, he eschewed a chance to play football at Harvard to go to West Point. (His football career there was cut short by a spinal injury, though, he gleefully points out, he’s in the Black Knights’ 1982 media guide.) After West Point and a tour in the Persian Gulf, Urban went back to school: Temple Law and, concomitantly, Penn, for a master’s in government administration. Later, he would join Ballard Spahr, where he’d get his first real taste of power at events with the state’s movers and shakers. But he was still in law school when he met the man who would change his life.
Arlen Specter needed a squash partner.
Even in his early 60s, Pennsylvania’s senior senator was an avid squash enthusiast, and his regular playing partner, a mutual acquaintance of Urban’s, had thrown out his back. Urban became The Guy. Over the next couple years, the two bonded over weekend matches at Clarks Uptown in Center City. Then one day in 1996, Specter offered Urban a job running his Philadelphia office. Later — with the blessing of David Cohen, Ballard’s managing partner and former chief of staff to Mayor Ed Rendell — Urban took the job and excelled. So much so that a few months later, Specter gave Urban the chance to be chief of staff of his entire D.C. operation.
Urban had never done anything like run a political office. But the job was managerial — to keep Specter Inc.’s trains running on time —and that fit his personality and military leadership training just fine. It wasn’t his place to bog down in the minutiae of policy, though he was certainly among Specter’s top advisers on all matters political and legislative. Instead, he took pride in the little things: ensuring constituents received their Social Security checks, aiding Specter’s longtime efforts to better fund the National Institutes of Health, and so on. By the time he decided to leave government work, he’d amassed a surfeit of suitors.
That decision, he says, was “purely financial.” He had student-loan debts, a wife and son, and an aging father to care for. Plus, D.C. is an expensive place to live. His government salary of $136,840 paled when compared to what he could net as a lobbyist.
Big D.C. law firms wanted to bring Urban into their lobbying divisions, and they were willing to pay handsomely. But he wanted something more entrepreneurial. Fortuitously, then-ACG principal Peter Terpeluk Jr. accepted an ambassadorship to Luxembourg, and Urban jumped at the opportunity to replace him.
Urban wanted to make a mark, and he did: In 2001, ACG took in about $2.3 million, according to financial disclosures. By 2007, its income had nearly quadrupled to $7.9 million. (It now employs 15 lobbyists.)
Much of that growth has come from clients in Pennsylvania, including government agencies. When the scandal-plagued Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission wanted to push through an effort to toll I-80 a few years ago, it tapped ACG (among other firms). Urban’s company has also brought home more than $45 million for SEPTA, and millions more for both the DRPA and the City of Philadelphia’s youth violence and homelessness programs. His connections to Specter also bore fruit: Between 2002 and 2006, for instance, the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative paid ACG $420,000 in lobbying fees, and ACG helped secure more than $3 million in earmarks garnered by Urban’s former boss.
As for the kinds of things Urban does for all that money, there’s his recent work with Comcast, whose merger with NBC-Universal has drawn the ire of Congressional critics. To fight back, ACG circulated a letter of support, signed by all but three members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, touting Comcast’s “hands-on involvement in the local communities it serves” and its “numerous, unprecedented up-front commitments to … protect the interests of competitors.”
While the letter was said to be the idea of Bob Brady, his office needed someone to write it who could speak the language of both the FCC and the Department of Justice Antitrust Division. Brady turned to Comcast, and Comcast turned to Urban, whose ex-boss Specter was a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I [want] a substance lobbyist. I want our lobbyists to be smart and know the business,” says David Cohen, now Comcast’s executive vice president. “David has relationships, but he’s not just a relationship lobbyist.”
Though the letter was only a drop in Comcast’s lobbying effort — Urban was one of 54 government workers-turned-lobbyists the company hired — it certainly didn’t hurt.
URBAN’S EIGHTH-FLOOR OFFICE, in a building one block south of K Street, is generously adorned with pictures and mementos from his life in government: posing with presidents and senators, eating with Fidel Castro, mugging with Yasser Arafat, shooting trap with Dick Cheney (“I shot better than him,” he says). There’s also the plaque commemorating his Bronze Star, awarded for “[developing] a rear-area support plan and [conducting] training with separate elements of the rear area” during the Gulf War.
“I’m no hero,” he says. At least, not in a summer-action-blockbuster way. But even two decades later, he’s still very much an Army man, from his close-cropped brown hair to his auspicious, bulldog-like mannerisms. He still professes that belief in “duty, honor, country” — the reasons he chose West Point over Harvard. “It sounds cheesy, but I believe that stuff.”
There’s no reason to doubt him — quite the contrary. He is, on some level, the kind of guy Washington needs more of: forthright, empathetic, pragmatic and still very much a true believer, despite all the crap he’s seen. If he ever revisits his decade-old dream of running for public office, he’d be a remarkable candidate to watch on the stump.
But today, at least, he’s not a politician. He’s the guy whispering in the politicians’ ears, advocating on behalf of clients with whom he may not even agree. And that’s the part that’s so hard to wrap your head around: that David Urban — soldier, hero, all-around stand-up guy — would be using his connections and insights not in a Mr. Smith sort of way, but to help the already powerful become just a little more powerful.
Urban rejects the notion that representing clients whose views you may not share, and whose actions may have a deleterious effect on those who can’t afford to pay their own lobbyists on Capitol Hill, necessarily makes you a dishonest hack.
“I think quite exactly the opposite,” he responds. For starters, he says, it’s never been easier to follow the money: “You can go online and find out who pays us what. The process could not be more transparent.”
In that sense, he’s right. Spend a few minutes on OpenSecrets.org, and you’ll find out all you ever wanted know about ACG: a list of its clients and how much they paid per year. But only in that sense is Urban correct; I can tell you, to the penny, how much Comcast and Independence Blue Cross have paid ACG over the years, but that doesn’t get me into the Senate conference rooms where legislation is hammered out.
“Everybody, at some level, lobbies the government, right?” Urban rebuts. “If you’re here in the spring or fall, you’ll see that tons of Americans lobby. Not professionally, like me and the 12,000 registered federal lobbyists, but on their own, and for the causes they believe in.”
Perhaps. But not nearly as effectively — otherwise, ACG wouldn’t be a multimillion-dollar-a-year enterprise. And David Urban gets results: The lame-duck session came and went without pay for delay ever reaching a vote.