The "well" inside the West Virginia Capitol: a common gathering place for lobbyists, lawmakers and other visitors. Photo: WV Legislative Photography

This is an excerpt from “Power and Possums,” a short-run “newsletter course” about where power lies in the Legislature. Sign up here to get the whole email series delivered for free to your inbox. 

What do you imagine when you think of lobbyists? Wads of money changing hands in rooms filled with the smoke of Cuban cigars? Cruises with coal barons? Steak dinners with champagne bottles that cost more than your rent?

These preconceptions are “certainly not without base,” said Eli Baumwell, Interim Executive Director at the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a registered lobbyist. “We can certainly see the way that that money and other sort of non-monetary favors can really influence what [politicians] support and don’t support.”

But lobbyists also serve an important purpose: providing expertise to lawmakers whose backgrounds and experience vary.

“I think the biggest misconception about lobbying is that all lobbying is bad,” said Pete Quist, the deputy research director at OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks spending in state politics. “From a state legislator’s perspective, lobbying can be helpful … you can’t be an expert in everything.”

This is especially true of legislators in a state like West Virginia, who serve only part time, and often don’t have detailed knowledge of subjects as diverse as energy policy, public health, education and broadband infrastructure.

So enter lobbyists, in their most benign form: experts typically hired by a company or advocacy group to make sure lawmakers know how a given bill will affect their clients and what sorts of policies might benefit them.

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Then what’s with the bad rap? Where in between these two visions lies the reality of a lobbyist’s day-to-day? And what do they actually do during the legislative session besides sit in committees and huddle in groups around the Capitol’s rotunda — or, in industry speak, the “well?”

“I think lobbyists have knowledge and expertise,” said Julie Archer, a coordinator at West Virginians for Clean Elections and a registered lobbyist herself.

But lobbyists aren’t the only ones with that knowledge and expertise, she adds. “From our standpoint, West Virginians have a lot of thoughts and expertise and solutions to problems based on their lived experience. But what happens is their voices aren’t heard or represented in the halls of power.” 

Part of a lobbyist’s job is to build relationships. For Jason Huffman, that means showing up at the Capitol every day during the legislative session.

“You’ve got to be in the building to really be effective,” Huffman said. “Because you can’t build those relationships if you’re not there.”

Huffman is a registered lobbyist and the state director of Americans for Prosperity’s West Virginia chapter — a pro-business, anti-regulation group founded by billionaire Republican mega-donors, the Koch brothers.

On one level, being an effective lobbyist in West Virginia means having these strong relationships and developing trust as much as, or more than, chumminess. Lawmakers rely on lobbyists to be experts in specific areas, like energy or environmental policy, and bring real world experience with them.

“Lobbyists are excellent,” said Senate President Craig Blair, who admitted to having some negative conceptions about them before being elected to office. “The County Commission Association, Municipal League, Chamber of Commerce — I mean, these are local people saying, ‘This is going on, that’s going on, and we need some help getting it fixed.’”

While any citizen can try to sway their representative, in West Virginia, you have to register as a lobbyist if you’re either paid to do so, or spend more than $150 doing that job. (So, if you want to treat your representative to a nice steak dinner with a bottle of champagne to boot, you’ll have to tell the ethics commission.) All lobbyists in West Virginia are registered with the state’s Ethics Commission, and have to report all money spent on lobbying activity.

But while every lobbyist clearly has an agenda, Blair said lobbyists that lie about negative impacts of legislation they’re pushing, or don’t tell the whole truth, get a bad reputation.

But let’s face it: “experts” don’t always hold the most esteem in West Virginia’s statehouse. (See: a host of laws passed affecting medical policy in the last three years impacting issues from vaccine requirements in hospitals to abortion access, over the advice of doctors, policy analysts, and even hospitals’ lawyers). So what makes these experts, the lobbyists, who are paid to represent a very specific point of view, different?

It’s all about the money.

Learn more by signing up for the full Power and Possums newsletter course here.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.