It’s late April, most of the Minnesota Legislature’s committees have wrapped up their work, and related bills are headed to the floor for debate. Having provided testimony and arguments at committee meetings, in legislators’ offices, to regulatory agencies and for Governor Mark Dayton’s staffers, lobbyist Cristine Almeida now spends long days rushing to and fro between houses of the Legislature, checking messages on the fly in corridors and up and down stairways, keeping close tabs on bills, and having meetings and hallway conversations with legislators. She and her team also attend all conference committees, where the House and Senate reconcile differences in their respective bills.
“I’m going to guess that there are still a lot of people who think it’s a smoked-filled or, these days, not so smoke-filled backroom, where someone slaps someone else on the back and they shake hands and cut some deal,” Almeida says. “It’s not like that at all.”
Almeida knows what it’s like. She has been walking the offices and hallways of the Minnesota Capitol for more than two decades, ever since she moved to Minnesota from her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, where she worked as a legislative committee aide for a year. “I’ve always been interested in politics and public policy, and the intersection of human relationships with ideas,” she says. For lobbyists, those intersections often can be collisions. Deals are hard-won, and clients often don’t get everything they want.
Founded in 2006 as a one-woman shop, Almeida Public Affairs, LLC, now has five employees; two additional consultants work on an as-needed basis. During this spring’s session, Almeida worked with 18 clients. Most were coalitions, such as the industry group seeking to defeat the 600 percent increase in the excise tax on alcoholic beverages. Her client list was balanced close to evenly between for-profit and nonprofit entities. (She won’t say how she’s compensated.)
Many of her business clients are in the health care field—Medtronic is one of her stalwarts. (Other for-profit clients include Old Republic National Title Insurance and New Jersey-based biotech firm Celgene.) Not surprisingly, those clients tend to be focused on tax and business climate issues; many also need to track employment law matters, which can include issues such as leave of absence and family leave regulations. Some clients have more specific issues. A couple of years ago, one of Almeida’s clients, a Minnesota corporation that does business nationally, needed a fix to a specific law in Minnesota that put it at a competitive disadvantage here compared to other states. That company engaged Almeida to help it introduce a bill, shepherd the legislation through the committee process, and prepare its executives to provide testimony. The bill eventually passed.
“Legislators are open to meetings with people and lobbyists who make their best arguments,” Almeida says. “My favorite way to work is to go in and make my case, tell them what my opposition is going to say, rebut that, and then get out.”
In these meetings, Almeida says she wants to be asked tough questions, even though her clients don’t always want that. Who opposes what you’re advocating for, and why? “If there’s going to be tension, I want to bring that out.” Otherwise, she can’t tell whether the legislator or regulator might be open to persuasion.
That said, Almeida says that she avoids taking on work on highly emotional social issues, such as abortion. She prefers to operate “in problem-solving mode.” Her clients need to be ready to compromise and get the best deal they can, and not think they can take their ball and go home if they don’t get their way. “It’s really rare that you get everything you’re seeking over there,” she says. “So you have to have the ability of thinking in terms of alternatives and possible solutions to problems.”
Sometimes the deal-making happens within the coalitions she represents. As chair of the committee for Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition organized to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned any form of gay marriage, Almeida oversaw a group that included business and labor, Republicans and Democrats, as well as gay rights groups that often don’t get along with each other. She found herself constantly smoothing ruffled feathers and keeping her 40-member board focused on the “common goal.”
It’s a lot of work keeping a lot of balls in the air. Almeida acknowledges that the legislative process, both on the floor and behind the scenes, can be off-putting and grueling to observers, and sometimes even to insiders: “There’s a reason why people say don’t watch laws or sausages being made.” But the process still fascinates her. Almeida doesn’t have a degree in economics, political science, or public policy, but her BA in English has attuned her to subtleties of language and human dynamics. During the legislative session, Capitol life can unfold almost like a grand novel, with plot twists coming thick and fast every day.
Gene Rebeck is Twin Cities Business’ Northern Minnesota correspondent.