SACRAMENTO — Dick Lee, a financial analyst in Los Angeles, recently took a day off from work and jetted up to the capital for a whirlwind tour through the rarefied environment of state government.
Citizen Lee listened to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown address a luncheon crowd and walked onto the floor of the ornate, imposing state Assembly and Senate chambers.
But the highlight of the trip came when the 47-year-old Playa del Rey resident finally met his Assemblywoman, Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles). The two sat in Moore's office and chatted for 45 minutes about traffic, the pace of building construction, the proposed Century Freeway, public schools.
"It was just me," Lee reflected later on the rare private audience. "And to tell you the truth, that was the first time I ever got to meet a representative of mine."
And if it is up to Lee's employer, the Atlantic Richfield Co., it won't be the last, either.
That's because Arco--which paid $152 a pop to fly Lee and 95 other employees into Sacramento for the day Feb. 29--is one of a number of corporate giants that are hoping to strengthen their political muscle by using their employees as a sort of soft-sell army of "grass-roots" lobbyists.
Urged to Befriend Officials
Instead of only hiring high-powered professionals who work the traditional good-old-boy network, companies such as Exxon, Nationwide Insurance, Hallmark Cards and Pfizer Inc. are encouraging thousands of their employees to eat with, listen to, campaign for, write and generally befriend their elected officials.
The result, say experts, is that some segments of corporate America have converted their payrolls into a potential army of political activists that, at any given time, can unleash a flurry of letters and phone calls on legislators in Washington and state capitals such as Sacramento.
They'll Think Twice
And when that happens, elected officials take notice. At the least, a politically active work force can make a legislator think twice about voting against a company's wishes on a bill.
"It gets down to where we focus somewhere beyond the corporate logo," said Assemblyman Dave Elder (D-Long Beach), who has spoken to employees at Arco's Carson refinery, located in his district. "We focus on individuals who are our constituents and, while they tend not to be so vocal, they do vote."
Yet some people, such as public interest czar Ralph Nader, say grass-roots organizing by large corporations is unfair and distorts the political process, making letter writing and legislative contacts appear to be a "spontaneous expression."
"They've got the worker's back up against the wall," said Nader. "Then, they tell them, 'If you want to get out of a tight spot, get your congressman to vote for this subsidy or tariff or whatever. . . .' They've got these people under duress."
But the technique has paid such handsome dividends that even labor unions, traditionally far ahead of companies in getting behind political candidates, have begun to train their members on how to be part-time lobbyists.
"It is a rising force in American politics, at the federal level and you'll see even more on the state level," said Mike Gildea, who organizes grass-roots campaigns for the AFL-CIO. Gildea said the union called on the 5,000 members trained in legislative contacts to lobby against the confirmation of conservative Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ray Hoewing, president of the Public Affairs Council in Washington, said corporate America decided to cultivate its workers as a grass-roots lobbying force during a series of serious political challenges during the 1970s.
Companies learned the hard way, he said, how effective groups like the environmentalist could be in bringing grass-roots lobbying power to bear on Washington.
A new political order had begun to emerge in Washington, said Gerald Keim, a Texas A&M business professor who instructs companies on how to establish political action programs for employees.
Old Ways Passe
Gone were the days when power was concentrated in the hands of a few congressional committee chairmen, easy targets for the phalanx of well-heeled lobbyists that swarm the nation's Capitol, said Keim.
Congressional reforms in the 1970s decentralized the power, and Keim said that special-interest groups such as the National Rifle Assn., the National Wildlife Federation, and the National Education Assn. soon found a way to capitalize on the change.
Groups like these could mobilize constituents to lobby their congressmen on arcane provisions of legislation before a bill even had the chance to emerge from the bowels of the congressional committee system, said Keim.
But what's more, interest groups also represent precious political currency to office holders: access to voters.
"The groups can provide money, they can provide campaign workers, to man phone banks and get-out-the-vote drives. . . ," said Keim. "The game had really changed to where competing on the basis of delivering voters is what you have to do to be influential."