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The State | COLUMN ONE

Bumper Crop of Clout

As more legislators rely on lobbyists' expertise, George Soares has reaped the rewards, becoming a force in the politics of agriculture.

September 22, 2004|Miriam Pawel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — George Soares learned to be a salesman peddling pesticides to farmers in the Central Valley.

He pitched his own credibility, not the products. "I never really felt like I was selling anything," he said of his first job. "I was just talking to friends about the needs they had, the problems and the solutions."

Three decades later, Soares' world still revolves around salesmanship, farmers and pesticides, but he's marketing a more precious commodity: influence.

Soares is a lobbyist, and over the last quarter-century he has left his imprint on hundreds of bills killed and amended, regulations reworded, boards empowered, appointees selected, and myriad deals vital to those who produce and sell food, a $27.5- billion-a-year industry in California.

Lobbyists are so powerful and indispensable to the working of California government that they're known in Sacramento as the Third House, in deference to their role in writing, sponsoring and corralling coalitions to pass legislation.

As term limits have transformed the Capitol into a world in which the staff turns over frequently and freshman lawmakers arrive in droves each year, already raising money for their next race, legislators have come to rely heavily on the institutional expertise and campaign fundraising prowess of lobbyists.

Soares has taken full advantage, building his legal/lobbying practice into the dominant force in the realm of agriculture.

Last year, he delayed the state budget as he fought to cap fees paid by chemical companies that are used to regulate pesticides. Two years earlier, he brokered a deal that made farm equipment exempt from the state sales tax. He has engineered the creation of 20 state commissions to govern commodities from avocados to walnuts -- powerful groups that collect dues from all growers, fund advertising campaigns and underwrite research that helps determine the shape, size and quantity of fruit and vegetables sold throughout the state.

Friends call him altruistic, passionate about farming (doting on cows he calls "my girls"), unfailingly courteous to governors and secretaries alike, the kind of down-to-earth colleague who takes time out to encourage a friend's teenage son to attend college. Competitors and adversaries call him aggressive, egotistical, a businessman masquerading as a farmer, a lobbyist who uses farm interests to front for chemical companies. Yet there's consensus on certain attributes: smart, shrewd, knowledgeable, sophisticated.

"He looks so far ahead and also has institutional knowledge," said Charlie Hoppin, president of the Rice Industry Assn., one of Soares' clients. "He's just a master."

Soares built his law firm on clients who make their living from agriculture but whose economic interests collide as often as they're in concert: farmers and chemical companies, pesticide salesmen and crop dusters, farm equipment dealers and grocers. He preaches a pragmatic message: Strength in numbers. Find common ground. Pick your fights.

"It is remarkable at times he doesn't have a conflict," said Merlin Fagan, who retired in 1998 after more than 20 years lobbying for the Farm Bureau. "He seems to be able to weather issues that normally would divide his constituency. That tests his considerable ability to be a mediator."

Just as he learned to do selling pesticides, Soares relies on his credibility and the relationships he cultivates to sell solutions that work for his clients as well as state officials.

"There's the element of trust," said Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews (D-Tracy), who chairs the Agriculture Committee.

To some competitors, Soares compromises farmers by persuading them to form strategic alliances, whether with chemical companies or urban Democrats such as former Gov. Gray Davis and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

Many farmers would blanch at the thought of attending a Cedillo fundraiser featuring Jesse Jackson. Soares is proud that Hoppin and Earl Williams, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Assns., attended the 2002 gala at the Biltmore Hotel. Soares made sure that they sat in the front row. And had their picture taken with Jackson.

"We were sort of the star attraction," Williams said.

It helped cement an important relationship. "They're very good people," Cedillo said. "I might be with them five times out of 100, but they appreciate it. We trust each other."

Soares, 60, is always thinking about the future, recalibrating techniques in response to the demands of an increasingly urban state, where farmland has disappeared at the rate of almost 49,000 acres a year since California began keeping track in 1984. Part firebrand, part traditionalist -- he uses only pencils and won't read e-mails unless they're printed out and delivered to him on paper -- Soares makes no apologies for tactics he argues are vital in the 21st century.

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