Reporting from Washington — For decades, nothing symbolized the unshakable alliance between Washington's business lobbyists and the Republican Party more than the National Restaurant Assn.
Representing big national chains but also thousands of local eateries, it has long been one of the most potent lobbying groups in the nation's capital. It has also been reliably Republican, helping the GOP kill former President Clinton's healthcare plan, bankrolling Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution" and working to thwart Democratic initiatives on issues including raising the minimum wage and tightening workplace safety rules.
But something happened last year as Barack Obama was moving toward the White House: The once-solid front of business groups backing the GOP began to crack. Some of the biggest members of the old alliance began to rethink their positions and move toward better relations with Democrats -- including the National Restaurant Assn.
The shift is a tale of changing political tides, the practicality of business executives and a successful Obama White House effort to reach out for allies among traditional adversaries. And it's beginning to change the balance of power inside the Beltway.
"The restaurant association was a really, really important player in the past," said one prominent Republican lobbyist who asked that his name not be used because he had worked with the association in opposing Democratic initiatives through the years. "They have changed their approach and that has reduced dramatically the firepower of the business community in Washington."
The new strategy embraced by the restaurateurs and others such as the Business Roundtable and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has given them access to Democratic decision makers and a chance to influence proposed policy changes.
"The political landscape changed so dramatically over a short period of time that we had to make a decision on how to respond," says Jot Condie, president and chief executive of the California Restaurant Assn., who is on the board of the national group. "Are we going to lob bombs from afar and understand that return fire will kill us? Or should we try to mitigate legislation that is a relative certainty?"
Some of the compromises Obama has worked out with corporate interests -- notably the agreement to limit the effect of the healthcare overhaul on big pharmaceutical companies in return for their support -- has upset liberal activists and even some congressional moderates.
But the initiatives represent the emergence of a post-partisan lobbying strategy that is challenging the dominance of conventional business associations on K Street, where many lobbying firms have offices.
The restaurant association began to shed its conservative aura in late 2007, installing Dawn Sweeney, a longtime Washington player known for pragmatism, bipartisanship and marketing savvy, as its first female chief executive.
With her arrival, the organization continued to meet with conservatives, but it also began talking with once-reviled consumer activists, Democratic Party leaders on Capitol Hill and Obama White House officials.
"What we are trying to do is see how we can be at the table," Sweeney says. "If you are not at the table you are on the menu."
Accordingly, when the titanic healthcare battle got to a boil this fall, the restaurateurs were among those who broke ranks with such hard-line business groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Assn. of Manufacturers, declining to join their Start Over! coalition, which launched an advertising campaign against the legislation in key states.
The decision -- along with those made by the drug industry and a handful of other business trade associations -- helped Democrats keep their initiative moving. It also gave the restaurateurs ready access to the White House and to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, enabling them to be heard on such key issues as whether small business would be exempted from some of the new law's requirements.
Just two weeks ago, on the eve of the Senate's climactic healthcare vote, Sweeney, a Maine farm girl whose father was the mayor of her small town outside of Portland, entered the White House gates at 10 a.m. to meet with, among others, the Obama family's personal chef, Sam Kass.
Sweeney represents the interests of all restaurant owners, including mega-chains such as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, which are often targeted by consumer advocates for promoting unhealthful foods. Nonetheless, she exuded enthusiasm recently as she made her way across Pennsylvania Avenue to discuss the first lady's plans for combating childhood obesity.
"We should play a leading role," she said.
She took a similar approach to consumer activists' demands that the healthcare bill include provisions on restaurant nutrition labeling. Members of her board believe her approach, which they dub "mitigation and damage control," has succeeded.