California bulks up high-speed rail lobbying effort - but is it working?

WASHINGTON — The California High-Speed Rail Authority has bulked up its lobbying even as some lawmakers question its effectiveness.

Facing a skeptical Congress, the Sacramento-based high-speed rail group this year enlisted a Republican who learned the ropes alongside former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The Republican lobbyist, Drew Maloney, augments a Democrat, Mark Kadesh, who once served as chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Both have their work cut out for them. For high-speed rail, the questions are sharp, the competition is motivated and the money is tight.

"With the Federal Railway Administration being our major project and funding partner, we think it important to have representation in D.C. to interface with the administration and with members of Congress," said Jeffrey Barker, the high-speed rail authority's deputy executive director.

Barker characterized Kadesh and Maloney not as lobbyists but as "our actual federal policy advisers," who augment a 20-member California staff. He said they keep federal officials "informed about the status of our project (rather) than ... advocate."

Still, lobbying and other disclosure records shed light on how high-speed rail advocates in California and beyond try to sway lawmakers.

"It's a tough environment," Kadesh acknowledged Friday. "All major projects are under the microscope ... but, we have the strongest and best ally, who is the president of the United States."

So far, the Obama administration has provided California nearly $3.5 billion for a high-speed rail system whose initial route would stretch from Bakersfield to near Chowchilla.

For fiscal 2012, the Obama administration has requested $8.2 billion in national high-speed rail funds. Separately, lawmakers will write a transportation bill this year that could include a high-speed rail section. Both the appropriations and public works bills are traditional catnip for lobbyists, but both will also be particularly difficult to pass this year.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority first hired Kadesh in June 2007, disclosure records show. Last year, he was paid $100,000 by the rail authority.

Kadesh served as Feinstein's chief of staff for seven years. Two of his lobbying associates likewise formerly worked for Feinstein.

In January, when the House shifted to Republican control, the California High-Speed Rail Authority hired the Republican Maloney as well.

The California rail group paid Maloney's firm, Ogilvy Government Relations, $30,000 during the first three months of 2011, records show. Ogilvy Government Relations is a subsidiary of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which has a multimillion-dollar contract with the rail authority.

Kadesh targets Democrats and Maloney targets Republicans. It's a standard tactical division of labor, though it can sometimes seem schizophrenic. Some California congressional offices on both sides of the rail debate say they haven't yet been contacted by Maloney or the Ogilvy team.

"I wouldn't recognize him if he walked down the hallway," said Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, a longtime high-speed rail advocate. "I've been frustrated, and I've questioned the authority several times about (Ogilvy's work)."

A lost opportunity, Costa said, occurred recently when the California Legislative Analyst's Office released a scathing 28-page critique of the high-speed rail project. No one tried to coordinate a unified Capitol Hill defense, he said.

Costa, while praising his fellow Democrat Kadesh as "effective," said that the California High-Speed Rail Authority "ought to save themselves some money" and consider ending the Ogilvy contract.

Katherine Strehl, the high-speed rail project lead for Oglilvy Government Relations, responded Friday that the Republican lobbyists were brought in "due to their strong relationships with incoming members and leadership," and said they had one so successfully.

"They have conducted significant outreach to California members and those who make transportation-related decisions on both sides of the aisle," Strehl said.

Seen another way, the dispute underscores just how politically delicate the high-speed rail lobbying issue has become.

At the national level, several organizations have sought to position themselves as the definitive voice for high-speed rail.

In June 2009, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association popped into existence. Soon, court records show, the association was embroiled in a legal fight over who was really in charge. A separate American High Speed Rail Alliance was formed in January 2010, by some of the same individuals who that month resolved their suit against those now running the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

Showing they mean business, the U.S. High Speed Rail Association leaders in February announced plans to form a political action committee to distribute campaign contributions.

"It's an important credibility move for our association," the organization's vice president for government affairs, Thomas Hart, declared in February. "If we don't have it, we're a small child in a big man's game, and I don't like to play that way."

California's competitors, meanwhile, are boosting their own efforts.

The Western High Speed Rail Alliance, with dreams of building a system connecting Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah, paid its chief lobbyist $120,000 last year, records show.

In a similar vein, the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Commission paid its lobbyists $40,000 last year. Florida High Speed Rail followed suit in January, hiring lobbyists who formerly worked for Florida lawmakers. The American High Speed Rail Alliance has paid its lobbyist $70,000 since hiring the firm in October.