A Pair Of Top Political Consultants Say They’ve Found A Way To Help Businesses Break Through Washington Gridlock

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Hunter Walker, Business Insider

January 13, 2015

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A pair of former political rivals recently teamed up to launch a consulting firm aimed at helping large businesses lobby at the state level. They say this local strategy can help companies bypass Washington gridlock.

Last month, Phil Cox, the former executive director of the Republican Governor’s Association, and Colm O’Comartun, who was his counterpart at the Democratic Governor’s Association, announced the launch of a bipartisan consulting firm, 50 State LLC. In a conversation with Business insider, the pair of erstwhile sparring partners explained what they believe the business world can gain from focusing political efforts on the local level.

O’Comartun characterized the firm’s approach as helping large companies “speak to the federal government through the states. He argued this strategy can help firms bypass the fractious climate in Washington.

“I think that the need is driven largely by gridlock in Congress, by the realization that you can get things done in a bipartisan way at state level, and that government at state level is open for business,” explained O’Comartun. “Once you align yourself that way, you realize just how much of the national economy is an economy based on states, these 50 small little countries.”

O’Comartun acknowledged it may be easier for large companies to pursue the types of “major” policy changes they seek on the federal level, however he said the current climate in Congress has made it difficult for business to work on the federal level.

“It’s much easier, with the stroke of a pen. if you can effect change in every state in the nation,” he said. “Over the years, changes in the way Congress has operated has just made that much, much harder. Even on things that everyone agrees on, you can’t get those things done. So, I think most folks have shifted their attention to the states and they can get a tremendous amount done.”

Both Cox and O’Comartun also cited examples of major policy changes that they said began at the state level.

“Look at how welfare reform got done in the nineties. It started at the state level. That applies to business as well,” said Cox. “Businesses who can’t see their objectives realized at the federal level can go out and work in a very bipartisan way in states across the country. The contracts may not be as big, the results may not be as prominent but you can hit a number of singles that might ultimately create momentum for your business objectives at the national level.”

O’Comartun pointed to progress same-sex marriage advocates have made as further evidence a state-based strategy can work for businesses.

“We saw with gay marriage you could have invested a tremendous amount of money, a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to get a federal gay marriage law or some change, but instead that group focused on going state to state,” O’Comartun said.

In addition to being able to build momentum for their policy goals, both Cox and O’Comartun said companies truly will encounter a more productive political environment working with governors. Cox described is as a “different culture.”

“Just fundamentally and tactically, 45 states have a balanced budget requirement, so they fundamentally have to sit in a room, reach across the aisle, and do that dastardly thing called compromise,” said Cox. “In Washington, they are governed by press releases and posturing. Successful executives at the state level understand that personal relationships matter. Republican and Democratic governors reach out and build those relationships. Not only with their leadership, but with the rank and file legislators. They know each other, they know their families. The conversations that used to take place in Washington DC, you know, between Tip O’neill and Ronald Reagan over a cocktail. They actually do still happen at the state level.”

“Many former governors who are in the Senate say they find it an unfavorable contrast and they were able to get a lot more done,” O’Comartun added. “They’re very frustrated with life in the Senate.”

Both Cox and O’Comartun also suggested governors are more in communication with each other than ever before, which means reaching out to one can have a wider impact beyond the borders of an individual state.

“One of the byproducts of what Republican governors view as federal overreach in the last few years is just that. They’re acting more and more like a caucus than they have ever at any point in time in their history,” said Cox. “So ideas are shared between and among states. There’s more cross pollination for reforms and policy ideas and it allows businesses to plug in, frankly, to one state and see that benefit in state after state.”

Though they are clearly confident the state-based approach can be effective for big businesses, the pair said they saw a void in this area in the consulting field that led them to start 50 State LLC.

“A lot of the talent in this space is focused on the bigger contracts, which are at the federal level. From our experience at both the RGA and the DGA, we see that the bigger, federally-focused firms really don’t prioritize those state platforms,” said Cox. “So, there is a gap in the marketplace for two people that have our experience.”

Despite their opposing political affiliations, Cox and O’Comartun said they have worked together in the past. Prior to their new partnership, they spent time together in boardrooms of companies that donated to their associations where they would sometimes simultaneously be invited to make presentations. In 2011, when they first met at an annual meeting for governors at the White House, the pair also began a tradition of eating dinner together with their wives.

“We’d get together for dinner with our wives, so that doesn’t lend itself to partisan interaction,” O’Comartun said.

“Both of our wives are far more charming than either of us,” Cox added.