For as long as anyone has kept track, the most influential lobbyists in Raleigh have been colorful characters who rose to the top of their trade on their connections and ability to schmooze prickly legislators. That's not to say folks such as Zeb Alley, Don Beason and Roger Bone haven't been well-versed in the policy issues of their clients or don't know the legislative process as well as anyone. But all three would look out of place in the offices of a buttoned-down, high-powered corporate law firm.
Alley, wearing his perpetual, toothy grin, hardly begins any conversation without passing along a ribald joke, often peppered with references to the mountain places and people near his Waynesville home. Beason, gruff and intimidating to those who don't know him, walked away from lobbying last year. But it wasn't the criminal charge that followed his flashing a pistol during a traffic dispute that unraveled his career. It was a $500,000 loan to former House Speaker Jim Black, now in prison, that did the deed. As for Bone, he probably wouldn't know what to do in a white-shoe firm. Like Beason, he's not a lawyer. The former legislator turned his connections with agribusiness interests in Eastern North Carolina into a lucrative practice.
For nearly two decades, this trio rated high, usually taking the top three positions in rankings compiled by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research. They did so representing multiple clients. The business, though, is changing, and the days of the highly successful, independent operators may be numbered. Regional and national lobbying firms, often tied to large law firms, are snatching up lobbyists and staking out a place in the hierarchy. In a state whose population is expected to grow nearly 50% by 2030, government will expand. There's money to be made influencing it, and the newcomers know that.
Columbia, S.C.-based Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough bought Alley's business early last year. Richmond, Va.-based McGuireWoods Consulting set up shop in Raleigh last year and has taken on four veteran lobbyists. Its parent law firm merged with Helms, Mulliss & Wicker, giving it substantial presence in Charlotte and Raleigh. The Wicker of Helms, Mulliss & Wicker--former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker--left to help Columbus, Ohio-based Schotten-stein Zox & Dunn set up office in Raleigh. SZD Whiteboard, its lobbying arm, put out its shingle last summer.
Not that high-powered law firms...