obert L. Byrd—better known as Bobby—is one of Delaware’s most prolific lobbyists. This month, Byrd begins a new chapter in his career. After serving 18 years as a partner in the state’s largest lobbying firm, Wood, Byrd & Associates, he joins Wolf Block Public Strategies Delaware, an offshoot of a Philadelphia-based law firm. He will continue to focus on government relations.
DT asked Byrd to lunch at the Hotel du Pont’s famed Green Room in October. If the Wolf Block deal was in the works then, Byrd didn’t even hint at it.
Two days after the interview, one of Byrd’s colleagues and competitors, Edward R. “Ned” Davis, died. Davis, known as the dean of Delaware lobbyists, is credited with establishing the modern lobbying business in the First State.
Like Davis, Byrd, 57, has served as a confidante to many Delaware governors. Of course, he’s also developed tight relationships with many lawmakers. During his 32 years in Dover, as a legislator or lobbyist, Byrd has missed only a handful of work days while the General Assembly was in session.
During lunch, Byrd is greeted by a few of the state’s who’s who, including Robert V.A. Harra Jr., president and CEO of Wilmington Trust. State GOP chairman Terry Strine, seated a few tables over, also makes a special trip to shake hands with Byrd.
Byrd orders his customary turkey club sandwich, a cup of carrot soup and a glass of iced tea. He is agreeable, keen witted and deliberate about how he answers some questions. Of course, what else would one expect from someone whose success depends on diplomacy, discretion, tact and good old-fashioned communication skills?
Before getting down to business, DT notes that it is surprisingly difficult to find information about Byrd on the Internet. He chuckles as if he’s heard it before.
“Do you want to know why?” he says. “When you do a Google search, no matter how you put my name in, 20 or 30 sites on Senator Robert Byrd (the U.S. senator from West Virginia) come up.”
There have been a few cases of mistaken identity through the years, such as when Byrd makes reservations at restaurants in D.C.
“There have been some times when they thought the senator was coming,” he says.
How did that work out?
Byrd smiles. “I got some good tables.”
DT: Would you mind giving a short description of your job?
BB: Not at all. We’re lobbyists, and there are two sides to lobbyists. Number one is dealing with legislators and government officials. It’s dealing with a policy maker to attempt to get accomplished whatever you’re trying to get accomplished.
And the other part of it is dealing with the clients and discussing with the clients what can and can’t get done. So it’s a lot of relationships. It’s a lot of back and forth. It certainly takes as much time with the clients. And it’s not 50-50. There are a lot of times when you work for the clients a lot more than you work with the policy. And the reason is you pretty much know what the policy makers can or can’t do. Legislators all have a set of values. They’re either conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, so you know pretty much how they’re going to vote on a specific issue. So a lot of what we do is mold the ideas from the clients into what the possible is.
DT: How has the business changed over the years?
BB: You’ve got to know who’s saying what about an issue. Twenty years ago you would read the News Journal and listen to the radio. That’s where everybody was getting their public opinion from. Now that’s changed with all the things that are happening on the Internet.
DT: Does the Internet make your job harder or easier?
BB: I’m an old guy. I’m not as technically proficient as I need to be, so sometimes it’s a challenge. There was a time—I want to word this properly—there was a time in this business when you got your messages. You could take an hour at the end of the day and return your phone calls. Those days are gone. First of all, everybody’s carrying a cell phone, so people have instant access to you. They’re probably carrying a BlackBerry, which gives you another way to instantly access people. And I don’t think this is true just about lobbying. This is just the business world in general. Everything is instant access. I was in a meeting the other day and the leader of the conference said, “I don’t expect you all to be available 24-seven, but I do expect you to be available 21-six.”
DT: How many hours do you work a week?
BB: This is not an eight-hour-a-day, 40-hour-a-week job. I’ve never kept track of my hours. My guess is I’m probably working 60 hours a week with travel. You leave the house at quarter of eight in the morning and do a conference call at eight somewhere, and another one at nine. Drive to Dover, do Dover in the afternoon. Stay in Dover for a cocktail party or dinner or whatever you do in Dover. You know, a lot of nights you’re not home until nine or 10 or 11. I try to be home every night before the 11 o’clock news. That’s my goal.
If you’re going to break the year down, when the legislature is in session, you’re obviously in Dover all the time. I’ve been in Dover every day that the legislature has been in session for the last 32 years. I missed about 10 days. I went to the Master’s one year. I think I missed one day because I was sick. But if the General Assembly is in session, I’m working.
DT: Can you give a preview of the upcoming legislative session, touching on issues that are important to your clients and also some of the bigger overall issues?
BB: There’s a large education reform that’s going to come forward: Vision 2015. The rollout is tomorrow (October 17). The business community is very involved in that. We’ll be involved on behalf of the Delaware Business Roundtable. This is a vision that is being put forward by a number of members of the business community. Really, what they’ve decided is they want to make a major effort to improve Delaware schools and make them world-class schools. We’ll start that in January.
We’ll have a number of little issues that are really not yet defined for various and sundry clients. There are always railroad issues. We represent Norfolk Southern. There are always alcohol and beverage issues. We represent Anheuser-Busch. There are always tax issues that come up toward the end of the session.
We were successful in getting a major piece of legislation passed last year for Dover Downs and the racino industry. We increased the number of machines at the tracks and increased the hours a little bit, and we made some technical changes in the way the whole thing operates. Pennsylvania will be coming online in December, so we’ll be watching that stuff very closely.
In the alcohol and beverage industry, we’ll look at some franchise law changes. Delaware wholesalers have contracts with their manufacturers. That’s governed by an equity agreement, and the state franchise law governs the equity agreement. So there are always some changes that have to be negotiated out about how the whole equity agreement works. It’s really technical stuff. We’re always talking about hours and Sunday sales. We did that a few years ago. Grocery stores came up last year.
I think there will be a compromise on workers’ comp, and it will probably pass in January. It might be done before that. (See related story, page 45.)
DT: You’re close friends with Governor Minner. Why didn’t she call the legislature back into a special session to address the workers’ comp reform, as she had threatened to do?
BB: There was a lot of discussion and negotiations that started to happen as a result of what she did. The bill wasn’t quite ready to go in June, but with her comments—and obviously she’s supporting the legislation—a number of people sat down and were negotiating over the summer. A bill can’t pass until it’s done. It’s just like soup. There’s got to be a lot of consensus built. Everybody’s got to negotiate things out. That’s the Delaware way. We negotiate things here. And that’s probably 90 percent of what we do, negotiate things and try to figure out what can work—figure everybody gets a little bit and keep everybody happy.
DT: What about other legislation that seems to come up every session? For example, are we going to see another attempt at a “gay rights” bill?
BB: Yeah, it’ll come back. It’ll come back. The legislature does not like to make decisions that offend one Delawarean or another. They like things to be worked out so that nobody is opposed to the legislation. They like it to be worked out ahead of time, before it gets to the floor.
DT: You served two terms as a legislator. What did you accomplish as a state legislator and how did that help prepare you for what you do now?
BB: I was very fortunate. I was elected to the legislature when I was 25. I quickly got into the legislative side of it and the negotiations and the whole legislative game, to the point that the thing that keeps you as a legislator suffered. What keeps you a legislator is doing your constituent homework. I didn’t do that as well as I should have, and I got beat. But I had established a reputation in Dover as someone who could negotiate and compromise and make things happen. And that helped me a lot as I got into this business.
DT: Do any bills or laws that you worked on stand out?
BB: I was always chairman of the labor committee, and I worked on really technical stuff. I worked on unemployment compensation. I worked on workers’ comp. I was there, and supported and worked on two constitutional amendments—one that said it takes a three-fifths vote to raise taxes. It used to be a simple majority. But I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked on every major issue in Delaware for the last 35 years in some way or another, either as a legislator when I was there or as a lobbyist. I worked on the Financial Center Development Act. I was one of the lead lobbyists for slot machines. Pick a big issue, I’ve been there.
DT: At 25, you had to be one of the youngest legislators ever.
BB: I was the second youngest. Tommy du Pont was elected to one term, and he was 24 when he was elected.
DT: How do you know all of this?
BB: You have to go back and look at all the ages of all the legislators for 300 and some years. Actually, (former state senator) Roger Martin did that.
DT: Why did you become a lobbyist?
BB: I don’t think I really knew a lot about the lobbying profession until I became a legislator. But once I became a legislator, I said, “Here I am, a legislator. I’m working for half pay,” and you’ve gotta do something else to supplement that. But these guys are paid full time. They’re doing what they do. I was very close to the lobbyists. I’m sure there were constituents who thought I was too close to the lobbyists, but that’s always a natural progression.
DT: Why did they think you were too close to the lobbyists?
BB: Well, there’s a whole negative version out there of lobbyists. People question what we do, and a lot of people think we shouldn’t be there. But having said that, everybody has a right to speak to their government. It’s constitutionally guaranteed. We’re representing the people who want to have contact with their government.
DT: What makes you good at what you do?
BB: You’ve got to be willing to work very, very hard because you’ve got to figure out what everybody around that table wants. You have to be an extremely good listener. And you have to put in the time with the people so that they get comfortable with you and tell you what it is that really makes them tick. When you know those kinds of things, then you can bring them solutions to problems and ideas, and hopefully they’ll listen to you. But you can’t do this by not working very, very hard and meeting with people and talking to people and listening to what it is they have to say. That’s probably the skill that you need most. You’ve got to be able to listen. You’ve gotta have the other skills, too. You’ve gotta be able to work the computer. You have to be able to write a little bit. You’ve got to be halfway smart. You can’t be dumb. You have to be able to figure things out. You’ve got to be able to see into the future a little bit. If it’s a big balloon and you push your finger in here, you have to know where it’s coming out on the other side and what’s going to happen. You have to be able to prognosticate the results of your actions.