The term “lobbyist” doesn’t have a flattering ring to it. Lobbyists are seen as rich and nefarious merchants who at best deal in influence and power and at worst break the law to get their way.

But most lobbyists are not Jack Abramoff. Many actually are grinders who spend years developing a policy expertise and who see their profession as a noble calling dedicated to helping others communicate a position. For them, lobbyist ethics is not an oxymoron.

To learn more about lobbying in Sacramento, I sat down with Kevin Gordon, president of the Capitol Advisors Group lobbying firm, which contracts for services with several school districts, including the San Diego County Office of Education for $160,000 a year.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you get in the business of lobbying? How does anyone get into the business of lobbying?

A lot of folks more traditionally, they’re involved with a campaign or they’re involved with an issue they care about, and one thing leads to another. In my case, which is a little bit unique, is I lived up here in the Sacramento area in high school and was very interested in politics because the state Capitol was in my hometown.

So I started going down to the Capitol virtually every day when I was in high school. And Jerry Brown was governor in his first term. And I got an internship in my senior year of high school with then-Speaker Leo McCarthy.

Then I went to UC Davis, and when I was at Davis I wrote an individual major program, which you can do at UC and CSU, you can write your own major, which focused on advocacy. Because I knew I wanted to do that.

What kind of skills do you need to have to be an advocate?

It’s really about taking complicated issues and trying to boil it down to the key parts of what it takes to solve that particular policy issue. And writing — really, really good writing skills and public speaking skills are certainly important. Being persuasive, you know people are actually good in sales might be good advocates because you might not be selling a product or a widget of some kind but you’re selling the ideas that your particular client might have.

It’s interesting, the different backgrounds people bring into it. There’s a lot of folks who come out of law into advocacy by the nature that it deals with state statutes.

How do you balance it all? You have dozens and dozens of clients.

It’s kind of a unique thing, in education. Here’s why school districts contract with a lobbyist. They have statewide associations up here that are constantly representing schools in the macro sense by going after issues that affect all school districts the same way. Like for example, making the argument for better school funding.

But then for example in San Diego County, we had a really big crisis with regard to this year the San Pasqual Academy, which serves mostly foster youth, was threatened basically out of existence because of sort-of inadvertent changes in the Local Control Funding Formula in school finance reform. So it needed to be saved. Well, the school board association and the association of school administrators, they couldn’t physically begin to try to solve all the problems of individual districts because they simply don’t have the resources and manpower.

So that’s the reason why you get a lobbyist, so that they’ll pay attention to your unique types of issues. And one of the things that we have found over the years is that one school district doesn’t begrudge us helping another school district with a legitimate problem as long as it doesn’t come at some cost to them.

So the balance is you represent clients who have similar interests. And as long as you’re representing clients who have similar interests, you don’t run into conflicts. There’s sort of an ethic in lobbying, which is that if you approach an issue where you’ve got a conflict, you disclose it to different clients you have and they make a decision about whether or not you need another lobbyist.

You mentioned ethics in lobbying. There’s a popular conception that lobbyists are these evil people who are trying to unduly influence the process. I wonder if you care to comment about that, the popular notion of lobbyists?

One thing that I don’t think the public really understands is there are lots of interests groups that are present in Sacramento and a lot of the private-sector interest groups are worrying about somebody’s financial bottom line. And so what they’re pursuing might not be perfectly aligned to good public policy.

However there are a number of lobbyists who lobby for what I call public interests. I consider myself and our firm a public interest lobbying firm. We lobby public policy issues that effect sort of the efficiency of how taxpayer dollars are spent and making good decisions that make sense in the policy areas we work in, education being our specialty. And so we consider ourselves educators more so than political mechanics.

What do you think the public would find most surprising about your job?

I think probably that the myth is that it’s a bunch of guys in pinstriped suits walking around with big leather bags that have money in them, and that they’re trying to grease the political process with money in order to get a very selfish, inward interest accomplished.

And that fact is the overwhelming majority of lobbyists are literally policy experts. They’re experts on tax, they’re experts on education, they’re experts on all kinds of crucial policy issues, some of them, many of them, have come from the Capitol itself. And lawmakers and staff rely on them for their expertise.

One of the other working practices of lobbyists is that when you go into a lawmaker and talk about your issue, you are absolutely expected to give more than just your side of the argument. You have to give them a heads up if you’re making an argument that there’s cracks or problems with that argument on the other side.

Like with the San Pasqual issue. We can save the San Pasqual Academy, which we did, but it’s also going to cost the state some money. So there’s a trade-off there, and it’s a money issue and it’s going to create a cost pressure on the general fund.

You give all sides of the argument, which gives you credibility. Those are the kind of things that I think average folks don’t see. The term lobbying and lobbyist are very pejorative. So that’s why we always tend to use the term advocate. People like an advocate for public schools.

Quick News Hits

• San Diego-area tribes are split on Prop. 48, but they’re all watching the race closely. (U-T)

• UC San Diego’s medical center is ready to treat Ebola if called upon. (L.A. Times)

• There’s suddenly a lot of attention surrounding the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. (L.A. Times)

• Kevin de Leon — the new leader of the state Senate — will be focusing on “green jobs.” (Sacramento Bee)

• Hey, is that Gov. Jerry Brown on the campaign trail? No way! (L.A. Times)

• Half of California voters have requested mail in ballots for the election. (Sacramento Bee)

• Taking stock of California’s once, current and future governor. (Politico)

• Brown says he won’t try to extend the Prop. 30 tax increase. (Sacramento Business Journal)

• San Diego County will need to spend $7.2 billion over the next decade to address its “at-risk” roads and bridges. (U-T)

• More than 18.5 million Californians had their personal information exposed last year. (AP)

• A lot of white dudes hold office in California. (Sacramento Bee)

• The governor comes through on campaign promises. (LA Times)

What’s Next?

Prediction: All of the major races in next week’s election will be decided by 10:30 p.m. on election night. It won’t be close.

Brian Joseph

Brian Joesph is a Voice of San Diego contributor. He has covered the state capitol for more than seven years. You can reach him at

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