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Craig's Lobbyists Left Leaderless

A misdemeanor misstep in a Minneapolis men’s room has not only upended Larry Craig’s 33-year political career, it has also left an array of special interests, ranging from pistol-packing rockers to hard-rock miners, scrambling to find a new guide to lead them through the Senate wilderness.

While the public debate by pundits and pontificators has revolved around issues of morality and impropriety and partisan political advantage, the discussion of the Craig affair inside K Street conference rooms and restaurant booths is more practical: Who will replace the three-term Idaho Republican in his role as the upper chamber’s champion of natural resource industries, land use interests and firearms enthusiasts?

The one-time Craig gang of Western interests lobbyists is on the lookout for its new leader.

“Somebody is going to have to step into his shoes and fill that void. But I don’t know how you replace some of that,” said Greg Casey, president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee and a former Craig chief of staff. “You just can’t replace that. It’s expertise, tenure and experience.” 

Even as the scandal was unfolding last week, Western members of Congress were already positioning themselves to fill Craig’s boots. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) pledged to defend logging, ranching and mining interests. Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson announced he would protect Craig’s earmarks from his place on the Appropriations Committee. And California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is searching for a new GOP co-sponsor for a bill to help immigrant farm workers.

It all happened so quickly. Within a week, Craig had gone from proud standard-bearer of the Western interests lobby to the butt of bathroom jokes. After he was stripped of his leadership and committee posts, Craig’s old K Street posse ran for the hills, eager to distance themselves from their former leader.

It’s probably not the way that Craig, a former rancher and one-time vice president of the Future Farmers of America, thought it would end.

“I’m not going to be able to get my lobbyists to give you a comment. Just because of the sensitive nature of the situation, it would be inappropriate,” said Karen Batra, director of public affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents ranching interests. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but I think everybody is just looking ahead, looking to the future.”

“He was a prominent Western senator and an important player. We are sad to see him retire. But I think he made the right decision. I have nothing else to say,” said Robbie Aiken, a lobbyist for Arizona-based power company Pinnacle West, who worked with Craig on nuclear, coal and water issues for more than two decades.

National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich declined to allow the group’s lobbyists to comment. “He has been a consistent ally of our industry,” Popovich said. “There is no question that we would be losing a friend. The question is, will we be getting a friend in his place?”

Officials of the National Rifle Association, of which Craig is a longtime board member, did not reply to repeated interview requests. Fellow NRA board members Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and rocker Ted Nugent were unavailable for comment.

While most of the former Craig gang are keeping tight-lipped, there is plenty of reason for them to bemoan his imminent departure.

There is no doubt that Craig’s fall from power is a loss for the gun lobby, according to Jade West, who was staff director of the Senate Republican Policy Committee when it was chaired by Craig.

“Larry has been the unqualified lead spokesman for the gun owners’ community in the Senate for years,” said West, now a senior vice president with the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. &dquo;The gun owners’ community is probably in mourning right now.”

“The bottom line is that Larry Craig was the NRA’s go-to guy in the Senate, and it’s a tremendous loss for them,” said Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center, an anti-gun group. In 2005, Craig pushed through a piece of legislation that gave gun manufacturers and dealers limited immunity from civil lawsuits. This had long been a top priority for the NRA.

Craig has also been supporting legislative language that said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms could not publicly release aggregate data it had collected about the sources of guns seized at crime scenes.

One industry lobbying group that would comment in detail on Craig’s record was the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Sen. Craig’s passion and interest in the civilian application of nuclear energy was of great help and great importance to the nuclear energy industry,” said Leslie Barbour, director of legislation programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Craig was a major supporter of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, which has been mired in controversy for decades. He also played a “vital” role in the 2005 energy bill, Barbour said, particularly in directing federal funds to the Idaho National Lab. On his Senate website, Craig claims he secured more than $2.2 billion for the lab, which specializes in nuclear research and is a storage facility for the Navy’s nuclear fuel waste.

Long identified with mining and timber, Craig promoted the clean air benefits of nuclear energy. “He was influential in his position in maintaining interest in the nuclear option,” said Barbour.

For his home-state interests, the loss of Craig will be felt deeply, especially in the state coffers. The three-term senator was a powerful member of the Appropriations Committee.

“He has played an important role in directing federal funds to Idaho,” said Jim Weatherby, an emeritus professor of public policy at Boise State University who has known Craig professionally since the 1960s. “It comes down to the earmarking process, being at the table when those decisions are being made.”

Weatherby said Craig was the standard-bearer for old-line resource exploitation industries, for which he was often criticized by environmental groups. The criticism that Craig represented a past generation is a legitimate one, he said, as in fact the largest private employer in Idaho today is the high-tech industry.

There is a younger generation of politicians ready to step into Craig’s shoes, said John Freemuth, a professor at Boise State University who specializes in natural resource issues.

Idaho Republicans Simpson and Sen. Mike Crapo could pick up the Craig mantle on Western issues, Freemuth said, although both have a more balanced approach to land exploitation and preservation than the 62-year-old senator. “They will both speak to the same interests Craig does, but they have been able to reach across the aisle and try to pass wilderness legislation.”

For now, Western industry lobbyists, the old Craig gang, are left waiting in a proverbial hideaway (most likely a steakhouse) for their new leader to arrive.

But it should be noted that not everybody in the Washington advocacy community shares the K Street crowd’s ambivalence about Craig’s unexpected ride off into the sunset.

“Just having him being taken off there and being replaced by almost anybody else would be a net gain for us. He’s been a black hole on public lands issues and energy issues for a long time,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s land protection program.

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