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Lobbyists Try Image Makeover

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Bring me your silk Armanis, your charcoal Hugo Bosses and your tailored Prada couture three-button suits.

The American League of Lobbyists is urging members to give the shirts, suits, belts and ties off their backs - literally - to try to improve their image with the public and help poor people who need presentable clothing for job interviews.

"Lobbyists have a ton of suits," said Dave Wenhold, a lobbyist with the National Court Reporters Association who came up with the idea. He expects the project will yield over 1,000 suits and more than 3,000 shirts, belts and other accessories.

"While the suit doesn't make the man, the first impressions always make the difference," he added.

The donations of "gently used" business attire are tax deductible and will be used by groups that provide clothing and grooming to low-income job seekers, the league says in a flier promoting the program. Collection day is July 14.

"You can help get Americans back to work!" the flier says. "This is your opportunity to give the shirt off your `rack' to help a fellow American secure their future."

Deanna Gelak, a lobbyist and league president, said the organization is redoubling its efforts this year, its 25th anniversary, to help the public understand the profession.

"The way to change cynicism is through sincere actions and that's what this is," she said.

The effort has drawn some snickers in Washington.

"Are they providing Gucci shoes? That's an interesting question," said Kent Cooper, co-founder of the Political Money Line campaign finance and lobbying tracking service. "Are reporters eligible for those suits?"

More than $1.8 billion was spent on lobbying last year in Washington, according to Political Money Line.

Roughly 2,900 organizations and 30,000 individuals are registered to lobby Congress and federal agencies. The American League of Lobbyists has about 600 members.

The stereotype of a typical lobbyist as an "old, cigar-smoking, briefcase-carrying, portly gentleman" no longer holds, Gelak said. Not all lobbyists are wealthy, she said.

"You have a whole host of policy experts across the spectrum in terms of issues and income levels representing diverse interests," Gelak said.

The clothing drive isn't the league's only step on the public relations front.

Earlier this year, the league sent a letter to several Democratic presidential candidates asking them to stop deriding Washington lobbyists and to accurately describe what it called a "necessary and essential part of the public policy process."

The league is participating in an annual basketball game against members of Congress in September that already has raised at least $120,000 for two children's charities, Gelak said.

Lobbyists are also pressing for broader access to the Capitol. They have been unable to enter the building without appointments since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the Pentagon and in New York.

By Sharon Theimer