WASHINGTON — Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is embracing his background as one of Washington's top lobbyists, saying his powers of persuasion would be an asset if he wins the White House.
But an Associated Press review of lobbying by the powerhouse firm Barbour helped found before his first campaign for governor shows that he represented clients on issues and interests that could provide his Republican primary opponents ample ammunition and raise eyebrows among some Republican voters. How Barbour addresses his lobbying past could determine his fate if he decides to seek the Republican nomination.
Barbour Griffith & Rogers Inc., which Barbour helped establish in 1991, represented foreign governments on trade and immigration issues, advocated for a fuel additives association that was working in opposition to the ethanol industry dear to Iowa voters, and helped a number of universities get federal funding through a tactic that is anathema to cut-spending conservatives.
The governor has said that rather than be fodder for opponents, his lobbying background would help him be an effective leader.
"When I became governor, I became lobbyist for the taxpayers of Mississippi. And if I become president, I'll become the advocate for the policies and interests of America. That's what presidents do for a living — very similar to what lobbyists do for a living," he told reporters Saturday in Roebuck, S.C.
Being a lobbyist has its rewards. Barbour's lobbying work gave him personal wealth, access to key members of Congress and contacts that could help him lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast in 2005, Barbour was credited with using his Washington ties to help Mississippi receive billions in federal aid. His economic development agenda helped bring a Toyota plant to Blue Springs, near Tupelo, and a Severstal steel facility to Columbus. He is visiting Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with Republican lawmakers on health care and Medicaid changes that he oversaw in Mississippi, as Congress wrestles this week with those issues.
Barbour served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 until January 1997 and then built an impressive list of clients at the firm, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, CBS, Comcast, Delta Air Lines, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft and Qwest Communications. When he was elected Mississippi governor in 2003, Barbour put his assets in a blind trust and has received monthly retirement or severance payments from the firm. Barbour's son, Reeves, joined the firm in January.
The governor's work at the firm could open him to attacks by fellow Republicans on several fronts:
— IMMIGRATION: His firm collected more than $400,000 in fees from the Mexican government in 2001-02 to lobby on immigration reforms sought by the Bush administration to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and expand a temporary worker program to allow immigrants to work in the U.S. The firm also lobbied on the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, border issues, drug trafficking and energy and environmental issues. Some conservative Republicans opposed the pathway to citizenship.
Lanny Griffith, now the firm's chief executive officer, told Mexican Ambassador Juan Jose Bremer in an Aug. 15, 2001, letter that "immigration/human capital" and the "treatment of Mexican citizens who cross the border" would be among the key areas covered by the contract. The firm said in an October 2001 filing with the government that it was seeking "enactment of legislation relating to the status of Mexican nationals currently residing in the United States."
"All resources of our firm will be available to you, but we have designated a team of professionals who will concentrate on your work. Haley Barbour and I will lead the BG&R team," Griffith wrote in the letter to Bremer, noting another lobbyist would manage the day-to-day workload.
Asked Saturday about the Mexican account, Barbour said, "In our firm, I didn't do the work for Mexico."
Efforts to change U.S. immigration laws stalled in Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
During that period, Barbour's firm also represented the Bolivian government on trade and counter-narcotics and Honduras on food assistance programs and immigration. Describing the Honduran account, the firm said in December 2002 it was monitoring "events with regard to U.S. immigration policy in Central America."
Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think tank, said through a spokeswoman that he only had a slight recollection of Barbour being part of the discussions and recalled Griffith being more involved.
Even if Barbour played a minor role in the immigration discussions, his firm's connection to Mexico could raise questions among conservatives who oppose efforts to ease immigration policies.
— ETHANOL: From 2000 to 2004, Barbour's firm received $860,000 in fees from the Oxygenated Fuels Association, a trade association that represented companies that produced fuel additives for gasoline, including methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE. The trade group was often at odds with the ethanol industry, a direct competitor in the oxygenated fuels market and a powerful force in Iowa, home of the nation's first presidential caucus.
In the 1990s, the federal government required a minimum level of oxygen in gasoline to help fuel burn more cleanly, prompting most refiners to use MTBE, although some used ethanol. Farm-state lawmakers tried to help bolster ethanol's use as an oxygenate but ran into opposition from oil interests and those representing MTBE.
In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency urged the phasing out of MTBE after it found that the additive could leak into ground water and pollute drinking water. Several states banned MTBE in gasoline.
During the period Barbour's firm represented the trade group, the fuels association often criticized the ethanol industry's federal subsidies and argued that using ethanol in reformulated gasoline would raise costs.
In 2000, the trade group pointed to a study by the Congressional Research Service that found using ethanol in reformulated gasoline would raise costs for motorists in Chicago and Milwaukee. David Liddle, an OFA spokesman at the time, said the study "proved conclusively that ethanol is not ready for prime time" as an additive in gasoline.
"The ethanol industry is fleecing the citizens of this country. Through its massive 54-cents-per-gallon federal subsidy, it has its hands in the taxpayers' pockets on the production end, and ... is siphoning money from the wallets of consumers at the pump," Liddle said in June 2000, a few months after Barbour's firm began representing the trade group.
MTBE manufacturers later sought product liability protection from lawsuits over drinking water contamination, a provision that failed to win approval in Congress. A 2005 energy law required the use of more ethanol and lifted an oxygenate requirement, prompting refiners to stop using MTBE as an additive.
It remains unclear whether the connections, now a decade old, will affect Barbour's standing with corn farmers who produce ethanol in Iowa. Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers, said they hoped "Gov. Barbour, after spending significant time in the state, appreciates the role ethanol and renewable energies can and must play in our nation's energy strategy."
— FEDERAL SPENDING: Barbour's firm lobbied on behalf of three universities, including the University of Mississippi, his alma mater, helping secure tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.
The projects included $850,000 for educational programs and the preservation of Rowan Oak, the Oxford, Miss., home of author William Faulkner; $500,000 to train workers on real-time captioning for the hearing-impaired; $350,000 to digitize accounting periodicals at a University of Mississippi library; and nearly $3 million to create an economic development center at the University of Southern Mississippi. The center, which was named after former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, opened in 2010.
Tea party activists, a key bloc in the GOP, have railed against using tax dollars for pork barrel projects. While the money was ultimately approved by Congress, Barbour could face questions over his commitment to cutting federal spending.
Other former clients could pose tripwires. Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove assailed Barbour's ties to the tobacco industry during their 2003 gubernatorial campaign. Barbour's firm received more than $2 million in fees from tobacco companies from 1999-2002, according to lobbying filings, but Barbour was able to overcome the criticism to win the 2003 race with 53 percent and cruise to re-election four years later. The tobacco connection probably would become fodder in the general election if Barbour wins the GOP nomination next year.
John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who has studied presidential politics, said that while Barbour's lobbying past might be a negative with some voters, he could use it as a way to show his understanding of policy and governing. "He can't hide from his record. He has to make it an asset."
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in Roebuck, S.C., contributed to this report.