The Truths of Success
Lobbyist Clint Cullison's competitive spirit,
thirst for learning, and ability to hear and tell "the brutal truth" help him to negotiate the political landscape of Pennsylvania's Capitol.
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel, except as credited.
Clint Cullison walks tall, embodying an air of authority and affability as he traverses the iconic rotundas and bustling hallways of the Pennsylvania Capitol, greeting colleagues and ranking legislators along the way.
"Everyone in our firm agrees you have to have a Type A personality," said Cullison, six years into a young career as a Harrisburg lobbyist.
That is, success relies – in part – on a personality that can see a "no" as a starting point to a conversation.
"'No' is not an objection; it's an obstacle," Cullison said. It is a natural starting answer to a question one does not fully understand. "Sometimes it's a visceral reaction, not a logical one. Sometimes it's a loyalty reaction."
As a lobbyist, it is Cullison's job to bring facts to legislators that will help them understand the benefit or detriment of proposed legislation to his clients and their constituencies.
Men and women like him have held an important role in legislating since the U.S. government's founding.
"Lobbyists serve as conduits for information," Cullison explained. "Legislators make policy decisions on a very wide range of subjects. Obviously, it would be impossible for them to become experts on all subjects. That is where we come in."
"It all goes back to honesty."
Cullison works on issues of liquor control and food safety for the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association; gambling-related issues for Harrah's; police issues for the Fraternal Order of Police, Pennsylvania State Lodge; and a host of issues for such other clients as Dauphin County government, the Hershey Entertainment Co., and Range Resources.
There's no doubt that public skepticism of the profession is common, and Cullison said the key to protecting one's integrity and the key to success are the same.
"We have a mantra here: 'The Brutal Truth,'" he said. "If you tell the truth, you never have to worry about your integrity. Lobbyists who lie their way through issues do both themselves and their clients a disservice.
"A good lobbyist is a steward of their clients' reputations. By carrying yourself responsibly – even when you don't think anyone is looking – you do a great service to yourself as a lobbyist and your clients as a whole."
A good lobbyist, in turn, becomes a resource for legislators.
"Through working with lobbyists, legislators – usually – quickly determine who is providing them with good information and who is not," Cullison said. "When future questions come up, legislators know who to turn to in order to help get them the best information so they can make informed decisions."
When the state General Assembly is in session, much of Cullison's day is spent in the Capitol, meeting with legislators and their staff to advance his clients' positions.
"A lot of time is spent on the phone, running back and forth from office to office, talking through the issues that are out there," he said.
When the legislature is not in session, Cullison travels to his clients, who tell him what their expectations are while he, in turn, apprises them of the political landscape.
"Clients are looking for one of three things," Cullison said.
One of those is to initiate legislation and get it passed. The others are to change or kill legislation proposed by others.
"I constantly monitor legislation being filed," Cullison said. "I take it to the client and say, 'This looks like it is going to impact you.' Then I work to support its passage or kill it in its tracks."
That is where a number of Cullison's gifts come into play: keen observation, clear communication, a positive demeanor and an innate sense of competitiveness that help him to maneuver what he likens to a living chess match.
He also recommends "an ability to hear what a person is telling you and not just what they are saying."
"What matters are the 'Ayes' and 'Nays.' Hearing someone tell you something and having that person actually do something are entirely different matters," he said. "The 'yes,' 'no,' 'maybe' are words you hear in conversation. 'Ayes' and 'Nays' are actions in committee meetings and on the floor. The ultimate goal is to get the desired 'Ayes' or 'Nays,' depending on what you are advocating for."
At its heart, Cullison said, the government's decision-makers are generally trying to do what they see as the most good for their constituents and the citizens of Pennsylvania as a whole.
"It all goes back to honesty," he said. "Start with an issue and a member. Explain to them the benefit or detriment of the issue in terms they can understand and relate with. The idea is to arm them with enough facts that they come around to understanding your point of view and acting on it."
And when a legislator won't be swayed?
"When you realize that someone is so committed to the issue that they cannot be moved, you regroup, restrategize and move on," Cullison said. "Lawmaking is a game of numbers. It takes 102 plus 26 plus one to make anything happen."
That is, any Pennsylvania bill requires 102 House votes, 26 Senate votes and the governor to become law.
In trying to rack up the support needed for the state to pass or kill a bill, lobbyists should master yet another skill, Cullison said. They should be able to manage their time, as they balance keeping up with legislators when the General Assembly is in session with performing research to provide expertise on the issues those legislators are discussing. The number of tasks can lead to long days, especially given the unprecedented turnover in the Pennsylvania legislature in the past six years.
"If you are up on 'the Hill' meeting new members, you cannot be composing talking points on an issue. If you are back in the office learning about subject matter, you cannot be attending hearings on legislation," Cullison said.
Sometimes lobbyists who have spent more time in the business have prior knowledge or relationships that can allow them to lessen their time commitment to the job, but meeting new people and digging into new topics are part of what gives Cullison pleasure in his work.
"I'm in no hurry to shorten my days at the office, enjoying what I do too much," he said. "Hopefully I will never stop learning or meeting new people."
He sees a long career ahead of him. The 2004 business administration: marketing graduate is young for his position. While many lobbyists enter the field after years of government experience, he took an internship with the 30-year-old firm Greenlee Partners just out of college.
"It's a very atypical way to get into the business," he said.
Indeed, he was not particularly interested in politics before applying for the internship. When pursuing his bachelor's degree in marketing, he had visions of the typical career path, working in advertising and project management.
When he learned that Greenlee Partners was looking for a part-time intern, he was sold on the firm's extensive list of clients, seeing an opportunity to make connections with potential future employers.
He landed an interview, all the while thinking, "I don't know what lobbying is; I don't know who my state senator is." But he knew he would have to find out – quickly. "It's the kind of thing you're looking up on the Internet as you're heading to the interview," he kidded.
But Cullison learns quickly, and he nabbed not only the internship, but a full-time job offer at its conclusion. This year, he was named a senior associate.
"I absolutely love it," he said. "I've been learning a lot about the political process."
That process includes learning to navigate the sometimes-tricky dynamic of working alongside so many personalities pursuing varied interests in the Capitol. "Sometimes you have to pester people; sometimes you have to hide," he said.
But friendships frequently form beyond the issue of the day.
"You can spend all day in the building trying to outmaneuver the other person. ... Then, at the end of the day, you go out to dinner."