Banana Republicans

Craig Aaron

Moving to any new city can be disconcerting, but Washington seems farther away from Chicago than just 700 miles. It’s not just the local vernacular of “mark-ups” and “scoring,” all the ink spilled on obscure backbenchers and legislative minutiae, or even my stroll every morning past the young Stepford Republicrats heading for Capitol Hill in their brand new navy blazers.

I couldn’t pin down my uneasiness at first, though I certainly noticed the omnipresent concrete barriers outside government buildings, the blinking “Code Orange” warnings on the freeways, and the F-16 flybys that regularly rattle my windows. I won’t be the first to observe that Washington is starting to feel like the seat of a Latin American dictatorship. Not long ago, a line in The New Yorker captured this sentiment, comparing the United States to “a banana republic on a bad day.” Or maybe it’s just the humidity.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of outrage over the appointment of uber-lobbyist Ed Gillespie as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). After all, who’s better qualified to lead the GOP than a man who helped write the Contract With America and made millions as a corporate shill? When he’s rubber-stamped by the RNC in July, Gillespie will be given unrivaled access, influence, and opportunity to further the interests of his corporate benefactors and his own high-priced lobbying firm.

Gillespie, 41, is fond of describing his Horatio Alger-like rise from Senate parking-lot attendant to White House insider. After more than a decade on the staff of one-time House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and a previous stint at the RNC under Haley Barbour, Gillespie landed on K Street. In 2000, Gillespie set up his own lobbying shop with former Clinton White House Counsel Jack Quinn, who is perhaps best known for arranging the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. According to Public Citizen’s analysis of federal disclosure reports, Quinn, Gillespie & Associates raked in more than $27 million by the end of 2002.

Gillespie’s new position will make him an influence-peddler nonpareil. As the party’s chief fundraiser and spokesman, Gillespie will be charged with raising hundreds of millions for the 2004 elections and with helping determine which candidates will receive the money. In other words, he’ll hold the purse strings for the candidates his firm will be lobbying.

Few nongovernmental positions in American politics offer so much potential for corruption. As party chairman, Gillespie will be in constant contact with the White House and other GOP leaders, giving him the inside track on vote counts in Congress. His lobbying partners and clients would find such information invaluable. Why hire another lobbyist, when you can cut out the middleman and go straight to the decision-makers themselves?

Ricocheting between the roles of political strategist, corporate flack, and voluble pundit, Gillespie has demonstrated a disregard for the notion of conflict of interest throughout his career. In fact, capitalizing on those conflicts has made Gillespie a success.

When George W. Bush took office, Gillespie joined the transition team as the unpaid acting director of public affairs for the Commerce Department, helping incoming Secretary Don Evans choose new staff. After only 15 days with the new administration, Gillespie was back at work as a full-time lobbyist. And he didn’t hesitate to arrange meetings for his clients with the Commerce Department officials he helped hire.

Before its collapse in 2001, Enron paid Quinn Gillespie $700,000 to lobby against the regulation of Western electricity markets following the California power crisis. Describing Gillespie as the company’s “hired gun,” one ex-Enron employee later told the Washington Post, “Whenever we had to get in to see a Republican, the first call was to Gillespie.”

Gillespie regularly bounces between campaign work—most recently as an adviser to Elizabeth Dole’s 2002 North Carolina Senate bid—and pushing the interests of private corporations. Indeed, he has become adept at using corporate money to hype Bush’s political agenda. In 2001, he channeled $100,000 from Enron and DaimlerChrysler via two right-wing groups to the 21st Century Energy Project, an organization Gillespie himself directed. The project bought print and television ads “to counter enviro-leftist propaganda” and tout the administration’s energy plan.

Gillespie has continued to represent some of the country’s worst corporate scofflaws. Tyson Foods, the country’s largest meatpacker, paid $440,000 to Quinn Gillespie last year to help burnish the company’s image after federal charges were filed against it for conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country to work at its poultry plants. Quinn Gillespie also lobbied on “wage and hour issues,” namely a Labor Department lawsuit against Tyson for $300 million in back pay owed to its workers.

Gillespie has promised not to actively lobby while serving as party chief. And his conflicts of interest may seem minor compared to the larger outrages of the Bush junta. But when the media and the opposition party give a free pass to yet another Banana Republican, it only furthers the privatization of public service. Just business as usual? Call it the banality of corruption.

Portions of this article originally appeared in the report “Ed Gillespie: Embedded Lobbyist” (available in its entirety at www.citizen.org). The views expressed here are his alone.

Craig Aaron is senior pro­gram direc­tor of the nation­al media reform group Free Press and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times.
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