Connecticut’s new DC lobbyist plans to ‘ramp up’ state’s presence

WASHINGTON–The state of Connecticut has had a lobbyist in Washington for years. But she hasn’t exactly had a high-profile on Capitol Hill.

“I very briefly met a woman who was [former Gov. Jodi] Rell’s person, but I never got to know her at all,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District. “There was very little interaction between the delegation and [Connecticut’s Washington] office.”

Gov. Dannel Malloy hopes to change that. On Wednesday, he tapped a new advocate to head the state’s D.C. office, Dan DeSimone. In an interview, the 40-year-old Washington native said he has a very clear mandate from Connecticut’s governor.

“One is to really ramp up the operations of the Washington office,” DeSimone said, “to have the presence of the Washington office working not just with the delegation, but with congressional leadership and especially with the Administration.”

The goal, he said, is “to really make sure that Connecticut, as a donor state, begins to close that gap” between what its residents pay in federal taxes and what the state gets back in federal aid.

Malloy said in his announcement that DeSimone, whose salary will be $105,000, has the right mix of professional experience and political know-how for the job. “His expertise will help Connecticut aggressively re-position itself and ensure we are taking every opportunity to make Connecticut strong again,” he said.

Malloy’s office has signaled that for now, DeSimone will be a one-man operation. But they’ve left open the possibility of hiring outside firms to help with targeted advocacy efforts, DeSimone said.

He will officially start on March 14, working from Connecticut’s current D.C. office, just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. He comes to the job well-versed in state-federal advocacy, as he spent the last two years heading the state of Oregon’s Washington office.

In that job, he worked on everything from the stimulus bill to transportation issues, trying to make sure Oregon benefited, in terms of policy and dollars, from decisions made in Washington.

DeSimone, a rail-thin father of three (including a 2 ½ week old baby), has politics in his DNA. His mother was a former aide to Sen. Paul Douglas, the Illinois Democrat and civil-rights crusader. His father, Daniel V. DeSimone, led the federal Office of Invention and Innovation, and authored the 1971 report calling on the U.S. to move to the metric system.

The youngest of three, Dan DeSimone said he’s the only one of his siblings who caught the political “bug” from his parents and stayed in Washington. Just out of college, he took a low-level job as a congressional aide with then-Rep. Jill Long, a Democrat from Indiana, and eventually became her legislative aide for budget, tax, and other issues.

Long was swept out in the 1994 Republican revolution, and DeSimone too. He’s worked in a variety of political and policy jobs since, including a stint as the top lobbyist for the National Association for State Treasurers.

But it’s his job as Oregon’s lobbyist that has the most relevance now as he prepares to work for Malloy’s office. DeSimone noted that the congressional delegations are similar–small and almost all Democratic.

To be sure, his biggest challenge will probably not be learning a new region or new political faces.

“It’s the economic climate,” said Julie Williams, the current director of Connecticut’s Washington office. Williams, hired eight years ago by then-Gov. John Rowland, is now winding down her tenure.

She defended the state’s Washington advocacy efforts under the previous GOP governors. She said Rell just had “different priorities” in Washington than Malloy, who she said wants to be “really aggressive” when it comes to federal funding.

Williams said the crop of new governors elected last year seem to be divided into two camps when it comes to Washington: those who are pulling away and even rejecting federal funds, and those who are doubling their efforts to get their piece of a shrinking pie.

Malloy falls into the latter camp. “I will not hide the fact that I intend to be a player in Washington in these very difficult times,” Malloy said last week during a visit to D.C. for a meeting of the National Governors’ Association. “I hope to have people scouring every part of the budget to see where we can get money.”

He’s taking that stance even as the main focus in Congress is on cutting the federal budget, with aid to states a key target. Plus, lawmakers in both chambers have sworn off earmarks, the special funding provisions that allow lawmakers to channel federal dollars to home-state projects.

“The environment’s going to be ugly, but we should still fight for our share,” said Himes.

Himes and others in the delegation said they were cheered by Malloy’s aggressive approach.

“I’ve met more times with Dan Malloy in two months than I did with the previous governor in 4 years,” said Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. “I’m ecstatic at the focus that Governor Malloy has put on selling Connecticut in Washington.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said it was “very realistic” for Malloy to try to get more money from Washington despite the fiscal belt-tightening.

“It’s true that this is a time of retrenchment and control of the Congress is now divided,” Courtney said. “But that doesn’t mean that individual programs’ spending decisions still don’t have a lot of latitude… So I think it would be a mistake to view this place as closed for business.”

DeSimone said there’s no question that a key part of his job will be making Connecticut’s case with the Executive Branch, seeking grant opportunities and the like. In Congress, he conceded, “it’s going to be a lot of defense.”