Legislators Come and Go, but Influential Lobbyists Endure

Posted on April 28, 2011

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Alec Hansen of the Montana League of Cities and Towns (Photo by Miranda Dalpiaz)

For three decades, Alec Hansen has represented Montana’s cities and towns with energy and wit

By MIRANDA DALPIAZ

It is noon at the Capitol, and the hallways are jammed with people scrambling to get the attention of legislators on their way to lunch. Outside the House chamber, Alec Hansen calmly takes it all in. After 30 years at the Legislature, the chief lobbyist for Montana’s cities and towns doesn’t need to chase down legislators. They usually come to him.

Hansen is easy to spot, with his white hair and bushy mustache, and with his uniform of khaki slacks, navy sports coat and brown leather boat shoes. After a while, a tall, heavy man with a flat top crew cut spots Hansen and works his way through the crowd. They meet and embrace in a bear hug.

When they finally break, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester lets the cluster of staffers and onlookers know that most people are wrong in thinking that he lost three fingers in a childhood accident with a meat grinder. The truth, he says, is that his friend, Hansen, took a finger every time Tester voted against cities in the Legislature. The group erupts in laughter.

In a blink, Tester is off to the next appointment, and Hansen resumes his post on a bench in the hallway. Legislators come and go, but influential lobbyists stick around.

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Hansen, 70, was working the Capitol’s hallways long before Tester was even a state senator. His job representing scores of municipalities for Montana’s League of Cities and Towns began in 1981, but he learned his politics in Butte, America. It was how everyone got ahead, or at least a fair shake.

And it was everywhere – in the streets, at the dinner table, and in the stories his Irish-Catholic grandmother used to tell him.  A portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt hung on the wall, next to one of the pope. But there was no question of which man she favored. ”Roosevelt is a heck of a lot closer to God than the Pope,” she would say.

As a child of the 60s, Hansen idolized the Kennedy brothers and what they stood for. “I thought Jack Kennedy – you can imagine being 19-years-old, and being from Butte and being half-Irish – was the greatest guy that ever lived and I still do,” Hansen says. “Hell, I got a picture in my office of Bobby Kennedy delivering a speech on the steps of the Miners Union Hall in Butte in 1966. It is one of my prized possessions.”

Hansen was drafted that year. He was in Vietnam two years later when Bobby was shot. He says he felt the ground fall out from under him and remembers thinking, “Christ, I am never going to get out of the Navy now.” But he did, and came home to Butte, where he worked briefly as a newspaperman, covering sports, cops and late night events. But when Democratic Gov. Forrest Anderson offered him a staff job working with the press, Hansen jumped.

The timing was right. Montana’s politics were changing, and Hansen was right in the middle, witnessing the drafting of the new constitution and closely following its provisions granting Montana cities more control over their own destinies.

Inspired by Anderson and transfixed by politics, Hansen had found his element. His next leap to the League of Cities and Towns and lobbying was a short one.

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In Montana, lobbying is a part-time job because the Legislature meets for its 90-day sessions every other year. Hansen works for the League year-round, but when the Legislature is in session, you’ll find him moving from bench to bench throughout the Capitol, fielding questions from legislators, staffers and even other lobbyists on the complexities of local government.

From land use to landfills, from annexations to mill levies, few people know local government the way he does, and that’s a fact, not a boast. “If they have a question about cities and towns, they will come and ask me,” he says.

Republicans ask, and so do Democrats. It’s his expertise they need, not his political philosophy, which they can easily guess from his Butte past. They come for institutional history, which is in shorter supply these days, thanks to the turnover caused by term limits.

But the true mark of Hansen’s influence is that when he testifies on a bill, everyone listens, says Sen. Jon Sonju, a Kalispell Republican who chairs the Senate Local Government Committee.

“Whether he is a proponent or an opponent, I think it is important to know the history and the knowledge that he has about the issues,” Sonju says.

But effective lobbying is also about style, and Hansen’s talent for cutting the tension with humor and his ability to make friends may be the real keys to his influence and longevity. “He is always quick with a joke and good story, and he makes people smile, and sometimes that is in short supply around the legislative process,” says Mike Kadas, a former legislator and Missoula mayor.

Thomas Schneider, who represents public employees at the Legislature, has been lobbying for 55 years, two decades longer than Hansen. He credits much of his and Hansen’s effectiveness to their ability to shake hands with an opponent at the end of the day. That and their ability to build trust with legislators.

“It didn’t take them too long to know who to go to and who to trust,” Schneider says.  “I like to think they trusted me, and I know they trusted Alec.”

Trust also comes from representing your clients ethically, which may raise eyebrows, considering the timeless stereotypes of lobbyists as smooth-talkers who wine and dine their way to success.

In Montana, that image is rooted in memories of Anaconda Company’s notorious “watering holes” for legislators in the Placer Hotel, and it lingers. Gov. Brian Schweitzer took a jab at legislator-lobbyist boozing early this session.

But Hansen says the Anaconda days are long gone. As a representative of publicly funded clients, he says he doesn’t’ believe in buying 16-ounce steaks and bottles of Merlot with taxpayer dollars. That, and he is famously cheap.

“If I am going to buy dinner, I am buying out of my own pocket,” he says. “And that would get real old real quick, because no one ever got rich working for the government.”

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Most lobbying is mundane, and the issues that Hansen chases – zoning and annexation laws, property tax policy, and funding for streets, water systems, fire departments and police – rarely make headlines. But they matter. Montana may think of itself as a rural state, but most of its residents live in cities and towns, and their numbers are growing.

Hansen beams when he talks about his cities, and he is eager to explain their needs. This session he has battled to protect police officers from being personally sued for actions they take on the job. He backed the city of Missoula’s right to enact it’s own ordinance to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression.

Those are just two of dozens of bills affecting local governments that come and go every session. You win some, you lose some. For decades Hansen has pleaded with legislators to give cities and towns more control over their destinies by granting them the option of establishing their own taxes, with the approval of local voters. So far, state lawmakers have jealously guarded that power.

Meanwhile, another legislative session has come and gone. Each is an endurance test in which legislators, officials and lobbyists try to cram two years’ work into less than four months. Hansen has learned to pace himself, but he says he still manages to testify about 200 times and track more than 100 bills each session.

He is unsure if he will be back for more in 2013. If he does, it will be because he loves the game, cares about the issues and, perhaps most of all, likes his bosses: scores of mayors from cities big and small. Many are as much fixtures in their hometowns as Hansen is at the Capitol.

“This is the greatest job in the world because you can’t be a mayor in small-town Montana and a knucklehead at the same time,” he says. “They will run you down the road. “

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