by Paul Heintz
There's no shortage of teachers, lawyers and retirees serving in the Vermont legislature. But just what would happen if one of Montpelier's top lobbyists — a co-owner and namesake of one of its most influential firms — were to join the Vermont Senate?
That's the question many in the Capitol are pondering as Gov. Peter Shumlin appears likely to appoint Michael Sirotkin to a vacant Chittenden County Senate seat.
As the widower of the late Sen. Sally Fox, whose seat he would fill, Sirotkin would, in many ways, be a natural pick. But as a contract lobbyist with a three-decade history of influencing his (potential) peers, his appointment could raise some novel questions.
Recognizing that, Sirotkin says that, if appointed, "I would be resigning from my practice immediately."
And he wouldn't simply serve out Fox's term in a caretaker role, then return to lobbying. If appointed, he says, "I would most likely run in 2014."
Nor would he remain an owner of Sirotkin & Necrason. "I would not seek to retain an interest in my firm," he says.
But even if he severed all ties with the lobby shop, would Sirotkin not feel some residual loyalty to his former partners and clients? Would it be difficult to make the transition?
"There would be some challenges. I think not as many as people would think," he says. "Of course, most of the people I've advocated for directly are grassroots kinds of interests, and those are the kinds of interests I'm most interested in."
Indeed, while there's been a fair amount of off-the-record tongue-wagging in the Statehouse since word spread of Sirotkin's interest in the seat, many point out that Sirotkin and his partners are generally regarded as "white hat" lobbyists. In other words, they're more likely to represent liberal advocacy groups than big bad corporations.
Rep. Tim Jerman (D-Essex Junction) — who initially sought Fox's seat, but who later dropped out and endorsed Sirotkin — addressed the matter in a speech to Chittenden County Democrats Wednesday night.
"One of the first things I heard was, 'You're putting into nomination the name of a lobbyist?' The terrible 'L' word," Jerman said. "Then you find out what Michael's lobbying job was and the causes he championed: LIHEAP, mental health, children's issues, elder issues — if we all go out for a drink afterwards tonight, no smoking in bars — that was Michael, and we all, I think, really like that law."
When asked who his biggest clients are, Sirotkin names the Community of Vermont Elders, Working Vermont, United Nurses and Allied Health Professionals, Vermont Troopers Association and Vermont Building and Construction Trades Council.
But Sirotkin's page-long entry in the secretary of state's book of registered lobbyists also includes a few commercial interests he represents, such as Comcast, Dominion Diagnostics and APS Healthcare. He's also represented a number of controversial advocacy groups, such as Gun Sense Vermont, Patient Choices Vermont, Renewable Energy Vermont and the Marijuana Policy Project.
How Sirotkin would deal with issues those groups hold dear is unclear. While Vermont's executive branch appointees must comply with the Executive Code of Ethics, members of the Senate must only comply with what's known as Rule 72, which states: "No senator shall be permitted to vote upon any question in which he or she is directly or immediately interested."
Sirotkin would hardly be the first contract lobbyist to move into the world of public policy. David Wilson, one of the top Vermont lobbyists of the 1990s, took a brief spin as former governor Howard Dean's secretary of administration — generating a bit of controversy in the process — before returning to his firm.
And in December 2010, half a year after retiring from the lobbying firm then known as Kimbell Sherman Ellis, veteran lobbyist Steve Kimbell was appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin as commissioner of what was then known as the Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities & Health Care Administration.
Kimbell, who left BISCHCA (now rechristened the Department of Financial Regulation) two years later, says his appointment to the post prompted him to sell his stake in the eponymous firm sooner than he had planned. When former clients came before the department, he says, he recused himself from the decision-making process.
Noting that the rules are different between the legislative and executive branches, Kimbell says of Sirotkin's transition, "I think it's perfectly doable, since it's all out in the open."
"I don't see a problem with it as long as the press and other observers do their job," he adds. "If people don't pay attention to what's going on, there can always be a problem with public officials, whoever it is."
Downs Rachlin Martin lobbyist John Hollar agrees.
"If Michael leaves his firm, I don't see any ethical limitations or problems," he says. "Michael and I have been loyal adversaries for a great many years. We've rarely been on the same side of an issue in the last 20 years, but I have nothing but respect for him. He's represented his clients with integrity, and he'd do the same for the constituents of Chittenden County."
Hollar knows a thing or two about balancing the lobbying life with that of public service. The longtime lobbyist was elected mayor of Montpelier in March 2012 and continues to wear both hats. He says he hasn't been confronted with any conflicts.
"I don't lobby on behalf of any clients at the local level," he says. "Clients I have in the legislature don't have any business in front of Montpelier. So it's generally straightforward for me."
Of course, Hollar's opponents don't always see it that way. When the city's planning and community development director, Gwendolyn Hallsmith, was fired last fall, she and her allies saw a connection between his work lobbying for commercial banks and her advocacy for public banking.
"It has been used as an effort to undermine me, but that was not a legitimate concern that was raised," Hollar says. "The issue that was raised was not one that I had lobbied on or one that was relevant in front of the City of Montpelier. It was sort of a red herring."
Avoiding conflicts of interest in Vermont politics is no easy task.
"Vermont's a small state and the whole conflict issue is tough because everybody knows everybody," says Andrew MacLean, a partner at MacLean, Meehan & Rice, a firm that represents largely commercial interests. "You just have to be careful and you have to handle yourself in a professional way."
"Michael was also married at one point to the chair of the [House] Appropriations Committee," Hollar notes, referring to Fox's earlier stint in state government. "This is a small state, and I think you have to take a common sense approach to things."
Says lobbyist Kevin Ellis, a former partner of Kimbell's and now a principal at Ellis Mills, "I think people who understand the role of government in society understand the need to wear one hat and then take that hat off and wear another hat. Because Michael's a lawyer, he gets that."
Sirotkin himself says it's premature to say what issues he'd champion if appointed to his late wife's seat, but he says he's most interested in doing what Fox would have done.
"I would very much like to continue Sally's efforts, which very much included speaking for people who didn't necessarily have a voice in the state or in the building," he says.
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