New oil industry lobbyist stands apart from pack

WASHINGTON — The oil industry’s new top lobbyist has an attribute that could give him an edge navigating the minefield of energy politics on Capitol Hill.

He’s a Democrat.

The political party sets Louis Finkel apart from an industry perceived as having fealty to Republicans, even as he leads the American Petroleum Institute’s grassroots, federal relations and advocacy programs.

Finkel, API’s new executive vice president, wears the political label like a badge of honor.

“I’m a Democrat; I always have been,” he said during a meeting Thursday with reporters. “I spent a lot of time on the Hill in Democratic politics, both in government service (and) working in campaigns.”

Finkel is quick to say that party membership shouldn’t change the way lawmakers approach energy policy, where historically the fault lines have been geographical, not political. “It’s about the issues; it’s not about partisanship,” he says.

And he stresses that the API will give money and support to Democrats as well as Republicans who have a track record backing the industry’s policy positions.

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Most immediately, that means the group has no plans for retreating from backing Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu or Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, two Democrats who are battling for reelection this November, even though Republican wins against them could help put the Senate in GOP hands next year.

“We need to be supportive of members on both sides of the aisle when they are supportive of our policy objectives,” Finkel said. “We’ve had an opportunity over a long window with both Landrieu and Begich to watch them and work with them and see how they are going to perform. They’ve been supportive and there’s no reason for us to not continue our support.”

Finkel has spent years focusing on food — not crude — as the executive vice president of government affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Finkel said he enjoyed working for “front-facing consumer companies” as the GMA’s top lobbyist — a role that also had him collaborating with First Lady Michelle Obama on efforts to curb childhood obesity.

But, Finkel said he missed the work he had done on energy issues from January 2007 to January 2011 working for the House Committee on Science and Technology and during a brief stint lobbying for Exxon Mobil in 2006.

He joins API at a time when the industry is eager to celebrate its success as a major contributor to the nation’s economic recovery but reeling from local government moves to ban drilling practices amid a surge in domestic oil and gas drilling.

“For me, there’s an element of excitement at being in the middle of . . . the energy renaissance,” Finkel said.

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Finkel is stepping into major policy battles over industry taxes, the Keystone XL pipeline and whether the U.S. should export more of its oil.

As he does, Finkel admits his status as a card-carrying Democrat could be an advantage.

“Clearly it’s easier for a Democrat to have a good dialogue with Democrats,” he said. “I have lots of friends on both sides of the aisle, but I’ve spent a lot of time working with friends that are still on the Hill, that are in this administration, and that would be in the next administration, Democrat or Republican.”

Other energy groups and firms have turned to Democrats to press their case in D.C.

For instance, former Democratic House aide Theresa Fariello now lobbies on behalf of Exxon Mobil Corp. In “Private Empire,” a book about the oil company, author Steve Coll dubs Fariello the company’s “chief in-house Democrat” and describes the central role she plays gathering political intelligence from Democrats and dealing with the party’s lawmakers. “More than any ExxonMobil executive, . . . she managed channels to Democratic lobbyists and allies during the Bush years,” Coll notes.

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Tesoro Corp.’s top D.C. representative, Stephen Brown, is another former Democratic Hill staffer, having once worked as an adviser to House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. It may give Brown a jolt of extra credibility as he canvasses Capitol Hill. “I am able to walk into Democratic offices on a fairly regular basis and have pretty candid conversations,” Brown acknowledged.

And Finkel’s predecessor at API, Marty Durbin, also has a history working for Democrats in Congress. Durbin, who is now leading America’s Natural Gas Alliance, previously served as a congressional aide to former Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia and former Sen. Alan Dixon of Illinois, both Democrats.