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A New Way of Access

Law students launch crowd-funded lobbying project

access_mainFour University of Richmond law students think they have a better idea for giving ordinary citizens their own voice at the state cap­itol.

The quartet has launched a project that uses crowd funding to finance lob­bying efforts on selected issues. Their CrowdLobby website is already gener­ating money for six lobbying campaigns, but time will tell whether the idea gains enough traction to make a difference, and a profit.

Two professional lobbyists approached by the organizers say CrowdLobby is an intriguing and promising idea.

“I think it’s got a ton of potential,” said Alexander M. Macauley of Richmond.

Grassroots money

CrowdLobby LLC claims its newborn website “allows anyone to fund pub­lic-interest lobbying efforts through a crowdfunding model, giving people an entirely new way to access the political process.”

The idea is that money raised for spe­cific causes on the website is paid to pro­fessional lobbyists who then advocate with politicians. The organization takes a cut to finance its operation.

CrowdLobby president Heidi Draus­chak says the organization is not a polit­ical action committee and will not sup port specific candidates.

Drauschak is joined by fellow Rich­mond 3Ls Dillon Clair, Samantha Big­gio and Sam Garrison in the start-up. Drauschak and Clair interned at Mc­GuireWoods Consulting during the 2017 legislative session. Garrison was an intern there this summer. All four have some ex­perience in politics or the lobbying world, Drauschak said.

Drauschak said her experience high­lighted the influence of lobbyists and how relatively minor interventions – like the right bit of information at the right time – can swing a legislative decision.

“These legislators are voting on two to three thousand bills a session,” she said. “A lot of these issues, it’s not very clear what they’re voting on.”

She came away thinking about apply­ing the crowdfunding concept to lobbying: “This is a good idea. I don’t know why any­one isn’t doing this,” she thought. Assem­bling a team, she formed the company at the end of March and spent two months working on administrative details. A “friends-and-family” version of the web­site previewed in June and the full public site debuted in July.

Six issues

CrowdLobby now has six issues on the website for funding, most coming from a liberal viewpoint:

l Education discipline reform,

l Prisoner rehabilitation,

l Juvenile justice,

l Cannabis reform,

l Clean energy and

l Streamlined tax preparation.

The cannabis initiative took an early lead in funding, with a single donation of $100, according to the website. Education, prisoner rehabilitation and clean energy garnered $85 each, representing three contributions each.

Drauschak said she hopes the organi­zation can take the lead when many dif­ferent groups and organizations want to advocate on a particular issue. Her pitch: “Instead of 15 separate campaigns, use us to be your targeted political action cam­paign.”

Drauschak said her business could fund white papers, educational seminars and perhaps even podcasts to get the word out on selected issues.

“We want to act as an educational force,” Drauschak said.

The CrowdLobby organizers won’t do any of the actual lobbying themselves, Drauschak explained. They plan to out­source the work to established lobby shops.

“We are a potential big client if this takes off,” she said, adding that most of the lobby shops are receptive. She said she’s found lobby firms to handle all of the issues so far.

Drauschak said the attitude of lobbyists is, “We’re interested. Prove your model to us and we’ll be interested in working with you.

“I think what Heidi is doing is very in­novative. I think she’s certainly on the cutting edge,” said Guy Rohling with Washington lobby shop Albers & Co.

Perception challenge

Rohling said he has encouraged Drauschak not to make her adopted is­sues “too partisan.”

Richmond’s Macauley thinks the crowd­funding idea has possibility.

“I think a lot of other endeavors are be­ing funded by crowd funding, and I don’t know why lobbying could not work,” said Macauley, who represents medical and oth­er businesses in his government relations practice.

“Their enthusiasm and energy is pret­ty impressive,” he said, adding, “I think they’re pretty savvy about how the system works.”

Drauschak admits the challenge is ex­plaining the role of lobbying. She said she’s been talking to people “who have no idea what lobbying is and why they should care.”

Macauley agreed the biggest challenge could be the public perception of lobbyists.

“Sophisticated people know lobbying’s great value in terms of passing bills,” Ma­cauley said. For CrowdLobby to succeed, however, “You’ve got to convince a lot of people that paying lobbyists is a good idea.”

Testing the outcome also might be diffi­cult, Drauschak acknowledges.

“I think there’s a certain amount of ambi­guity in the lobbying process,” she said. “I’m not sure we can identify specific results.”

The goal is to counter unbalanced influ­ence from moneyed lobbyists representing business interests.

“We just want to give people the same opportunity to have that same kind of in­fluence,” Drauschak said.

Updated Aug. 8 to add a link to the CrowdLobby website.