GOP Senate candidate Norton goes on the record: ‘I’ve not been a lobbyist’

In an interview with a Colorado Springs radio talk show host Tuesday, former lieutenant governor and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Jane Norton said she has never worked as a lobbyist. She was responding to callers looking to feel out her conservative credentials.

jane norton

“On the lobbyist thing, I’ve not been a lobbyist,” she said.

It was the kind of clear if undeveloped answer campaign observers have been seeking for months. Indeed, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has been doggedly monitoring Norton appearances this winter, sent out a release Thursday mocking Norton’s assertion as a “bogus claim” and arguing that the candidate was running from her work as a lobbyist to “curry favor from the far-right anti-establishment Tea Party crowd or because she doesn’t want Coloradans to know the real reason she is opposing health care reform.”

Asked Thursday whether the campaign was standing by the claim, Norton spokesman Nate Strauch emailed a statement to the Colorado Independent that will fail to satisfy skeptics.

“During Mrs. Norton’s tenure at [Medical Group Management Association], she worked to monitor healthcare reform proposals across the nation on behalf of the organization’s members. She has never been a registered lobbyist.”

The matter of registration

Interest in Norton’s work history is fueled partly by her murky communications on the issue and partly due to the context of her candidacy.

Norton announced her campaign in September, in the immediate aftermath of the fractious August health reform town halls, where industry lobbyists and front groups worked hard to steer debate. In the months since, concerns over the power of special interests in the lawmaking process have only grown. As cable news has come to point out, 2009 was a banner year in spending for special interests. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that, one way or another, $3.2 billion washed through lawmakers coffers over the past twelve months.

Upon news of a likely Norton candidacy, liberal advocacy group ProgressNow raised questions on the years she spent at MGMA navigating the intersection where the government and the health industry meet.

“We call on Jane Norton to immediately come clean on her work history in ‘Government Relations’ for the for-profit health care industry,” founder and CEO Michael Huttner was quoted to say in a release the week Norton announced her candidacy. “We also question why Norton did not register as a lobbyist when she was head of ‘Government Relations’ for a for-profit health industry lobbying organization. We want to know the full extent of Norton’s lobbying and whether she failed to comply with the law.”

As the campaign now says, Norton has never been a registered lobbyist.

But as the Colorado Independent reported in September, from 1994 to 1999, Norton headed the lobbying department of Englewood-based MGMA, “the principle voice for the medical practice association.” Norton was the executive director of the Office of State Government Relations and the Office of Strategic Relationships.

Directly after her tenure at MGMA, Norton was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens to head the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, a position in which she oversaw multiple state “planning groups” that engineered health coverage across Colorado, this time being paid by tax payers to work as the “principle voice” for health-care consumers.

MGMA confirmed to the Colorado Independent at the time that Norton headed the association’s lobbying department. “Yes, this is the lobbying arm of the organization,” a spokesperson at the Department of Government Affairs said. Human Resources staffer Jenny Morales said that the group Norton headed used to be called the Office of Strategic Relationships and is now simply called the Department of Government Affairs. “Ms. Norton held a number of positions at MGMA. One of which was Director of Government Policy in 1994. When she left the Association, her job title was Executive Director Strategic Relations.”

Family ties plus

In the talk-radio interview Tuesday, Norton laughed at the notion raised by a caller that her husband was a lobbyist. He is not. But her sister, Judy Black, is a lobbyist, and Norton’s ties to national big-money lobbyists are well reported.

Judy Black’s clients include companies in the finance, health care and oil and gas industries. Norton’s brother-in-law, Charlie Black, worked for tobacco, oil, and drug companies for decades, moving back and forth between leadership positions at lobbying firms and Republican political campaigns and organizations. Judy Black was national co-chair of the 2008 fundraising group “Women for McCain.” Charlie left the firm BKSH & Associates the same year to work as senior adviser for the McCain campaign.

Norton’s third quarter campaign finance disclosure forms listed eleven top national lobbyists among her donors, notable not least for the fact that some of them have been the source of ethics scandals and the targets of investigation.

The list included Alex Castellanos, for example, a CNN contributor who was exposed last year as an anti-reform pitchman, paid by the Republican Party and the insurance industry to mouth analysis and opinions in line with industry wishes.

Norton donor Rick Davis was a lobbyist for telecommunications companies COMSAT and SBC Communication as well as John McCain’s campaign manager in 2000. He was called out by the Center for Public Integrity at the time, for a conflict of interest when it was discovered that McCain, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was helping decide the legality of mergers on the part of COMSAT and SBC.

The interview

Norton called into KVOR’s Richard Randall show January 26 and spoke for about ten minutes. She enters the clip below at 36:45. She answers the question on whether she has ever been a lobbyist at 48:10.

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Other highlights from the interview:

“As I understand it,” she said, Gov. Ritter appointed Michael Bennet to the Senate to create a “Ted Kennedy kind of dynasty” because Bennet is “young and will be there forever.”

She estimated the campaign would spend $8 million to $10 million dollars before Election Day.

She said she differs from her primary opponents Ken Buck and Tom Wiens because she’s “not a guy” and “not an Ivy League lawyer” and because of her experience, primarily her work in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Health and Human Services. “To have the health care background is very very important.”

She said she is receiving major endorsements from Colorado politicians like Josh Penry, Bill Owens and Hank Brown because she’s a true conservative. “I am pro-life,” she explained. “As lieutenant governor, I defunded Planned Parenthood.”

She explained her vote in favor of the Colorado Referendum C tax increases, referencing the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. “Referendum C was TABOR in action. I was part of an administration that cut taxes 43 times…. But when revenues fell by 17 percent and we instituted across the board spending cuts, froze capital expenditures– all the things the governor knew would be important to get our budget on track and balanced, he decided to go to a vote of the people, and that’s the beauty of Ref C: It allows you to do that. So the people spoke on that… I’m a strong supporter of TABOR… unlike what’s happening with Gov. Ritter in circumventing the people’s will.”

On “the lobbyist thing,” she said, “I’ve not been a lobbyist nor is my husband a lobbyist. He is a lawyer, like many of the guys in this race, but he’s not running.”

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