Former McGuireWoods intern launches crowdfunded site for ‘regular people’ to hire lobbyists

By: - September 26, 2018 6:05 am

Capitol Square from the air. Photo by Ned Oliver.

Before Heidi Drauschak discovered the lobbying world, she felt like part of government was happening in the dark.

Then the University of Richmond School of Law graduate got an internship at McGuireWoods, one of the country’s biggest consulting and lobbying firms.

“I was blown away,” Drauschak said. “It was the lever I was looking for. We were writing legislation, talking to legislators, we were doing all the things I imagined doing when interacting with government.”

But Drauschak didn’t like all the clients she worked with. So she recently launched CrowdLobby, a site where users can suggest a legislative cause, crowdfund it and Drauschak and her team will hire a lobbyist to work on it.

“It has a democratic or populist feel we were looking for,” she said. “It’s just an amazing way to take an industry that already exists and change the client base.”

Heidi Drauschak, a former McGuireWoods intern, helped launched CrowdLobby.

Drauschak is working with fellow University of Richmond School of Law alumna, Samantha Biggio.

A lot of people outside of the political sphere may not see lobbying as an accessible resource to change policy, Drauschak said. It’s expensive and is most effective when it can be treated as a full-time job.

“We want to facilitate that, we want to make this a tool for everyday people,” she said.

CrowdLobby launched with eight campaigns: three at the federal level and five in Virginia.

Starting in Virginia was partially a logistical decision since the organization is based here. But Virginia is also special because of a revolving door of former lawmakers and state officials who become lobbyists, loose ethics laws and the power some companies — like Dominion Energy, the largest corporate donor in Virginia and major lobbyist employer — have by using those laws to their advantage.

“I don’t think someone like Dominion should be able to come in and basically buy our state legislature,” Drauschak said.

But CrowdLobby’s purpose isn’t to bring on ethical reform right now.

“The system is the way it is,” she said. “You have two options, you can fight the system and try to bring it down or you can work within the system.”

Lobbyists play an important role in any political system, said David Rehr, a professor of advocacy and strategic leadership at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Rehr has lobbied for beer wholesalers, small businesses and radio and TV broadcasters at the federal level.

“Lobbyists are providers of information,” Rehr said. “Lawmakers can’t know everything about everything.”

He thinks CrowdLobby could be successful if there’s a way to keep donors interested in the causes they fund. In his experience, it can take up to seven years to see legislative change on an issue.

In Virginia, current CrowdLobby campaigns include raising the minimum wage, decriminalizing marijuana, establishing an independent redistricting commission and raising the net-metering cap for solar energy producers.

The minimum wage issue is the most successful so far, with $1,405 raised toward its $50,000 goal. Drauschak and her staff estimated a lobbyist would cost about $30,000.

There are four more campaigns that have been submitted since launching, but they have to be approved first, Drauschak said.

CrowdLobby requires campaigns to call for specific legislative change and submit polling and public data indicating the change is favored by a majority of the people who would be affected.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.

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