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WASHINGTON — Jon Haber’s effort to transform the image of the nation’s leading group of plaintiff lawyers began, perhaps incongruously, in one of California’s golf and glitz capitals, Palm Springs. Haber, the incoming chief executive officer of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, was there last week to meet members, who are aching to fight back against years of Republican-led attacks on them as greedy, irresponsible threats to the nation’s economy and justice system. ATLA members are hoping Haber can use his years as a Democratic political strategist and corporate public relations executive at PR giant Fleishman-Hillard to derail the GOP’s legal reform agenda. “We want to get the truth of the message out to the American people, and Jon has the kind of talent that will help us do that,” says Todd Smith, a trial lawyer and president of ATLA. But after years of playing defense against the Republicans, the question may be whether ATLA has brought Haber into the game too late. To be sure, the organization has been a political powerhouse inside the Beltway, doling out millions in campaign contributions — almost all of it to Democrats. And tort reform backers acknowledge that Haber is a smart political operative. Yet the war to influence public opinion has been waged more effectively by the GOP and its corporate allies. President Bush has made tort reform a key plank of his political platform since his days as governor of Texas. And groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have spent tens of millions on public education campaigns aimed at convincing Joe Six-Pack that reforming the legal system matters. Even as ATLA met, GOP senators — joined by a few Democrats — were back in Washington advancing a bill to limit class actions. That legislation is expected to be the first in a series of legal reform measures to hit Congress this session. “Unfortunately, we’ve spent the last 10 years with our finger in the dike trying to hold back the tide,” says Fred Baron, a former ATLA president and head of Dallas-based plaintiffs firm Baron & Budd. “We’ve been playing more of an insider game and not spending the time and energy and money on public opinion.” He added: “The bottom line to it is that we have to get more aggressive.” For his part, Haber — who was named to the post Jan. 31 and officially starts his duties Monday — has yet to reveal how exactly he’ll fight ATLA’s battle. Grass-roots work is likely to be a key, as is outreach to members of Congress who may be wavering on lawsuit reform. But the war of words and the effort to reposition the debate has already started. “People who use neutral-sounding words like tort reform, what they are really asking for is taking away people’s rights,” Haber says. Yet he acknowledges that the Bush administration is coming to the battle with key advantages. “I think the president has enormous power to control debate. It’s hard for a minority party to stand up and make a point,” Haber says. “The biggest challenge is telling the story.” CAMPAIGN VETERAN This is the second time in the last 13 months that Haber has been brought in to help perform a political makeover. In January 2004, He was hired by Howard Dean’s sinking presidential campaign. His primary task was to shore up day-to-day management, and he helped Dean stay on message. It was the kind of thing Haber had done before. He is a campaign veteran who has worked on presidential bids by Democrats Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Richard Gephardt and Bill Clinton. Says Steve McMann, a Democratic strategist from the Dean campaign who has known Haber for 20 years: “When he would prepare a candidate for ‘Meet The Press’ or shows like that, the first thing he’d ask was ‘What are we trying to get out of this? What do we want our headline to be?’” Haber, of course, was too late to save Dean, and whatever advice he may have given the candidate about message was undone after Dean’s infamous scream that followed the Iowa Caucus. He had better luck with some of his corporate clients during his seven years at Fleishman-Hillard. Haber was head of the firm’s D.C. public relations division and handled a portfolio of clients that included Yahoo Inc., AOL Time Warner, SBC Communications Inc. and National Public Radio. Haber won’t reveal details about his work, citing client confidentiality. But Bill Black, a colleague of Haber’s from Fleishman, says Haber is “good at defining the motives and agenda of various combatants in any situation and drawing from that the best message. I think he’s able to do it having worked in so many different situations, each one being very political.” Indeed, even with a law degree from the University of San Francisco and a few years of general litigation practice under his belt, Haber has spent most of his career in Democratic politics and has deep ties to Capitol Hill. From 1989 to 1992, he served as counsel and communications director on the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.. Leahy is now ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee — ground zero for tort reform legislation. He also served briefly as chief of staff to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another Judiciary Committee member. Though he has liberal Democratic bona fides, Haber has corporate ties stemming from both his work at Fleishman and his two-year stint as special counsel to the Overseas Private Investment Corp. during the Clinton administration. That agency helps U.S. businesses invest abroad. Haber also spent two years prior to Fleishman at the Bozell Sawyer Miller Group, another D.C. public relations and political consulting firm that is now part of PR giant Weber Shadwick. Clients there included the Microsoft Corp. and the National Audubon Society. “People think PR is just flackery,” Haber says. “There are certain components of PR that are consumer marketing . . . but where I worked was where there are more complex issues.” REACHING OUT TO REPUBLICANS Haber’s politics are an obvious fit with those of ATLA’s core members. But they aren’t likely to win many fans among Republicans. For his part, though, Haber says he would like to reach out to the GOP. He says he worked closely with Republicans like Newt Gingrich, who is affiliated with Fleishman, and praises former Republican Sen. Bob Dole as “one of the greatest U.S. senators.” “I’d like more Republicans to be working with us,” Haber says. “We need to build bridges to the other side.” In recent years, ATLA has tried to reach across the aisle, creating a Republican caucus and attracting a handful of GOP allies in Congress. Yet, 92 percent of the organization’s political contributions went to Democrats in 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Democratic allegiance has, of course, made ATLA — and plaintiffs lawyers in general — attractive targets for Republicans. The attack on trial lawyers during John Edwards’ vice presidential bid last year is only one recent example. ATLA’s approach has been to fight inside Washington, something the organization has done since it first set up shop in the District in 1977 to fight against proposed bans on automobile liability lawsuits. And it has been effective for many years in beating back congressional tort reform efforts. Aside from its political contributions ($10.8 million since the 2000 presidential and congressional election cycle), it spends heavily on lobbying the Hill. In the first half of 2004 — the latest period for which data is available — ATLA spent more than $3.77 million on lobbying. The organization has its own in-house lobbying team, and it also employs such Beltway heavy-hitters as Patton Boggs, the Nueva Vista Group, and the Strategic Consulting Group to plead its case with members. But Bush’s appeal to the grass roots, heavy spending by tort reform advocates, and constant GOP attacks have changed the traditional political calculus. Tort reformers see an opportunity to exploit ATLA’s PR weaknesses and — with bigger GOP majorities in the House and Senate — a chance to get at least some of the agenda through the system. “They have had almost a 30-year happy ride where they could focus on one issue, but now they face medical liability, asbestos, class action,” says Victor Schwartz, a corporate defense lawyer who works with the Americans for Tort Reform Association. “They may need to consider doing something they haven’t done, which is to set priorities.” ATLA’s retiring CEO, Tom Henderson, acknowledges that “the challenges are greater” for the organization. Henderson, 65, stayed away from public battles and kept the 60,000-attorney organization focused on issues like member education. Last week’s conference in Palm Springs, for example, was largely dominated by such education sessions. They were geared toward the small-firm personal liability lawyers who make up the bulk of the association’s membership. But its members are aware that they are under fire and say the organization needs to fight back. “They have not defended the attack on the tort system, and they have not successfully gotten it off the trial lawyers, when in reality it should be about the victims of corporations and malpractice,” says John Coale, a D.C.-based trial attorney at Coale Cooley Lietz. Haber does have a few things going his way as he takes charge. Though the class action bill appears to be advancing quickly, medical malpractice and asbestos trust fund legislation is likely to have more difficulty — even among members of the GOP. And the issue isn’t at the top of the public’s list of priorities. Only 52 percent of respondents to a January poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press felt that the legal system was in need of major reform, and legal reform ranked significantly below other issues like health care and education. For now, though, ATLA officials say they are moving ahead on all fronts. Reached on his cell in Palm Springs, Haber — true to his PR background — puts on a positive spin. “I believe we will prevail in the long run,” Haber says. “I believe we will prevail because we’re right.” Emma Schwartz is a reporter with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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