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GAFFNEY, S.C. — Charles Deal’s television screen is fading to black next year, and he’s got a pretty clear idea of who knocked out his signal — Washington lobbyists. “Just recently, they passed the law about the digital TV,” Deal says. “Now, senior citizens have to go out and get new TVs” or converter boxes, which Deal, a 69-year-old retiree from Gaffney, will need for all three of his sets. “I’m not for the lobbyists,” he says. “I think they have too much influence when it comes to getting something passed.” Attention, K Street: The vote is in, and you’re more unpopular than ever. We traveled last week to South Carolina just to see how much impact all of the anti-lobbying campaign rhetoric from across the political spectrum is having on people’s perceptions of lobbying. No surprise here: The audience is receptive to the attacks — and their feelings about Washington, D.C., in general, and the lobbying community in particular, are almost uniformly negative. Take Allison Mims, a 19-year-old from Columbia, who was waiting after a Barack Obama event at Winthrop University in Rock Hill last week to get the candidate’s autograph. Mims says she’s not exactly sure what lobbyists do, and she suspects politicians may be using them as a convenient scapegoat. But all of the campaign rhetoric has convinced her that they are up to no good. “Lobbyists, to me, they’re just all for themselves,” she says, adding, “That’s the only impression I have of them. I don’t know what they do.” Asked how she pictures lobbyists, Mims says she sees a big meeting, maybe one that includes the president, members of Congress, and other government officials. Someone proposes a policy, she says, and “these lobbyists, they’re just like, �No. We won’t agree with that.’” And because they’re in the room when the decisions are getting made, she says, people listen. Clearly, there’s a lot of confusion about what K Street does. Some voters simply don’t get it; others simply don’t like it. Whatever the case, there’s a strange dichotomy at play here: Washington lobbyists are some of the most adept professionals in the world at crafting messages that will help sell an issue or create an image. But they have a long way to go when it comes to selling themselves to the public. And this year, it’s a fact that’s making them Beltway boogeymen on the campaign trail. PLANE TICKETS AND VACATIONS Deal and his wife are supporters of John Edwards. They came out on a raw, foggy night last week to attend his rally at tiny Limestone College in Gaffney. Deal guesses lobbyists aren’t all bad. But what he reads and sees on the news troubles him. “What I’ve read, they buy a lot of people’s plane tickets and vacations,” he says — and he doesn’t think they should. Deal’s feelings have been stoked, to some extent, by the Edwards campaign — which has employed the toughest rhetoric against the lobbying community. (Though go to a rally for Obama or John McCain, or just about any other presidential campaign event, for that matter, and K Street will generally be cast as a villain there, too.) But slogans aren’t the only things influencing people’s opinions. In South Carolina, at least, statewide unemployment stood at 6.6 percent last month, the third-highest rate in the country. Gaffney, a town of roughly 13,000 people, is known mainly for the outlet mall that lures travelers from I-85. But storefronts toward the edges of town are vacant, with handwritten signs that say “for lease.” Textile mill jobs in the region have disappeared for good. And voters in the region can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that lobbyists representing big business get more of a vote than they do. Marion Tevebaugh, a skin therapist in downtown Rock Hill, says she understands that lobbyists are part of the political system, with a role to play. But lobbyists allow narrow specialized interests to leverage their influence, she says, “and I don’t know quite where that leaves the rest of us.” The folks here don’t tend to get into the nuances of ethics reform or the fine points of cooling-off periods, or debate whether lobbyists are, in fact, responsible for the television signal switching from analog to digital. But there is a sophistication level about the subject matter. For all the campaign bomb-throwing about lobbying, some voters say they know that there are different kinds of advocacy work and that they weigh that in their thinking about candidates and K Street. Scott Brisbon, a Republican bartender in Rock Hill who says he’s a lukewarm Mitt Romney backer, notes that it’s not fair to lump all lobbyists into one negative group. “No one is going to argue that people who lobby for children and education are bad,” Brisbon says. “You’ve got to pay attention to who they represent.” NOT EVEN WAITING That said, the up-close nature of primary campaigns is giving voters a firsthand glimpse at how the candidates are pushed on issues. And it’s not always pretty. At an event in Greenville on Thursday, a man asked Hillary Clinton how she would push her “green economy” agenda past “Big Oil” and “Big Coal.” Pointing to hired demonstrators outside who had been attending events by all the candidates, advocating for more reliance on clean-coal technology, he said, “They’re not even waiting to lobby you in the White House. They’re lobbying you now.” Scenes like that make it easy for candidates to rail against, in the words of Mike Munger, head of Duke University’s political science department, the “venal, craven, grasping people we think of as lobbyists.” Munger says Americans “have always been suspicious of middlemen. Middlemen and guys with suits.” On top of that, he says, lobbyists don’t produce anything tangible for the public, and represent the Washington status quo at a time when “everyone wants to have a big �C’ for �change’ on their sweater.” Or as Joseph Stewart, head of the political science department at Clemson University, puts it, when a candidate mentions the word “lobbyist,” “everybody just kind of nods knowingly. �Oh, yeah, it’s the lobbyists.’ It’s a slight variation on the idea that we’re against special interests.” Lobbyists themselves don’t know quite what to make of all of the vitriol. They’ve been targets, sure. But even hardened veterans see a difference in the intensity of the attacks this year. Tony Podesta of the Podesta Group points to the Jack Abramoff scandal — where people, who already may not understand the work done on K Street, saw lobbyists and members of Congress (such as former Republican Rep. Robert Ney of Ohio) going to jail. “The notion somewhere or another that we’re all Abramoffs corrupting Neys has no bearing in reality, but it’s what we live with,” he says. Still, there are at least a few voters who can see the potential benefits of K Street. Rock Hill yoga instructor A.J. Wellborn says she’s worried about the potential for abuse, but “not every single person can stand up on Capitol Hill or any other place and shake hands and mingle with the politicians.” Lobbying, she says, is “great — in theory.”
Carrie Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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