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From nudists to NRA, interest groups bend ears

Thu., Aug. 18, 2005

SEATTLE – In one booth, animal-rights proponents warned that “Animals don’t vote, but those who love them do.”

A few booths away, sportsmen toting plastic shotguns with laser beams gleefully blasted away at computerized quail.

Welcome to the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, where – amid 150-plus briefings and policy meetings – thousands of state lawmakers this week are mingling with thousands of folks eager to bend their ears.

Inside the sprawling exhibit hall in the Seattle convention center, nearly 300 groups and companies have rented booths to make their case to the visiting state lawmakers.

It’s an extremely diverse spectrum of interest groups. There are beer tastings, nudists, and Wal-Mart; cardiologists and the Coalition for Space Exploration. A group promoting the nationwide shipping of wine made its pitch from beneath a large banner reading “Free the Grapes!” and a circus handed out free red clown noses.

“Where you from?” asked a woman at the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork booth. She was kneading the shoulders of a man slumped in a massage chair.

“New Hampshire,” was the response, muffled by the chair’s doughnut-shaped pillow.

There are more than 6,000 people at the meeting. About half are lawmakers or staff; the rest are lobbyists, labor officials, academics and policy experts.

The conference gives lawmakers a chance to compare notes and swap ideas about what works – or doesn’t – said Bill Wyatt, public affairs manager for NCSL.

The event has gobbled up almost 3,500 Seattle hotel rooms, according to organizers, and drawn about $1.5 million in sponsorships by companies and groups including Boeing, Microsoft, the Tulalip Indian Tribe, MoneyTree Inc., and Amgen.

Many of the smaller players, rent 10-foot by 10-foot booths at the conference’s exhibit hall, where they rely on little gifts and enthusiastic spokespeople to make their case to policy makers.

“It’s a great opportunity to get some face time with people from all over the country,” said Stephan Otto, a Portland attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

In one row of the exhibit hall Wednesday, the National Rifle Association was handing out khaki caps and chrome pens. One row over, the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence was handing out little squeezable globes.

“We have to get out with our outreach efforts,” said Jason Huffine, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s “Non-Stockpile Chemical Materiel Project,” which was touting its efforts to destroy decades’ worth of the nation’s Cold War chemical weapons.

Nearby, Otto sat beside an Animal Legal Defense Fund poster reading, “Your constituents are sleeping with our clients.” It pictured a serious-looking Scottish terrier gazing out from the foot of a couple’s bed.

Otto was handing out tiny Frisbees – which doubled as watering dishes for cats.

Numerous companies and industry groups were hawking their products – or trying to head off state regulation of them. A company called Appriss was pitching its automated system to notify crime victims when a person is released from prison. Aramark touted its food service for prison inmates. Orchid Cellmark was promoting its forensic DNA and paternity testing services, Sagem Morpho was demonstrating its fingerprint scanner for people getting Medicaid health care, and men in black – the staff of Taser International – were showing off their X-26 model, which delivers 50,000 volts of incapacitating electricity.

Not far away, lawmakers were sampling beers – Heineken, Coors Light and Budweiser, among others – while the U.S. Census Bureau tried to let people know that it does more than just a once-a-decade head count.

“A lot of people think, ‘What do we do the other nine years?’ ” said Bill Bostic, chief of the Census’ division for tracking manufacturing and construction statistics. Lots, it turns out, and Bostic was happy to discuss them, while handing out letter openers, calculators and CDs crammed with census statistics.

Some of this year’s exhibitors – like Taser, Inc. – are first-timers at the annual legislative meeting. One of the conference veterans, however, is the American Association for Nude Recreation, which was handing out pins, magnets and directories of nudist camps and clubs.

“We’re folks that would rather do most things in the buff,” said Bellingham’s Steve Hubbard, chairman of the group’s government-affairs team in Washington. The 50,000-member group goes to the meeting to show lawmakers that it’s family oriented, he said.

“We get caught up in anti-nudity legislation,” he said. “We’re just average people. Our primary agenda is primarily to be left alone.”


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