When Illinois utility Commonwealth Edison wanted state lawmakers to back a hefty rate hike two years ago, it took a creative lobbying approach, concocting a new outfit that seemed devoted to the public interest: Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity, or CORE. CORE ran TV ads warning of a "California-style energy crisis" if the rate increase wasn't approved—but without disclosing the commercials were funded by Commonwealth Edison. The ad campaign provoked a brief uproar when its ties to the utility, which is owned by Exelon Corp., became known. "It's corporate money trying to hoodwink the public," the state's Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. What got scant notice then—but may soon get more scrutiny—is that CORE was the brainchild of ASK Public Strategies, a consulting firm whose senior partner is David Axelrod, now chief strategist for Barack Obama.
Last week, Obama hit John McCain for hiring "some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington" to run his campaign; Obama's aides say their candidate, as a foe of "special interests," has refused to take money from lobbyists or employ them. Neither Axelrod nor his partners at ASK ever registered as lobbyists for Commonwealth Edison—and under Illinois's loose disclosure laws, they were not required to. "I've never lobbied anybody in my life," Axelrod tells NEWSWEEK. "I've never talked to any public official on behalf of a corporate client." (He also says "no one ever denied" that Edison was the "principal funder" of his firm's ad campaign.)
But the activities of ASK (located in the same office as Axelrod's political firm) illustrate the difficulties in defining exactly who a lobbyist is. In 2004, Cablevision hired ASK to set up a group similar to CORE to block a new stadium for the New York Jets in Manhattan. Unlike Illinois, New York disclosure laws do cover such work, and ASK's $1.1 million fee was listed as the "largest lobbying contract" of the year in the annual report of the state's lobbying commission. ASK last year proposed a similar "political campaign style approach" to help Illinois hospitals block a state proposal that would have forced them to provide more medical care to the indigent. One part of its plan: create a "grassroots" group of medical experts "capable of contacting policymakers to advocate for our position," according to a copy of the proposal. (ASK didn't get the contract.) Public-interest watchdogs say these grassroots campaigns are state of the art in the lobbying world. "There's no way with a straight face to say that's not lobbying," says Ellen Miller, director of the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes government transparency.
Axelrod says there are still huge differences between him and top McCain advisers, including the fact that he doesn't work in D.C. But his corporate clients do have business in the capital. One of them, Exelon, lobbied Obama two years ago on a nuclear bill; the firm's executives and employees have also been a top source of cash for Obama's campaign, contributing $236,211. Axelrod says he's never talked to Obama about Exelon matters. "I'm not going to public officials with bundles of money on behalf of a corporate client," Axelrod says.