Bipartisan partnership Featured

12:49pm EDT June 22, 2004
The old adage that friends shouldn't discuss politics doesn't apply to Paul Tipps and Neil Clark.

Despite representing opposite sides of the political aisle, the two principals of government affairs consulting and lobbying firm State Street Consultants have forged a profitable working relationship and maintained a strong friendship.

"Paul and I hit it off from the start," says Clark, former COO of the Ohio Senate Republican Caucus, where he assisted in planning, developing and implementing the taxing and spending priorities for Ohio's $32 billion biennial budget. "We've never had a significant disagreement. I've never been so mad at him that I couldn't talk to him."

The unlikely partnership (think Mary Matlin and James Carville) began when Clark founded a political consulting business and discovered he had more work than he could handle. He immediately thought of Tipps, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

"I knew if I needed help I could ask Paul," says Clark. "I subcontracted work to him, and later, we moved our offices together."

The pair met when Tipps was directed Clark's way by a powerful politician during a search for information on education funding.

"Vern Riffe (speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives from 1975 to 1994) told me to go talk to Neil Clark," says Tipps. "I had a lot of respect for Neil's ability to understand and explain the information. That's how we met."

That was 18 years ago. Today, State Street Consultants is the largest government affairs consulting firm in Ohio. The company serves public or privately held businesses, nonprofit groups and even local governments.

Tipps' and Clark's client list comprises a who's who of movers and shakers, from Limited Brands and BP America to the city of Cincinnati and the American Heart Association. The firm's consultants design strategies, monitor issues, lobby governments and deliver grassroots communications for their clients with one goal in mind -- to influence government legislation that is favorable to their clients.

Tipps and Clark say their unique bipartisan approach has been critical to their ability to succeed.

"Paul has never had to give up his principles," says Clark. "And I don't have to do anything across party lines unless I want to."

That philosophy -- combined with State Street's representation of both the Democrat and Republican parties -- provides an alluring appeal to a broad base of clients. Tipps says that it is essential to have a foot in both camps in today's politically volatile environment.

"Because of term limits, there is a lot more turnover in the general assembly," Tipps says. "So we are working to develop close relationships on both sides of the aisle."

Term limits have forced politicians on both sides to work together in the general assembly on more issues than they did in years past. But Clark is quick to warn that not every Republican/Democrat partnership can be effective.

"You have to find someone with which you can form a friendship, working relationship, and even have a family feeling with to make it work," he says.

And that is the challenge Clark and Tipps face every day.

Changing politics

Over the past two decades, more power has been transferred from the national government to the states, making state-level lobbying more important.

"This power transfer increased the impact state government has on businesses with interests in Ohio," says Clark.

And term limits have not only increased turnover within the general assembly, they have changed which bills are considered there.

"Someone may introduce a bill that would repeal a tax loophole which would be restrictive to businesses," says Tipps. "In the past, an experienced assembly would not have taken it seriously. That is not the case today."

Because of the frequent turnover, Tipps and Neil find that it takes more hours and manpower to accomplish lobbying goals than it used to.

"When we started, we could deal with six people in the assembly," says Clark. "Today, it takes us 90. The dynamics are different to be successful."

It takes specialists to maintain a successful track record.

"We do it all, but we have a dominant presence in health care, taxation and ways and means type issues," says Clark.

Between staff members and affiliated associates, State Street can canvass state government quickly if needed.

"We can deploy many people quickly," says Tipps. "We can get through two-thirds of the House in an hour, and all of the Senate in half an hour."

State Street is the largest lobbying firm in the state and Tipps and Clark are choosy about who they hire as lobbyists.

"We have a very competitive, extensive interview process," says Clark. "It's hard to get a job here."

Among State Street's full-time roster of heavy hitters are former Sen. Stanley Aronoff, who spent 36 years in the statehouse, including seven years as Senate president; Colleen Lora, former government affairs manager and marketing director for the Ohio Utilities Protection Service; and former Bureau of Workers' Compensation Legislative Liaison Aaron Ockerman.

The firm also has affiliations with influential experts including Phil Hamilton, a former cabinet member of the late Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes; former tax commissioner Joanne Limbach; and former House Majority Leader Patrick A. Sweeney.

"We have a lot of egos here, but we respect everybody else," says Tipps. "When someone starts acting like a prima donna, the others are equally qualified and won't put up with it."

The business of politics

Clark says the business side of State Street -- and the roles of its principals -- has been clearly organized since its beginning.

"When it comes to leading operations, Paul takes that role," he says. "I am more of the creative problem-solver."

It is Tipps' job to ensure that the office runs smoothly, but that doesn't mean Clark is left out of the decision-making process.

"It's a simple business philosophy," Clark says. "Paul does the research and makes recommendations. I have the right to override them. In the past 18 years, I think I've only overridden four or five."

That division of responsibilities suits Tipps just fine.

"It reflects our personalities," he says. "I am a detail person, Neil devises strategy. I am an easy communicator. When Neil has a problem with what I've suggested, it's because he's thought of a few things I didn't think, of and we come up with a better solution."

The process is seamless for State Street's clientele, which Tipps says doesn't care which partner controls what aspect of the operations -- no matter their political affiliations.

"Our clients aren't interested in who controls what as long as we communicate with people making the decisions that impact their businesses," he says.

One way that State Street bolsters its relationships with decision-makers is through a monthly dinner it holds while the general assembly is in session. Tipps and Clark develop a theme around the buffet dinners and invite clients and members of the assembly.

Recent themes have included the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- with NFL Hall of Famers in attendance -- and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Several Ohio artists attended, including Sen. Ray Miller, who played in a band in his earlier years.

"It gives everyone a chance to meet each other outside the political arena in a more social setting," says Tipps.

These events usually draw between 100 and 150 people.

As the political landscape becomes more charged and the lines separating Democrats and Republicans are crystallizing with increasing clarity, State Street's nonpartisan business strategies are paying off.

"We've experienced steady growth of around 15 percent each year," Tipps says. "And I expect it to continue that way."

Clark says the firm's solid results often turn client engagements into long-term relationships.

"What usually happens is that we begin a client relationship with one goal in mind, and when that is finished, the client finds something else for us to do," he says.

That's one reason State Street has switched its revenue model from hourly fees to monthly retainers.

"The monthly fees can vary a lot depending on what the client needs," Clark says. "It could be anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000."

Tipps and Clark are also not opposed to firing clients that don't work out.

"I have no problem terminating a client that wants to go down a path that is against our recommendations," Clark says. "We want a resolution that is good public policy."

But, Tipps adds, that rarely happens.

"We're the experts," he says. "And all clients want is a solution. They don't care what form that comes in." How to reach: State Street Consultants, (614) 221-3600 or www.statestreetohio.com