Washington • A few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, on the fourth floor of a glass triangle, sits a lonely, generic office on a floor dominated by railroad lobbyists.
Inside, next to a white wall and on top of a metal filing cabinet, sits a framed 4-by-6-inch picture of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a U.S. flag waving behind his left shoulder.
It’s one of the few items that identify this as the state’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, and the room’s understated décor is emblematic of Herbert’s low-key effort to rebuild the state’s presence in the nation’s capital after his predecessor, Gov. Jon Huntsman, so publicly shuttered Utah’s D.C. office and laid off its two employees in 2005 to save money.
Herbert didn’t fully restore the operation Huntsman ended, rather he asked his deputy chief of staff, Robert Spendlove, to split his time between Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City, and, to do so, Spendlove quietly rented out this office in January 2012.
“Utah doesn’t live in a bubble. We, in Utah, are impacted by everything the federal government does,” said Spendlove, who held a similar post under Huntsman. “And we want to have an impact on what happens in Washington.”
Just how to do that, and do it in the most financially prudent way, was the issue.
Closing shop • Huntsman entered office with an aggressive plan to reorganize state agencies, promising a new era of efficiency. One of his first moves was to terminate the state’s 25-year-old Washington office, located in the classic Hall of States, and lay off its two employees, a director and her assistant.
He then hired a contract lobbyist, who worked primarily on nuclear-waste issues, cutting the state’s tab from $236,000 each year to about $90,000. The amount dropped to zero when he let the lobbyist go in 2007.
Huntsman was fond of saying the state already had five lobbyists, referring to the two senators and, at that time, three House members elected to represent Utahns. In reality, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Huntsman made interacting with the federal government “his personal chore.”
Chaffetz, Huntsman’s chief of staff at the time, said the arrangement worked because Huntsman, already a former ambassador and veteran of two Republican administrations, had deep connections throughout the government.
But by 2009, with Congress trying to counteract the financial collapse, even Huntsman was rethinking the strategy and discussing reopening a D.C. office, said Spendlove, who by then was spending about 40 percent of his time tracking the actions of the president and Congress.
New governor • About that time, President Barack Obama nominated Huntsman to become his ambassador to China, elevating Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert into the Governor’s Mansion. Herbert said he would look into the state’s D.C. operation but worried about the cost of operating a satellite office and the possible conflicts of reaching out to a hired gun who had other clients.
The state had no regular presence in Washington, D.C., for three years, during which time Herbert said his office “missed things.” Frustrated by not having a larger role in the health-care and public-lands debates, among others, he hit on what he calls his “hybrid model.”
Spendlove travels to Washington for a week or two each month, staying in the cheapest Marriott hotel he can find, and Herbert personally goes to D.C. at least four times each year.
“We need to have an ability to have a direct dialogue and discussion from the state to the executive branch in Washington, D.C., and not have any middle man,” Herbert told The Salt Lake Tribune recently.
The governor cited the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the never-ending negotiations about oil and gas leases and federal spending policies that impact states as reasons he wanted a trusted adviser able to meet in person with lawmakers and government leaders.
He also is now on the leadership team of the National Governors Association, which is based in Washington, D.C.
Still, Herbert remained worried about the costs.
Savings • Under a previous administration in 2004, Utah spent $236,000 on rent and salaries for its D.C. employees. Herbert spent $134,000 last fiscal year; the drop-off was largely due to cheaper office space.
The Hall of States houses the Washington offices of 22 states, and Utah spent $2,300 per month on the posh locale eight years ago. Spendlove found the current office, a block away in the National Association of Realtors’ glass-encased triangle, for $1,515.
“We are getting the best bang for the taxpayers’ dollars to advance Utah’s agenda,” Herbert said.
More than 30 states had representatives based full time in D.C. in 2009. That number has dipped to 27, according to the National Governors Association, which has seen more states ask employees to track federal issues from the statehouse.
Chaffetz sees value in the state’s chief executive having a part-time surrogate, appreciating easy access to an adviser to the governor on issues ranging from energy to tribal relations. But he still sees no reason for states to have permanent representation in Washington.
“The Robert Spendlove model works for me,” he said. “It seems like a less expensive way to do that.”