July 30, 2012

Trolling for dollars

Photo / Miriam Lomaskin
Photo / Miriam Lomaskin
Dan DeSimone is Connecticut's liaison to the Washington, D.C., scene. He's part lobbyist , part facilitator, part tour director. And when it works, the state reaps the rewards.
Photo / Peter Urban

When he was hired 16 months ago to be the point person for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Capitol Hill, Dan DeSimone knew he was in for a challenge.

Unlike some governors who have turned their backs on Washington, Malloy has embraced it — pledging to aggressively pursue every avenue available to bring more federal resources to Connecticut.

As the governor's federal liaison, DeSimone was told to be active — work with the delegation and build relationships within the federal bureaucracy so that what is happening in Connecticut is known in D.C.

"The mandate from the governor was 'I am coming to Washington, make sure the city is ready for me,' " said DeSimone during a recent interview at his third-floor office on Capitol Hill.

So far, the effort has won over members of the Connecticut delegation who say it far surpasses that of former Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican.

"There certainly is a lot more contact now," said U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat.

In early June, Northrop Grumman announced plans to close Norwalk-based Norden Systems that employs nearly 300 people building drones and satellite systems.

"I wanted to schedule a meeting and he (DeSimone) was available in a matter of hours," Himes said. "He was Johnny on the spot."

U.S. Rep. John Larson, also a Democrat, said Malloy has been far more aggressive than Republicans Rell or former Gov. John G. Rowland in courting federal agencies. "Frankly, it's something we didn't have in the past and it is certainly a benefit especially without (congressional) earmarks," Larson said.

The House and Senate, which used to dedicate millions of dollars each year to specific home projects, have eliminated such earmarks from the budget process. States are left instead to compete for federal funds through specific grant programs like the education's Race to the Top or transportation's TIGER grants.

DeSimone, 41, had no previous connection with Connecticut but had served in a similar position in Oregon for then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski between 2008 and 2010. Before that he was a top lobbyist for the National Association of State Treasurers.

DeSimone grew up in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. He moved to the city a decade ago after marrying his wife, Helen, a private sector attorney.

"She really enjoyed living in the city and I always wanted to," he said. They have three young children Helen, Alexander and Dahlia, and live in Northwest D.C. near the Van Ness Metro station.

"I'm on the Red line. It's a straight shot. We don't even own a car," he said. The old Volvo he had was getting too expensive to maintain so when the last repair estimate came in at $3,000 the family decided it was time to try to live without it.

DeSimone, who earns $105,000 a year as the state's lobbyist, is basically a one-man shop and the job consumes most of his waking hours.

He works regularly with staff from the Connecticut delegation as well as with officials from various departments in Connecticut. Malloy has encouraged his agency heads to build relationships with their counterparts in the federal bureaucracy, which brings them to D.C. on a regular basis.

The state has also hired a private lobbying firm, Mercury/Clark & Weinstock, to focus on submarine construction contracts and Coast Guard projects in Groton. The state spent $50,000 in 2011 and $10,000 during the first quarter of 2012.

Malloy last visited the city in June to meet with Department of Energy officials about Connecticut efforts to beef up its utilities in the wake of last year's Tropical Storm Irene and the Halloween Nor'easter that resulted in record-setting outages.

While they had no specific grant in mind, DeSimone said that the DOE meetings could help shape future initiatives that the federal government considers to bolster the nation's energy infrastructure.

Joe McGee, who served as co-chairman of the panel, said that Connecticut's emphasis on building resiliency into its system is a "really big deal" that has sparked a great deal of interest from the federal government.

"We are one of the few states that has looked beyond simply recovering from a disaster," he said. "I was on the phone for more than an hour being interviewed about this issue by Homeland Security."

While DeSimone has some strong supporters, there remains a lingering concern among that Connecticut still does not get its fair share of the federal pie.

The General Assembly's Program Review and Investigations Committee began a study earlier this year to determine whether Connecticut is receiving its fair share of federal funding. In particular, state lawmakers worry that agencies are not participating in all the federal programs they could to secure more funds.

"Advocacy groups, legislators and other policymakers have questioned whether Connecticut is 'leaving federal monies on the table,'" staff wrote in a proposed outline for the study.

For decades Connecticut has been a "donor state," sending more tax dollars to Washington than it receives in return — roughly 75 cents on the dollar. That status is not likely to change because it is largely a factor of the high incomes earned in Fairfield County.

"I think there is a this myth that there are billions and billions of dollars out there for the taking. The fact is that most funding to states is in the form of formulas and there is a shrinking pot," DeSimone said. "But, I would suggest we are doing good work in trying to go after those discretionary pots of money."

Connecticut has actually seen its federal aid increase dramatically over the last decade on a per capita basis — largely due to increased demand from the Department of Defense for helicopters and jet engines as well as major increases in prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients.

The state received $15,662 per capita in federal spending during fiscal year 2010 — an increase of 115.9 percent from a decade earlier, according to figures compiled by Federal Funds Information for States.

But the federal government is struggling itself and cutbacks are inevitable as Congress confronts the national debt.

McGee, who also serves as vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County, said he has no doubt there is value in Connecticut having a lobbyist in D.C.

"You need someone there to focus on all the legislation and regulations taking place. It's very important and something we always recommend," McGee said.

While every governor has a liaison, only half the states keep an office in D.C.

DeSimone said that being in D.C. helps to build relationships that would otherwise be impossible from a distance.

And, he said, there is a steady stream of visitors that come to Capitol Hill to lobby for their own causes.

"Everybody comes to Washington," he said.

Most Popular on Facebook
Copyright 2017 New England Business Media