The Lobbying Life

New England Public Affairs Group provides a conduit to the Legislature for a variety of clients

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

T he Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier is as intense as the one in Massachusetts, or even the Houses of Parliament in London," insists Jerry Morris lobbying and public relations company New England Public Affairs Group in Burlington.

The lobbying side of New England Public Affairs Group in Burlington is handled by Jerry Morris and Allison Crowley DeMag (pictured). Morris owns the business with wife, Lin, who focuses on marketing and public relations.

A visit to the company's offices in the CornerStone Building on Main Street is anything but intense. White walls, a gentle, purple carpet and a minimalist approach to furnishing create an atmosphere of luminous calm. "Simple reflects our business," says Jerry, "which is to boil information down to the lowest denominator."

Although Jerry and his wife, Lin, own NEPA Group, Jerry is keen to point out that "the first thing you have to understand about the lobbying side of this company is that NEPA Group is Jerry Morris and Allison Crowley DeMag," stresses Jerry. "In the eyes of the Statehouse we're one and the same person."

Lobbying forms approximately 70 percent of the company's business. "This business today is mainly about managing information," he explains. "The lobbyist personifies their client company at the Statehouse. They are the conduit to and from the Legislature, but also the company's agent." Because the state Legislature meets for only part of the year, lobbying is seasonal work.

"From January to April," Lin explains, "Jerry and Allison live, eat and breathe lobbying. After the Legislature adjourns, the focus moves to public relations and Montreal," where the bulk of the company's public relations clients do business.

NEPA Group lobbies for a diverse group of Vermont and national clients from Anheuser-Busch Companies, Agri-Mark and Grand Union Co. to Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. and Vermont Electric.

Jerry emphasizes that he and Crowley DeMag are lobbyists "for hire." "We're pure business contract lobbyists: what are called 'Black Hats' by our opponents -- in Vermont, those are mainly the professional environmental and human services lobbyists, who call themselves 'advocates'."

The distinction is important to Jerry. "Lobbying is a mystery to most people," he believes. "To many there's a certain notoriety about what we do. People tend to look at us as being on the edge, and we are -- on the edge of the issues. We relish the notoriety," he emphasizes, "because inside we know who we are and take great pride in our work. In the court of law, everyone is entitled to representation. The same is true in the court of public opinion."

Born and raised in Boston, Jerry took his time sampling the world of education. "When I got out of the service, I spent my youth going to college," he jokes.

"He attended a total of 13 colleges, which he's very proud of," adds Lin, affectionately.

In 1974, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from California State University at Northridge, before returning to Boston where he earned an MBA in 1978 from Suffolk University and entered politics. "I'm a Boston Irish Catholic," he says. "I wanted to be a priest, didn't make it, so I went into politics."

Over the next 11 years he had a succession of high-profile jobs, including press work for the mayor of Boston, press secretary to the governor of Massachusetts, and press secretary in Sen. John Glenn's 1984 presidential campaign.

He started a lobbying business, which almost went bankrupt. "By 1986 I was pretty much persona non grata in Boston," he adds ruefully. "Then former Democratic Gov. Tom Salmon got me a job lobbying with Vermont Electric, which I did until 1989."

Lin was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Boston after graduating from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., in 1974. She met Jerry in Bullfinches Pub in Boston, later immortalized as Cheers in the TV series. "How many couples can say they really did meet in Cheers?" laughs Jerry.

Lin, a fine arts major, experimented with a variety of careers: "I had a small neighborhood interior design business in Boston," she recalls. "I managed a Scandinavian furniture store, and was a real estate broker for a time. I could do that from home while raising the kids."

She was becoming frustrated with the suburban life. "One day my son came home and said 'Mom, I want a 10-speed bike.' I realized we were getting much too materialistic." For Lin, the move to Vermont was "a soul thing. My parents and my aunt had retired here. I'd skied here in college. I was looking for something extraordinary."

In 1989, William Gilbert, then a partner with Burlington law firm Downs Rachlin & Martin, asked Jerry if he'd be interested in starting a lobbying business in Burlington. Gilbert knew Jerry from his work with Vermont Electric Power Co. at the Statehouse. "I thought he had the unique ability to analyze issues and to analyze the political forces behind what was going on," says Gilbert, who left the firm in the mid-'90s to become chief administrator for Fletcher Allen Health Care before retiring. "Dealing with public issues in a public way is a specialty and Jerry's very good at that," he adds. "Jerry would be successful in any statehouse in the country."

"Downs Rachlin & Martin owned the business until the mid-1990s," explains Jerry. "By the end of 1997 Lin and I made a mutual decision to buy the company."

Ten percent of the company's business consists of graphic design and event management, says Lin Morris. Its PR clients are mostly high-tech companies in the Montreal area.

Lin's growing involvement with NEPA Group was "quite an organic process," she says. "When Jerry started the business, he would ask me to come in and organize."

"Lin is very good organizationally," Jerry adds. "The failure of my Boston business taught me what not to do. I'm very good at some things, but not at organization."

Lin added a new dimension to NEPA Group. "She began generating her own forms of revenue in fields like marketing, event management and graphic design," says Jerry. She also brought her interior design expertise to bear on the company's new premises overlooking Perkins Pier and Lake Champlain.

"I loved the fact that we could design our own offices," she says. "I have to have lots of light."

Lin, Jerry and Crowley DeMag share the work on the company's public relations side. NEPA Group's PR clients are in high-tech fields, and are mainly in Montreal, where the company is represented by Laird Greenshields, NEPA Group's strategic business partner. "Public relations is about 20 percent of our business, and the last 10 percent is related activities like graphic design and event management," says Lin.

> "We customize all our work, so we can't do a lot of it," Jerry explains. "We don't want to be a big PR firm; we want to be a good one."

"A couple can work together if they realize that there are certain boundaries," believes Jerry. "I make all the decisions on the lobbying side, and Lin makes all decisions on the marketing side -- and she manages the checkbooks. One thing I've learned is that I really am not able to do that myself," he admits happily.

"We're very opposite," agrees Lin. "Jerry and Allison are very expert in their field. They're in a totally different business from me, and all winter, when the Legislature is in session, I'm here all by myself."

"To me they're not husband and wife," says Crowley DeMag. "Yes, they're married, but they don't bring their personal lives to the office."

Crowley DeMag joined NEPA Group six years ago as a lobbyist. Crowley DeMag, daughter of former state Sen. Thomas Crowley, who served 24 years in Montpelier, "grew up around politics," she says. "Our house was the Ward One Democratic headquarters."

Even coming from such a background, Crowley DeMag "didn't know politics would be my life." She had worked in insurance for the Barry Stone Agency for eight years when she "decided to do something different. When my father wasn't reelected in 1991 he started lobbying, and he got me interested. I was hired by a competing lobbying firm."

At that point her future was still unclear. "Things didn't gel, and I went to work for Nordica. Then six years ago, Jerry called me up and offered me a job."

"Working with Allison means we can bring both a male and a female perspective to the client," adds Jerry.

"There are lots of male lobbyists in Vermont," says Allison, "but not many male/female teams."

"We play good cop, bad cop," jokes Jerry. "Allison's usually the good cop."

"There's no way you can train to be a lobbyist," believes Crowley DeMag, who is married to David DeMag and has a 2-year-old son, Tom, "but you need to have a good personality. Vermont has a citizen legislature," she explains. "They only work part of the year. The rest of the time they're lawyers, homemakers, dairy farmers."

As a native Vermonter ("Sixth generation," she says proudly), Crowley DeMag feels she can relate to the legislators on their own terms. "Slick isn't helpful here," she says. "We go about our business in a low-key way. We prefer to be out in the corners with eyes and ears open and mouth shut. That doesn't mean we're not effective. But we understand that people can be intimidated by lobbyists."

Allison Crowley DeMag developed an interest in lobbying with help from her father, former state Sen. Thomas Crowley.

"The beauty of this state is that you can be whoever you are and be accepted," thinks Lin. "There's no conformity issue to deal with."

"Vermont is interesting politically," Jerry believes. "The biggest difference I found moving here from Boston is that business people are much more in tune with doing the right thing. They're motivated less by self-interest and more by the common good. Our work requires us to have our ear to the ground, and that's what we pick up on the public radar. As a cynic," he adds, "I keep looking to see if it's real or not, and after 13 years I've concluded that it is."

Lin and Jerry live in Charlotte. Lin relishes the peace of the countryside; Jerry's take is a little different. "I love Vermont, but my heart is in the city," says Jerry, "and here we're close enough to Burlington."

"When we first moved in, Jerry's relatives came to visit and couldn't get to sleep the first night; it was too quiet," she says.

"I need to hear sirens," jokes Jerry. The couple's children, Christopher, 21, and Bridget, 19, attend the University of Vermont. "We're empty nesters now," says Jerry.

"But we spend a lot of time with them," adds Lin. "The proximity is really nice."

"Lin fills her time outside the office with sailing, gardening, skiing," says Jerry. "I have no hobbies. This," he says, gesturing at his desk, "is what I do." That is no hardship. "It isn't the business that we chose, it's the lifestyle. We love it," he says.

"Neither of us are cut out for corporate America," admits Lin.

Jerry agrees. "If I hadn't started my own business, I don't know what I'd have done. There's a saying," he adds, "that goes, 'Money in politics follows momentum.' Our motto is, 'Money in life follows value.'"

"I've found peace in Vermont," says Lin. Indeed, as the first snow of the season falls outside the windows of their serene office, it seems hard to imagine two people more at home in the world.

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.