The Guys in the Hall

What began as a way for a couple of friends to continue working together has helped change the face of Vermont

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

The Montpelier government and public affairs firm Kimbell Sherman Ellis has handled some of Vermont's most memorable lobbying efforts and tracks legislation and regulation for clients worldwide. The partners are, from left, Steve Kimbell, Chuck Storrow, Kevin Ellis and Robert Sherman.

The exterior of the genteel old building at 26 State St. in Montpelier bears a faded, yet refined demeanor. A sign, in a stodgy, serif type with a fancy ampersand at the bottom of a long, wide staircase, points upward with the words "Kimbell, Sherman & Ellis." It could be the location for a John Grisham novel set in small-town America, except that Kimbell Sherman Ellis the firm dropped the ampersand in a recent updating of its image is not a law practice, but a group of lobbyists.

Its quarters are elegantly refined, if getting a bit crowded. Its owners are four equal partners: Steve Kimbell, Robert Sherman, Kevin Ellis and Chuck Storrow. Its clients could be said to constitute a Who's Who of recent Vermont (and in some cases, national) attention. For example, the firm handled public relations for Beth Robinson and Susan Murray, the Middlebury lawyers who represented the plaintiffs in the civil unions court case.

"I called them up cold the day the decision came out," says Ellis, who handles the firm's public affairs and communications work. "I said, 'You're about to move from an arena that is very defined, structured and clear the courts to an arena that is undefined, unclear and a little like the circus.' She said I'm paraphrasing 'I'd really like to talk to you. I've got CNN on one line and CBS on the other line. Can I call you back?'"

Ellis also offered the firm's help, pro bono, to a friend and parent of one of the boys involved in the murder of two Dartmouth professors, with advice on managing the media and legal frenzy surrounding the case. "We just know how to manage adversarial relations with government and the media," he says.

Dependable research is crucial to the success of a lobbying firm. Meredith Strowbridge (left) is KSE's legislative and regulatory analyst, and Tammy Cota is director of strategic intelligence.

"Are we spin doctors? Absolutely! We sell political ideas. We do strategy and communications for clients around the country, generally in the political realm, but more and more, it's moved into the nonprofit area."

KSE, in Ellis' words, is "unlike any other firm in Vermont," in that it's neither a "small, two-person lobby shop" like many found in Montpelier, nor a large law firm, such as Downs Rachlin Martin, that happens to offer lobbying services. "We started as a lobbying firm," Ellis says.

That's true; however, this lobbying firm has a legal component. The Montpelier offices are also home to Kimbell & Storrow, the law practice of Steve Kimbell and Chuck Storrow. "It's a modest legal practice, but it's active," says Storrow, who's also the managing partner of KSE, working closely with business manager Ann Brazier, the firm's only administrative support person.

"Basically, it's all really one business," Storrow continues, "but lawyers are not supposed to practice law in partnership with non-lawyers. That's an ethical rule, so when it comes to traditional legal work, it's done under the firm name of Kimbell & Storrow. Anything else government relations, public relations, crisis communications is done by Kimbell Sherman Ellis."

It was 16 years ago when Kimbell and Sherman first broached the idea of a lobbying firm while sitting in a rowboat fishing on Seyon Pond at Groton State Park. They had become friends working for Gov. Madeleine Kunin's administration: Sherman (with a background in journalism) as press secretary and executive assistant; Kimbell as state planning director.

"I had left the Kunin administration in July of '86, and about a year later, Sherm was ready to leave and needed to have a place to go to keep getting a paycheck," Kimbell says dryly. "He had three kids at the time and another one due in January.

"We decided we could take the same staff model we had learned in the governor's office and sell it to private-sector clients: have a problem identified, do the research to understand it thoroughly and come up with a solution." Kimbell & Sherman was the result, their having flipped a coin to decide whose name would come first.

"The idea was to go into business and do Vermont lobbying," says Sherman, "something Steve had done previous to working for Madeleine and I had done for Madeleine. Almost within a year, we got asked to advise a client on a matter solid waste in another state, so early in our business, the multi-state aspect, which I now run, was born."

He's referring to what KSE calls Focus, an operation that tracks, for clients, legislation in all 50 states, Canada and, if necessary, the world. "It was born at a time when there was no Internet, and only a few organizations attempted to work in multiple states," says Sherman, adding, "We don't pretend to lobby in other states, to have on-the-ground know-how, but what we did from the beginning was help clients organize in other states."

That meant helping clients spend their lobbying money wisely, he says, "helping clients to know when they did and didn't need to hire a lobbyist. We did a lot of phone work. For example, if a bill didn't have any legs, they didn't need to hire local counsel; if it did have legs, what were the politics behind it?"

According to Chuck Storrow, Business Manager Ann Brazier "the glue that holds us together." Brazier is the firm's only administrative support person.

Focus has grown to be a major part of the firm's business. Once the World Wide Web was born, the firm began supplementing its phone work with electronic tracking.

"State regulation of the Internet was born about five years ago," says Sherman. "States have tried to regulate in five different areas: spam, which we all hate; privacy, which we all crave; taxes, which we hate to pay; content regulation, which we really worry about when it relates to kids; and law enforcement security."

About the same time, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called Internet Alliance, a collection of major Internet companies such as AOL, needed someone to help them keep an eye on emerging regulations in all 50 states. Internet Alliance hired KSE to help it do just that.

Emily Hackett, the organization's executive director, claims she is considered a genius in her field for hiring Kimbell Sherman Ellis, "both because of quality of work and the price. I needed state expertise instantaneously. They had in-state knowledge and knew how to do lobbying in the states. They didn't have Internet expertise, which is what I've brought to the table. It's put the Internet Alliance on the map." Hackett says KSE operates as her organization's staff.

Now, KSE's software crawls every state legislative website every night, takes information and puts it into a database organized by clients and by issue. "We create a website where clients can access with a password and I.D., giving them 24/7 access to the bills they care about, including hotlinks to legislation in its most current form. Everything except a written report we do once a week is 24/7," says Ellis.

Anyone who has experienced a business partnership knows how like a marriage it can be. The "marriage" at KSE appears to be thriving. "It's been fairly remarkable," says Sherman. "We've been a strong business; grown almost every year; diversified; kept everybody interested. We've worked on really stressful issues like civil unions, and the business has gone forward with very little friction. There's just enough structure in our partnership to make it work, and enough looseness in our personalities to make it work."

Personalities play a key role, and the four appear to truly enjoy each other's company. Kimbell and Storrow have law backgrounds, while Sherman and Ellis come from journalism.

Scott Mackey is an economist and national expert on the streamlined sales tax initiative, an effort by states to bring their sales taxes in line with one another. Jacqueline Hughes, a policy expert lawyer from St. Johnsbury, was general counsel with the Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration (BISHCA) before joining KSE in February.

Kimbell grew up in Wheaton, Ill., outside of Chicago. He attended the University of Illinois and studied law at the University of Michigan Law School. After three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, he landed in Vermont, where he had relatives, to work for Legal Aid. That was in '73.

Kimbell's first boss was John Dooley, who now sits on the Vermont Supreme Court. In 1978, Kunin asked him to run her first campaign for lieutenant governor.

Kunin won that race over Peter Smith and served for four years. In 1982, she again tapped Kimbell, this time to run her campaign for governor against Richard Snelling. She lost, but came back in 1984 to become the first woman elected governor of Vermont. Kimbell worked as counsel to that campaign, then ran Kunin's transition team and went to work in a Cabinet position drafting legislation for the governor. He stayed for 18 months.

Storrow joined Kimbell & Sherman in 1989 to work in Kimbell's law firm, which was then located in Fairfax. A Vermonter from age 2, after graduating first in his class from Vermont Law School and clerking for a year for Sterry Waterman, a federal judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Storrow had spent five and a half years practicing law at Paul, Frank & Collins in Burlington, where he was offered a partnership.

"I enjoyed working there," says Storrow, "but I thought I should look around before I signed on the dotted line." After answering an ad for a part-time associate Kimbell had placed in the Vermont Law Journal, Storrow persuaded Kimbell to hire him full-time. "I figured it would be interesting to hook up with somebody like Steve, who worked in a lot of public policy issues," he says.

Storrow does little, if any, lobbying. "If you're going to lobby the Vermont Legislature, you have to be in the Statehouse every day, and that was incompatible with having an active legal practice. On the lobbying side, I do background, research and drafting of bills and do some targeted lobbying, but not much." He also does tracking for some of the firm's clients.

Sherman grew up in Providence, R.I., and attended the University of Rhode Island, where he majored in journalism, "in two shifts," he says. "In the middle shift, I came up here and ski-bummed in Stowe, then back to school; I finished and came up here in '73 and got a job at the Times Argus.

Sherman spent six years with the Times-Argus/Rutland Herald organization, becoming head of the Burlington Bureau, before heading to Washington, D.C., to spend five years working with syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, where he covered foreign affairs.

"As things happen in D.C.," Sherman says, "we started having babies." "We" refers to Sherman and his wife, Kate Winslow, whom he had met at the Times Argus and married before leaving Burlington. Believing D.C. was no place to raise children, the couple returned in 1983, and Sherman became head of the Vermont Press Bureau. A year and a half later, Madeleine Kunin invited him to go to work for her.

Ellis, a New Jersey native, was not a journalism major. He graduated from Amherst College with a degree in history, "but I was an athlete more than anything." He taught for a year before heading to Washington "to seek my fortune." There, he "knocked around, did a couple of things," which included work at the Robert Kennedy Memorial Foundation. His future father-in-law ran the foundation, which is where he met Kimberly Hackett, his future wife.

Having a "hankering for politics and journalism" Ellis also landed a job with Jack Anderson, where he worked for a year or so before calling John Siegenthaler, then editor and publisher of The Nashville Tennessean to ask for a job.

He was hired, starting, "as all young newspaper people do, at the bottom, where I covered the police from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day." Siegenthaler, says Ellis, "taught me how to write, to get stories, how to be curious. It was a great three or four years."

In '89, wanting to return to the Northeast, Ellis was assigned to be the Tennessean's Washington correspondent, a stroke of luck, he says, "because I got to cover Al Gore as a senator, and I got to cover some of Gary Hart's presidential campaign." He also covered energy, the environment and nuclear power in stories on the Tennessee Valley Authority, "and learned the ropes in D.C., which has really stood me in good stead in my legislative career."

When Ellis and Kimberly decided to bring the family north, he called The Burlington Free Press, "and they ironically or luckily had a job opening for an environmental writer." He met Kimbell and Sherman while he was covering the politics of environmental stories in the Legislature.

In the early '90s, when Anya Radar, a Kimbell & Sherman associate, was tapped to be Gov. Howard Dean's deputy chief of staff after Gov. Snelling's death, Ellis was invited to join the firm.

Over the years, KSE has handled some fascinating cases. Storrow remembers what he calls "the most notorious thing I've done," representing the Vermont Egg Farms in Highgate. Currently winding down is his work with Nextel, a cell phone company trying to build a network in the state by putting antennas on farm silos.

Some cases aren't as lively. "Talk about a boring subject," says Kimbell, "we've represented the paving industry in Vermont for 10 to 12 years. It's not flashy, not sexy, not particularly exciting, but you need the money to pave the roads."

To better gain access to the national headquarters of trade associations the most likely customers for Focus KSE recently opened a Washington, D.C., office. The firm had first considered buying one of its competitors in the tracking business, going so far as to seek the help of an investment banker. "We decided we just didn't want to buy his business," says Sherman with a chuckle, "but just steal his marketing director, which we did." That would be Leif Johnson, who staffs the Washington office.

"The firm started with just me and Sherman, and now there are 12 of us," Kimbell says. "The truth is, trying to determine public policy is much more interesting than practicing law. I suppose some people think that influencing the government is a negative, but that's what democracy is about. This is a great way to make a living!"

Originally published in July 2003 Business People-Vermont