Meet Jimmy Tarlau: Maryland’s only pro bono lobbyist

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Jimmy Tarlau

Jimmy Tarlau is standing convention on its head.

Like many former legislators, Tarlau has set himself up as a lobbyist, converting his inside knowledge and contacts into opportunities for his clients. But unlike most lobbyists his clients will not be corporate interests, and they will not be paying him.

Jimmy Tarlau has set up a pro bono lobbying shop – perhaps the only exclusively pro bono lobbying organization in the country – and will be giving away his valuable services for free to those in need.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook”

Tarlau, 70, was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014. After being knocked out in the summer Democratic primary, he looked for a way to put his experience to good use.

“I wanted to stay engaged and I felt there were areas where I had expertise in some issues,” he told News Growl. “I realized there were people who couldn’t afford lobbyists, but needed help. I have a pension and I’m retired so I thought why not help on a pro bono basis?”

Since launching the People’s Lobbying Group, word of Tarlau’s plans has stirred a lot of interest.

“My phone’s been ringing off the hook,” he said.

Jimmy Tarlau: not your average lobbyist

For Tarlau, working unpaid is not just about giving back to the community. The People’s Lobbying Group will be free to support causes and organizations that would normally struggle to fund expert lobbyist help.

“I come from a union background,” Tarlau told us. “Some unions don’t have the resources for a full-time legislative director, so I’m trying to help them out.

“I’ve also been approached by a women’s group in Prince George’s County who want to be kept abreast of proposed bills that might impact them. And there’s a train safety group I’ve been brainstorming with. People want to know what kinds of chemicals trains are being transported through their towns, and that’s not the sort of cause that normally gets support from lobbyists.

“What’s separating me from other groups is values and the issues that I deal with. I’m not going to represent corporations and casinos. I won’t be taking people out to fancy dinners, but I can talk to people I know, people who respect my advocacy. 

“I want to help people I know who need help. Not liquor associations.”

People’s Lobbying Group in action

Because he is not being paid, Tarlau is exempt from the Maryland state law which prevents former legislators from acting as paid lobbyists for one year.

This means the People’s Lobbying Group can swing into action quickly. So far Tarlau is the only full-time lobbyist on the group’s books, but another former legislator has joined him on a part-time basis and more may follow.

For now he is preparing for the upcoming General Assembly session which starts on January 9th. As a lobbyist, one of his biggest jobs will be simply be helping clients understand the complex legislative process.

“A lot of people don’t even know where to start,” Tarlau explained. “How do we get things done? Is there any way to get money from the state for a community center? Is there anything we can do? Who do we ask? Who might be willing to introduce legislation?

“Even if you know a sympathetic legislator they might not be the right person to work with. It’s better to have somebody on the right committee to help you and champion your bill, someone who has relationships with other delegates on the committee.

“Timing is also very important. You need to know when things need to be introduced, when a hearing date is, who on the Senate side might be interested. It’s a complicated process.”

A new kind of “revolving door”

With 425 former members of Congress currently in paid lobbying roles, and thousands of former state legislators doing the same nationwide, Jimmy Tarlau certainly stands out. While it is not unprecedented for lobbyists to occasionally undertake pro bono work, the People’s Lobbying Group may be unique in working exclusively with non-paying clients.

The People’s Lobbying Group could also pioneer a new way forward for those wanting to end the infamous “revolving door,” which sees former lawmakers (even disgraced ones) leverage their connections for huge salaries. Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold, for example, left office under a sexual misconduct cloud in April 2018 only to reappear as a lobbyist with a six figure salary a month later.

Once Jimmy Tarlau gets going, the Maryland lobbying establishment might want to be on their toes in case he pursues any reforms to the legislature itself. It is currently illegal for a lobbyist to take a single legislator out for a meal. Big budget lobbyists skirt round the rule by inviting large groups of lawmakers out in group.

“Almost every night these groups hold these fancy dinners,” Tarlau told us. “I think these big dinners should be banned.”

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