Friends in the Hall: How lobbyists use influence to help their clients

One day in the life of a pair of veteran lobbyists at the Georgia Capitol
Lobbyists Charlie Watts (left) and Wayne Garner (right) chat with one of their peers in the halls of Georgia Capitol.

Max Blau

For this story, Atlanta magazine wanted to present one day in the life of a lobbyist at the Gold Dome. Two longtime lobbyists, Wayne Garner and Charlie Watts, agreed to let us follow them without restrictions on one of the legislative session’s busiest days with the understanding that the story would run shortly after Sine Die, the final day of the legislative session.

One afternoon in the winter of 2001, Wayne Garner and Charlie Watts stood on the third floor of the Georgia Capitol watching the chaos of the legislative session. As the former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists leaned against their favorite spot on the railing, then-Governor Roy Barnes walked up to them.

“How you boys?” Barnes asked Garner in chummy fashion, as if they were still colleagues in the Georgia Senate as they’d been during the 1980s.
“My damn feet hurt!” Garner told the governor. “We need a rug up here.”

The next morning, a throw rug covered the marble floor where they had stood. “I designated it Wayne’s and Charlie’s office,” Barnes now recalls. “And I told them: ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t give you an office with a view of the outside, but here’s one of the inside.'” That piece of carpeting, along with the lobbyists, has remained in the same spot to this day. “Just ask anyone where Wayne Garner and Charlie Watts are—they’ll point you there,” Garner says.

A 64-year-old Carrollton resident with thick-rimmed glasses and a slight limp, Garner ran funeral homes in West Georgia when he served in the Senate from 1980 to 1993. There, he chaired the Corrections Committee (since dissolved) before rising through the ranks to President Pro Tempore, a position second in power to the lieutenant governor. Appointed by then-Gov. Zell Miller, Garner served a four-year stint as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections, where he was the target of lawsuits alleging prisoner misconduct.

Charlie Watts, a 72-year-old Paulding County resident with a thick Alabama drawl, owned a company that sold supplies to banks before spending 13 years in the state House, where he served as the chairman of the Banks and Banking Committee.

By the turn of the millennium, Garner and Watts had walked through the revolving door from legislating into lobbying and today are among nearly 1,000 badge-wearing lobbyists registered in Georgia. Their firm, Southeastern Resource Group, relies on their institutional knowledge, personal relationships with everyone from the state troopers guarding the Capitol doors to the governor himself, and a good ol’ boy’s sense of humor.

“They remind me of the old vaudeville comedy duos—Abbott and Costello, perhaps Laurel and Hardy—only countrified,” says Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring, who’s worked at the Capitol since 1980. “They are also as amused at their joking as Red Skelton.”

Jokes aside, their expertise is valuable to clients, earning them up to $5,000 a month as contract lobbyists willing to represent anyone with a checkbook. “There’s no moral reason to turn a client down,” Garner says. Their client list reflects the sum of their connections: coroners, funeral directors, prison contractors, Paulding County government, Tanner Medical Center, and commercial lenders.

“We may not know a lot about each client that comes to us,” Garner says. “I represented the physical therapists one time. I didn’t know a damn thing about physical therapy. But I knew all the people on the health committee, and probably served with whoever was the head of the Department of Community Health.”

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Wayne Garner and Charlie Watts on their trusted piece of carpet

Max Blau

The clerk of the House rings the 10 o’clock bell to signal the official beginning of Crossover Day, the pivotal 30th day of the legislative session when bills must pass either the state House or Senate to have a shot at becoming law. A few minutes later, Garner and Watts stroll into the 127-year-old building. As they’ve learned over the years, very little gets accomplished in the first hour of the day. Garner likens the Capitol to a tobacco auction: If you’re visiting for the first time, it appears to be bedlam; eventually, though, you’ll see a method to the madness.

Every lobbyist has different goals, but they all serve four basic functions: to help bills become law, to stop other bills from passing, to tweak language to alter a bill’s intent, and to keep an eye on the sausage-making in case something unexpected happens. Unlike MARTA or the casino industry—two groups who this year spent a lot of money on armies of lobbyists to push major initiatives—Garner and Watts have smaller clients who may just want peace of mind from knowing someone is looking out for their interests.

With lawmakers in session, Watts visits the Secretary of the Senate’s office to pick up “first readers,” a list of the bills expected to make it to the floor for a vote. He spots a client’s bill: House Bill 889. According to Watts, state Rep. Rusty Kidd of Milledgeville—the Legislature’s only independent lawmaker—has a constituent who’d been prohibited from advertising his crematory at the four local funeral homes he owns. In response, Kidd wanted to change the law to legalize such advertising. One of their clients, the Independent Funeral Directors of Georgia, saw no problems with the legislation. Watts had been tracking the bill as it passed from the hopper to the House Regulated Industries Committee, and back to the House floor, to make sure no major changes were made.

Throughout the morning, Garner and Watts take turns monitoring the TVs that show the action inside the House and Senate chambers. As Watts watches for his bill, Garner roams the halls where he greets veteran lobbyists Monty Veazey (community hospitals) and Abit Massey (poultry farmers) and former interns-turned-colleagues like John Haliburton (craft brewers, dentists) and Graham Thompson (Amazon, Fulton County, Tasers). Near the rotunda, Garner runs into state Rep. Mike Dugan, a Carrollton Republican who is in the middle of getting a shoe shine. The two shake hands and trade thoughts on a bill up for a vote later in the day. Their small talk—like their shtick—seems innocuous, but it’s a crucial part of the lobbyist’s job. Those kind of brief interchanges, when accrued over time, could be the difference in getting a lawmaker’s attention during a pivotal vote. (Garner also has most legislators’ cell phone numbers just in case.)

Soon it’s time for an early lunch. Most days, Garner and Watts eat at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building cafeteria, the food hall that serves chain burritos and sad chicken sandwiches catty-corner from the Capitol. “We get tired of it,” Garner admits. Today, along with other lobbyists, they’ve chipped in $42.40 to buy House members and staffers a catered lunch that is set up outside the office of Republican state Rep. Tom McCall, an Elberton farmer who briefly served alongside Watts in the mid-‘90s.

As officials fill their plates, Garner hops into Watts’s beat-up Mercury Grand Marquis and the two head over to Peachtree Street. Garner rides the elevator 49 stories up the 191 Peachtree tower to the Commerce Club, where he and Roger Banks, a former college basketball scout responsible for recruiting Dominique Wilkins and Charles Barkley, order $13 ahi tuna rolls and overpriced club sandwiches. Watts, meanwhile, heads next door to the Ritz-Carlton to enjoy she-crab soup with industrial lenders.

Banks, a heavy-set man dressed in business casual, is an investor in Blind Tiger, a startup that’s developed technology to prevent inmates from using cell phones inside prisons. The problem is widespread—state corrections officials seized more than 23,500 phones in 2014 and 2015—and earlier this year, dozens of officers were arrested and charged with helping smuggle phones. Banks contacted Garner, whose background makes him a go-to guy for jail lobbying, on a referral from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Garner helped Banks schedule a Blind Tiger demonstration with the staff at Philips State Prison in Buford with a goal of obtaining a state contract. Garner later explains that helping clients make inroads with bureaucrats can be as important a part of his job as guiding the passage of new laws.

On the way back from lunch, I ask Garner and Watts whether they feel the generally negative public view of lobbyists is unfair. Garner says he understands how people can assume he and colleagues are all like Jack Abramoff, the notorious D.C. lobbyist who spent four years in jail for conspiracy and wire fraud.

“They see these politicians on TV,” he says. “That’s the vision they get.” (Garner, who was Carrollton’s mayor from 2003 to 2015, had once hired then-state Rep. Tim Bearden as a consultant to the city. Though TV stations didn’t cover the questionable arrangement, for which Bearden was paid nearly $95,000, Atlanta Unfiltered called Garner a “lobbyist with a legislator on the payroll.” Garner later denied any wrongdoing to a local newspaper.) People complain about lobbyists even when they stand to benefit from their efforts, Watts says. “You can’t name me a profession that doesn’t have a lobbyist, from the church house, to the house of prostitutes,” he says.

“Even newspapers have a lobbyist,” Garner adds.

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Wayne Garner and Charlie Watts lounge in the office of state Rep. Tom McCall (right).

Max Blau

Back at the Capitol, we head past the interns cleaning up the House buffet, and visit McCall’s office, which is cluttered with various knickknacks, state flags, and a popcorn machine. During the 2014 snowstorm, Watts crashed on McCall’s brown leather couch until Garner rescued him the next day. When a previous popcorn machine broke down, Garner gathered donations from fellow lobbyists to replace it. Now, as Garner chomps on a fistful of popcorn, McCall tells him about a betting pool that state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, has set up to guess what time they’ll adjourn tonight. Maybe 6:30? Maybe 8? Maybe later? Surprisingly, McCall says, they’re now running ahead of schedule. To help keep it that way, he heads back to the House floor.

It’s only a few minutes after two, but Garner says he’ll probably duck out early. After heading back to his favorite third-floor hallway spot, Garner learns that another bill he’s watching—a measure to repeal Georgia’s Certificate of Need law, which would scrap crucial industry regulations and disrupt Georgia hospitals like Tanner Medical Center—has stalled. “Unless they pull some shenanigans, you’ve got it made,” says Watts after learning HB 889—affecting the crematory—had sailed through with a 149-13 vote. During a late afternoon recess, state reps march past Garner and Watts toward the Rules Committee meeting to see which bills will make it onto the House calendar. It’s a brief chance to connect with some Republican legislators. Watts hollers, “Hey buddy!” to Rep. Richard Smith of Columbus; when Garner spots Rep. Dusty Hightower of Carrollton, he lets him know that he “looks so good in the well.”

In the final days of the General Assembly’s 2016 session, Garner and Watts will continue to keep tabs on the bills that survived Crossover Day. They’ll also work to push measures like HB 889 through the other chamber before the session ends on March 24. (The bill would ultimately stall.) Though their clients appear to have dodged large threats so far, both men know that legislative loopholes mean that no bill truly dies until last gavel is sounded. If they’re not watching closely, an unrelated bill might become a vehicle for unfriendly amendments. “On the last day, if legislation was a kidney stone, you could pass a motorcycle with a sidecar on it,” Garner says.

“You could go home and read about it in the paper,” Watts adds.

With Sine Die still weeks away, Watts strikes up a brief conversation with Col. Mark McDonough of the Georgia State Patrol. Garner mulls his post-session plans: a few client meetings, some golfing, and a Martha’s Vineyard trip with his wife. As the clock ticks toward 5 p.m., Garner and Watt head for the door, even though the House won’t end up adjourning for another four hours.

“The day is young, and I’m old,” Watts says.