H. West Richards | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
The Art of Government Affairs
By Staff Writer
When telling people what his job is, West Richards is always prepared to explain further. “Everyone’s heard of lobbyists but nobody really knows what a lobbyist does, so I’m always happy to explain,” he says. As one of only 5 registered federal lobbyists in Metro Atlanta, he has to do it frequently.
West Richards was born and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a manufacturing city right on the state line between Pennsylvania and Ohio. As a student, his favorite subject was history and early on he displayed a love of politics and current events. Though he found team sports interesting, his favorite form of exercise was snow skiing. He even took off a winter from school at 15 to spend three months training in Saltzburg, Austria with members of the Austrian Olympic Ski team. West was a member of both his high school and college ski teams and still enjoys getting out on the slopes today. “I know it sounds like a coddled childhood, but I assure you it wasn’t,” he says. “My parents had strong work ethics and insisted that I have one, too - I really didn’t have a choice.” West did odd jobs and had full time summer work ever year from the age of 14. “I worked on the line for GM, drove a truck for US Steel, worked in a bakery – that was the hardest, and hottest, job. I even delivered mail for the Post Office one year, which is an unusual summer job to have,” he says.
When it came time for college, West had managed to secure an appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, but his physical exam revealed that he would never be able to fly or command a submarine due to seasonal allergies, so he let that opportunity drop. Enrolling at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, West started working part-time for the Dean of Humanities in his freshman year working on various research projects. His boss, Pat Crecine, would later become Provost of Carnegie-Mellon and President of Georgia Tech. Because of his work for Crecine, West got to work on a number of interesting projects and become acquainted with several famous people. Carnegie-Mellon was the first Humanities college to become totally computerized, in the early Eighties, allowing West to become friends with Steve Jobs and to meet a number of high-tech CEOs, like Bill Campbell of Intuit. A Political Science and Government major, West took off six months from college to accept an LBJ Internship which had him working for a Congressman in the US House of Representatives in Washington, DC.
After college, West worked briefly in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Carnegie-Mellon and did Internships with both CNN and the BBC before accepting a permanent position on Capitol Hill as a staffer for a Member of Congress in 1987. By 1991, he became Chief of Staff and at 27 was the youngest Chief of Staff for a Congressman on the Hill. While serving in the legislative branch, West got to see both how government worked and also what didn’t work. “Contrary to popular belief,” says West, “Congress works pretty well – at least it works the way it’s supposed to. Of course, that isn’t always to everyone’s liking.” But it does work in the way the founding fathers intended, he feels. “The House is supposed to be closer to the people, and it is,” says West. “I’ve seen earth shaking matters pass very quickly through the House because citizens contact their representatives who then act immediately. I’ve also seen important matters languish but it’s usually because of a lack of interest by the people.”
When asked about the differences he sees between the House and Senate, West uses his own interesting 80/20 rule to explain. “Most of the House mirrors general society. 80% of House Members are people like you and me, regular people, while 20% of House Members are special because they have one or more of three qualities – they are either fantastically smart, exceedingly rich or socially prominent,” he says, “while in the Senate the 80/20 rule is reversed: 20% of senators tend to have regular backgrounds while 80% are exceptional in one or more of the three ways mentioned.” Whatever the qualities of members from either party, West has enjoyed working with them all. “I have worked with Congress from both the inside and the outside and I must say that nearly without exception, they are all extremely dedicated. Few people understand how hard the Members and staff work.”
From today’s perspective, West sees being a staffer as a rite of passage. “Staffers are overworked and underpaid. Thank goodness it’s prestigious enough to attract some good people because they aren’t doing it for the money.” Eventually, however, all Members and staff have to come to grips with the realities of life in government. “After the initial enthusiasm and idealism passes, you begin to realize that you will accomplish less than you thought you could at the beginning. You have to live with that.” West actually thinks this is a good thing. “It all goes back to the Constitution,” says West, “and things are simply not meant to change quickly.” With maturity, he believes, comes a deeper appreciation of the system we have today. “Yes,” he says, ‘it’s a lot of work building consensus, but it can be done, and we have the best system for doing it.”
Working as Chief of Staff for a congressman on Capitol Hill was like being an air traffic controller, according to West. “You are the face of the congressman to the staff, and have to manage their work,” he says, “but you are also the face of the congressman to the news media.” Most Members of Congress have both a Chief of Staff and a press secretary, but West handled both jobs. “Communications are key,” he says, “because you have to be clear not only with your constituents, but also with the other Members of Congress from your state delegation and with your state Governor. More than one Member of congress has gotten into trouble by not keeping his fellow congressmen or governor apprised on what they were doing, but bipartisan communications are certainly not mandatory in every situation.” While working on the congressional staff, West worked on several important legislative matters, most of which the public would consider mundane, but one thing he worked on resonates with all people, either one way or the other. “We passed no smoking on airline flights and in public buildings,” he said, “which the majority of people appreciate and this legislation was copied around the world.”
In his job as Chief of Staff, West also made frequent trips to the White House to meet with the president’s staff on legislative matters. It makes little sense to pass legislation that you know the executive won’t sign, so initial “buy in” from the White House is essential. West even met in the Oval Office with President Clinton twice, including the time Clinton picked him up to give him a bear hug.” Says West, “my congressman was crucial to getting Democrats to go along with the more conservative budget that President Clinton wanted and he showed his appreciation.”
West left Capitol Hill in 1994 to work for Pat Crecine, then President at Georgia Tech, to run PR for him in the run up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. A vast infrastructure was being built on the Atlanta campus to serve the Games and later become part of the institution. The whole world wanted to know if it would all be done on time. After all, Georgia Tech was not just a venue for a number of sports - it was also the site of the Olympic Village. The buildings were ready and the Tech campus doubled in size to the world class institution we know today.
Following the Olympics, in 1997, West was invited to help start the world’s first internet association as founding Executive Director. The Georgia Electronic Commerce Association was begun as a public-private partnership, which meant that both private corporations and individuals were welcome to join as were governmental entities. The purpose of the group was to advocate for laws, rules and regulations that would help Georgia move more smoothly into the digital age. With West’s help, the group was able to convince the Georgia Assembly to pass the first digital signature act in the country. This law became the model for federal legislation signed by President Clinton before he left office and is now the model for the whole world. “I was proud of the work we did,” says West, “because it was truly a function of educating legislators to act in accordance with the best interests of the people they serve.”
After establishing the Georgia Electronic Commerce Association, West worked for a number of years in technology consulting, including a stint with Anderson Consulting in Atlanta. In 2009, however, a friend who was the CEO of a financial services company asked West if he could help him with problems his company was having on Capitol Hill. The financial services industry found itself under intense scrutiny after the financial crash of 2008. A number of laws were passed and proposals made that would greatly affect the ability of many of the firms to do business. While a natural reaction to the banking and mortgage crisis, it appeared that legislative overreaching would threaten the very existence of many companies that had nothing to do with the crisis. One such part of the financial services industry was the reverse mortgage sector.
Most of the large reverse mortgage companies at the time were owned by the big banks. But with TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) and issues related to “too big to fail” going on, the banks were paying no attention to the proposed laws that could kill the reverse mortgage industry. At this point, executives with Guggenheim Partners, which owned the largest independent reverse mortgage company in the US, approached West to see if he could help.
Fortunately, West knew exactly what to do. He immediately put together a team of people to “work the Hill” on behalf of the industry. “It was definitely a crisis,” says West, “and we essentially did five years of lobbying in five months. Against all odds, we were able to persuade the House and senate to approve a special subsidy request from the Executive branch.” West and his team first had to explain to congressmen and senators what a reverse mortgage was and why they were essential. A reverse mortgage allows the homeowner to draw equity dollars from their home, in either the form of a lump sum or a monthly annuity, and also to continue living in the home until they choose to leave the home – at which time the home is either sold to pay back the reverse mortgage or the heirs can take out a loan to keep the house. “Reverse mortgages are extremely fair and they help solve a huge public policy problem,” says West. “Move that 10,000 people each day turning 65 in this country – the senior population is growing fast. Also, most of these people would prefer to live in their homes if they can afford to. Lastly, we don’t really have an alternative – even if we started today, it is highly unlikely that we could get to the point of building facilities for 10,000 new nursing home beds per day. Even if we could, most people would rather be independent.”
After saving the industry from ruin, West was asked to serve as Executive Director of a new industry group – The Coalition for Independent Seniors (CIS) – to advocate on Capitol Hill on behalf of the leading industry companies. “It was vital to have an organization in place to help make sure it didn’t happen again,” he said. In his capacity as leader of this group, West spends most of his time with congressmen, senator and their staffs to make sure that they really understand how the industry’s financial products work and why they are important. Arranging for industry leaders to give testimony before the House Financial services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee are also important functions. “It’s very important for a lobbyist to have a good working relationship with the chairmen of the important committees,” says West.
What most people don’t understand about lobbyists, West believes, is the vital role they play in making sure that congressional and executive leaders get vital information necessary for decision making. Also, people don’t realize that the act of lobbying is protected by the first amendment to the Constitution which states that the “right to petition Congress” may not be abridged. “Any citizen or group of citizens can lobby under our system but the practical reality is that few people have time,” he says, “and much of the lobbying being done is to prevent harm from being done inadvertently, as almost happened to reverse mortgages.”
West believes that having good advocates for the financial services industry is important for the country in general but also for Georgia in particular. “Financial services are flourishing in the state,” he says, “and the payment processing portion of financial services alone – in Georgia – is almost as big as the entire US movie industry and dominated by companies here in the same way that California companies dominate movies. That’s a valuable asset and the job of protecting it is important,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are still some people who want to ‘teach Wall Street a lesson,’ and it’s my job to let lawmakers know that you aren’t hurting Wall Street, you’re hurting Main Street – including a whole lot of people who live in your district.”
West and his wife Linda live in Roswell, Georgia and he travels to Washington, DC nearly every week. He likes to joke that he has dual passports between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. West is also a Triathlon enthusiast. Since 2009 he has competed in two SPRINT distance Triathlons, three OLYMPIC distance Triathlons and one IRONMAN (70.3). He races in the Washington, D.C. NATIONS Olympic Triathlon every year and plans to compete in the Miami Beach IRONMAN in 2014. In just about all of his races he has raised substantial funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and has competed as part of the LLS Georgia Triathlon Team on four separate occasions raising funds for Cancer research.
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