On a damp afternoon in 1984, Steve Elmendorf was ecstatic. The field organizer for Walter Mondale had managed to pull together a respectable crowd of several thousand for a mid-day rally in an out-of-the way park the day after an important debate. "The elected officials, the union leaders suddenly have gotten a lot more willing to put out the bodies and the buses," the young Elmendorf exclaimed to a Washington Post reporter.
Over 30 years later, Elmendorf is still working behind the scenes in politics, but instead of procuring bodies he's busy bending the ears of lawmakers to the concerns of his clients: oil companies, big banks, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the leading junk food industry trade group, and most recently, Monsanto.
During his 12-year stint as senior advisor to House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., he was touted by Roll Call as one of the 50 most powerful people on Capitol Hill. He managed John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid and advised Hillary Clinton on her 2008 White House campaign.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has called Elmendorf "an effective and inspirational champion for change."
But change for whom?
Elmendorf has lobbied on issues close to liberals hearts like gun control and gay rights, but his bread and butter are his corporate clients including agrichemical companies and junk food industry giants.
Elmendorf's client, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, has fought efforts to keep soda and junk food out of schools amid concerns about rising childhood obesity, supports the use of hormones in milk that are banned in other countries, waged a fake "grassroots" PR campaign against ethanol, opposed legislation to label chocolate produced by child slave labor, and is currently battling a money laundering lawsuit.
That Elmendorf took on Monsanto as a client was no surprise to public interest lobbyist and Campaign Legal Center policy director Meredith McGehee. "You have someone who was close to high ranking officials in Congress who goes and becomes lobbyist. That's unfortunately the way the system works," said McGeehee adding that she long ago gave up judging ideological purity of her fellow lobbyists.
The deck is stacked in favor of corporate interests when it comes to quality of our food system, according to New York University nutrition professor and Food Politics blogger, Marion Nestle. "Professional lobbyists provide their side of the issues to members of Congress, write legislation, and explain to representatives what might happen if they do not vote the way the companies want. Most consumer groups cannot afford to hire people to do any of these things, so the system favors the GMA and Monsanto."
As a lobbyist for the junk food industry, Elmendorf's firm raked in $360,000 in 2013 and 2014 to secure an industry-friendly farm bill, represent junk food industry interests in an overhaul of federal food safety laws, and push for a federal law that would trump local GMO labeling efforts, according to Senate lobbying disclosures.
On labeling, the GMA has fought state level proposals to label genetically engineered foods and wants to kill grassroots labeling efforts once and for all through federal legislation. Last year, the GMA enlisted Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, to sponsor an industry-friendly bill that would bar states from setting their own standards. If it became law, the bill would supersede efforts to require mandatory labeling or otherwise regulate genetically engineered introduced in over 30 states.
Meanwhile, 93 percent of consumers support mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.
Elmendorf is an obvious choice for Monsanto as he has sided with big tech firms and financial services companies against labor, small inventors, colleges and universities on the issue of patent reform, a key concern of Monsanto whose patented Roundup Ready corn and soybeans represent over 80 and 93 percent respectively of U.S. yields for those crops.
As a top producer of pesticides and patented seeds, Monsanto has strong financial interests in thwarting government regulation of its products. The agrichemical industry spends millions every year lobbying legislators and Monsanto is consistently the top spender.
Monsanto knows how to make money talk. In 2013, the company successfully lobbied Congress to include a provision in a federal funding bill that stripped power from courts to stop genetically engineered seeds from being planted in cases where there were safety and environmental concerns. The provision went to so far as to force the Agriculture Department to issue permits to farmers who wanted to keep planting the controversial seeds.
Monsanto's long game has long been to court sympathy at the highest levels of government. One of its earliest successes was the adoption of a policy that allows agrichemical companies to test their own products and selectively present those results to the FDA for approval. The government does no safety testing of its own.
In the past, Monsanto has a served as a revolving door for top posts at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency charged with protecting the public from harmful pesticides and ensuring the safety of our food system.
In Elmendorf they have found a powerful advocate to push their agenda on the Hill too.
"He's one of the best operatives and political thinkers in the party," Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan told the New York Times in 2004. "Steve understands where all the levers are. He understands what it takes to win, and he's really good at political hand-to-hand combat."