Trump’s Pennsylvania Mastermind Sees Lobbying Boom in Washington

  • Lobbyist surfaces as possible addition to White House staff
  • Clients include retailers, issues include financial services

David Urban is having a bumper year.

After masterminding President Donald Trump’s crucial 2016 election victory in Pennsylvania, he has quickly emerged as one of Washington’s most influential lobbyists. Urban’s firm, American Continental Group, has already registered 18 new clients this year -- six times as many as a year ago -- bringing in at least $550,000 in the first three months of 2017.

Urban, 53, would seem to fit squarely into what Trump has derided as Washington’s “swamp,” a place where lobbyists earn six- or seven-figure incomes by cajoling former government colleagues on behalf of big business. Yet his name has also surfaced as a possible addition to the White House personnel roster if Trump decides to shake up staffing. He has good relationships with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, according to a person who worked with Urban during the campaign. Bannon and Kushner have had a sometimes difficult relationship.

The White House press office didn’t respond to a request for comment. Urban declined to comment for this story. He tends to believe the government needs disrupting, people familiar with his thinking say. At the same time, his firm’s website pays homage to the constitutional tradition behind lobbying, displaying the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Urban has an “unparalleled network of people,” said Bill Morley, the chief executive officer of the Altrius Group who counts Pfizer Inc. among his lobbying clients. “He’s got those relationships all around town.”

Border Battle

For what has been one of the hardest-fought issues of Trump’s administration, the National Retail Federation hired Urban to defeat the border-adjusted tax, a controversial measure championed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and several powerful exporters, including Boeing Co. and Oracle Corp. The White House, which initially indicated some support for the proposal, has since backed away from it.

Urban, who has appeared frequently as a commentator on CNN, has also registered to lobby on “issues related to the financial services industry,” and renewable fuel standards, federal disclosures show. But the records may provide only a partial glimpse of Urban’s work and influence. That’s because only certain types of work trigger requirements to register, and consultants often provide strategic advice or other services that don’t require registrations.

For instance, last month Urban registered as a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and then -- one day later -- terminated that registration. Both Urban and a Goldman Sachs spokesman declined to comment on whether Urban’s firm is providing any services that don’t require registration.

Even before Trump came along, Urban’s blue-ribbon client list included Hewlett-Packard, Intel Corp., Pfizer and Comcast Corp. “People hire guys who can deliver results,” said Morley, who first met Urban when both worked for former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. “I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that he was good at figuring out complex issues.”

‘Teddy Bear’

Urban, who is 6-foot-1, is known for having a competitive streak and a willingness to speak bluntly. “He’s a physical guy,” said Charles Robbins, a former Specter communications director who has kept in touch with him. “He won’t hurt you but he will put one of those massive paws on your shoulder, around your arm, give you a hug.” Like others, he called Urban “a big teddy bear.”

Though he’s a Republican, Urban is relatively apolitical with lots of Democratic friends, colleagues and clients, friends say. One described him as a Trump voter: a military veteran who’s the son of a union worker from a blue-collar area.

Urban grew up in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, along the Ohio border. An altar boy, he graduated from West Point and served in Desert Storm, receiving the Bronze Star. His political career took off under Specter, who hired him in 1997. Less than a year later, Urban became Specter’s chief of staff.

Specter, who died in 2012, could be a legendarily difficult boss, former staff members say -- but Urban grew into one of the few people who could tell the senator things he didn’t want to hear.

“We shared a lot of laughs over Arlen,” said Ed Rendell, a Democrat who served as Pennsylvania’s governor. Rendell worked for Specter in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office in the 1970s and later served as Philadelphia’s mayor while Urban was working in Specter’s office.

Presidential Campaign

Later, Rendell and Urban squared off against each other, working as campaign advisers in Pennsylvania as Trump battled Democrat Hillary Clinton for its 20 electoral votes. The state was considered a Democratic stronghold that would make Trump’s success in the presidential race impossible.

But Urban told campaign officials that Trump was winning among people who weren’t showing up in the polls. To make sure those people voted, though, the campaign needed to keep their enthusiasm high -- so Urban convinced the national campaign to send Trump himself, as well as surrogates, according to a former campaign staff member who had knowledge of the matter. Trump won Pennsylvania by fewer than 70,000 votes.

“I couldn’t deliver what David delivered,” said Rendell, who as governor hired Urban to lobby for the state. “He had the right strategy.”

Since then, a lot of people looking to hire lobbyists appear to agree.

“His lobbying practice has obviously picked up but he’s always had a good practice,” said Larry Ceisler, Pennsylvania communications strategist who co-owns a politics website with Urban.

While his prospects as a White House staff member remain unclear, Urban picked up the endorsement of one Trump backer: Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative.

“He is fiercely loyal to Trump.” Stone wrote on his website. “He also knows his way around Washington and the federal bureaucracy.”

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