You can't miss the wine locker. You're not supposed to. It's right at eye level when you walk through the front doors of the Capital Grille, the imperial steak house on Pennsylvania Avenue where many of the top lobbyists in Washington gather to sup and smoke and drink. The restaurant has a row of private stash boxes that are tucked into the wall, and in each of these wine lockers the most loyal customers keep a little stockpile of Bordeaux or Cohibas or whatever other extras might be desired in the course of a meal. Each locker has a nameplate, but a sense of discretion (or comedy) compels most of the owners of these nameplates to opt for goofy pseudonyms: Chitimacha. Artemis. A.A. The Natty G. The nameplate on Jarvis C. Stewart's box says this: jarvis c. stewart. Stewart eats here whenever he can, and he's not much interested in keeping that a secret. "A lot of people used to say, 'Jarvis, why you hanging out at the Capital Grille where all those Republicans and white boys hang out?' My dad always told me, 'Go where you can stand out.'"
Stewart the elder could not have predicted just how far that piece of counsel would take his youngest son. At 37, Jarvis Stewart is one of the most visible and connected young lobbyists in the K Street corridor. He runs his own boutique firm, Stewart Partners, which covers Capitol Hill for such huge corporate clients as Verizon, Toyota, FedEx, and Wal-Mart, and he stands out not just because he is black and a Democrat and has a shaved head, but because he prefers to steer clear of what he considers an outmoded method of black Democratic advancement in Washington. If the old rallying cry was "Fight the power," Stewart wants to sit down with the power for a platter of crab legs and a glass of bourbon on the rocks. "I like Maker's Mark," he says. "It's the only thing I drink. Their old lobbyist was a friend of mine, so I got cases of it."
To make your mark as a lobbyist, you've got to be very good at a couple of things: knowing and being known. Understanding the intricacies of legislative combat—that's the tangible expertise for which a corporate client might pay you, say, $25,000 a month. But the intangibles are just as crucial: A lobbyist should have an infinite network of friends and a Tourettic habit of dropping their names. Stewart excels at this. "It's not that I know everything," he says. "It's that a lot of people know Jarvis." Stewart's tight with Congressman Harold Ford Jr. and the consultant Morris Reid. He's married to Stacey Stewart, president of the Fannie Mae Foundation. He used to be business partners with Amy Mehlman, who's married to lobbyist Bruce Mehlman, who's the brother of Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is part of the group of investors that recently bought the Washington Nationals baseball team. At the Capital Grille Stewart chats with a guy from Toyota, one of his corporate employers, and it turns out that Mr. Toyota is having lunch with Matt Schlapp, the former Bush White House political director, who's now a lobbyist. Around and around it goes.
"Hey, Matt, I didn't know you were slumming," Stewart says. "That guy pays me every month."
"He might not anymore," Schlapp jokes.
If you still happen to read newspapers, you might be under the impression that these are gloomy days for lobbyists and that the icky influence-peddling scandals attached to names like Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham would be enough to shame the average fixer into settling for a turkey sandwich and a Snapple at his desk, at least for a week or so. To think that way would be to misjudge both the character of lobbyists (who are immune to the crippling effects of shame) and the economic mojo of the District of Columbia.
Take lobbying reform: One idea floating around is a $20 cap on the gifts, including meals, with which a lobbyist could treat a member of Congress. Stewart thinks that proposal's likely to get stomped out faster than Ralph Nader at a Toby Keith concert. "The Capital Grille would fuckin' cave in," he says. "That won't happen. Twenty bucks? You can't get a blow job for $20. Not that I've ever paid for it."
You can learn a lot from spending a day with Jarvis Stewart in Washington—instant lessons about the dominance of money, the futility of political protest, and the eternal enchantments of fun. Because there's no getting around it—Stewart is a fun guy. He's cocky, blustery, frequently raunchy, and winningly gluttonous. He gives the impression of knowing every waiter and concierge in every major city in America, and a mere mention of the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills can transport him into a state of delirium. "At the Peninsula they have monogrammed pillowcases," he says. "j.c.s. It's beautiful! That's what I refer to as a panty-dropper. The first time I saw that, I took it. That's some ghetto shit to do."
Today Stewart, the grandson of a Texas pig farmer and a product of a rough precinct of Houston, is wearing a dark Hugo Boss suit and a pink Hermès tie. At the office in the morning Stewart is joined by his right-hand man, Tyrone Bland. Keeping tabs on a lobbyist's assortment of friends and foes is like watching a vast 3-D game of musical chairs directed by the Wachowski brothers. "You know Bill Thomas is retiring?" Bland says. Thomas presides over the omnipotent House Ways and Means Committee. Now comes a rumor that Roy Ashburn, a staunchly right-wing state senator from California, might run for his seat.
"I know Ashburn," Bland tells Stewart. "He would repulse you. He would make you ill."
"Tyrone, we're lobbyists," Stewart says, unfazed. "Even our friends make us ill."
You know what I like about Republicans?" Stewart says. He's steering his black Mercedes CL 500 through the narrow side streets on Capitol Hill, looking for a parking space. "They like to win. They understand the world of power and influence. And if you're in politics and you aren't interested in power and influence, then you need to get out." Even though he remains a registered Democrat, Stewart seems to reserve his spiciest criticism for Democratic kingpin Howard Dean ("His shit with black people is just fucked up right now," Stewart tells a friend over the phone) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose last name Stewart manages to pronounce as if it were a skin disease. In conversation, at least, Stewart's ideology seems to boil down to: There's a big game going on, so why are the Democrats standing on the sidelines?
Stewart can't find a parking spot, but he spies a friend who specializes in raising money for candidates. The fund-raiser is chatting on the sidewalk with a lobbyist from Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical company. Stewart rolls down the window. "Gouge him," Stewart tells the fund-raiser. "He's got a ton of money. Take him for everything he's worth."
The joshing pas de deux between lobbyists and lawmakers is such an accepted and pervasive part of Washington life that it makes even the slightest squeak of populist outrage seem laughably naive. The lobbyists are everywhere; there are said to be about 12,000 of them. A guy like Jarvis Stewart, whose stated goal is to stand out, needs to be creative, which is why Stewart Partners just opened a West Coast office in Century City. Stewart's plan is to become the inside-the-Beltway liaison for celebrities—actors, record producers, rappers—who want to get their voices heard in the Capitol. He's seen plenty of these stars swagger into Washington to make one point or another, and naturally nothing ever comes of it, other than a couple of snapshots that some senator's kid can show off at St. Albans the next day. As Bono has figured out, getting anyone to listen to a pop star takes intensive work over the course of years.
Ron Gillyard, a record executive who's held top posts at Interscope, J Records, and Bad Boy, says that a lot of show-business folks have influence and money to burn but no practical sense of how to apply them. "The same thing Jarvis does for Verizon he can do for Jay-Z," Gillyard says. "Jarvis can teach them how to play on the political stage."
Kanye West is said to have an interest in keeping kids from dropping out of high school, but the way Stewart sees it, the rapper's not likely to make any real progress with the "George Bush doesn't care about black people" approach. Stewart imagines bringing Kanye West to Washington and sitting him down with a conservative senator. "How about Trent Lott?" he says. "Wouldn't that be fantastic? I'd be a fuckin' rock star. I'd have everybody licking my ass if I got Kanye West to meet with Trent Lott. We could call Trent Lott 'T.L. Smooth.'"
Stewart likes passing along these quickie tutorials in diplomacy. He remembers one night when he and Tyrone Bland met a congressman for dinner in Beverly Hills and the maître d' told Bland that they would need to wait 45 minutes for a table: "I said, 'Tyrone, one of the reasons I am such a big swinging dick in Washington is that I get what I want. Here's a hundred-dollar bill. I want to be seated within seconds of your giving him that hundred-dollar bill.' You've got to have that kind of swagger."
Apparently the swagger method worked that evening in Beverly Hills, and it worked tonight, too: Somehow Stewart has landed a prime booth at a packed and rocking F Street restaurant called the Oceanaire, even though he didn't have a reservation. He's got a glass of Maker's Mark in his hand and a towering platter of seafood on the table—clams casino, oysters, shrimp, calamari, crab cakes of almost unimaginable creaminess—and he's got majordomo corporate lobbyists like Rick Rodgers and Cliff Madison dropping by the table for a little backslappy fun. "Cliff is one of these guys who understands the policy on a whole different level," Stewart says admiringly. "When the policy is being written, that's when you want to be in play." As an example of the Great Achievements in Lobbying that Stewart holds in the highest esteem, he mentions the surge in defense spending after 9/11: "The guys who made $600 million were the guys who were in the room when the deal was being cut."
Midway through the meal Matt Schlapp reappears. He gestures toward Stewart and says, "This is a good guy. He'll get you into the finest restaurants in town." Then Schlapp hands Stewart his business card and says, "We should talk."
"There you go," Stewart says, giving the card a satisfied glance. "It's in play."