Lobbyist might not top the list of Career Day aspirations, but Beth Marietta Lyons sees her natural progression from lawyer to Goat Hill advocate as an extension of her commitment to public service and her adopted home of Mobile.
“I really just work to make life a little easier for people, to help government work a little better, and because I’m around participating in my community, I’m able to see the difference it can make to have somebody pulling for you and making your voice heard. And trust me, there are a lot of voices clamoring to be the loudest, ” Lyons says.
The daughter of a Methodist minister and public school teacher, Lyons earned her law degree from the University of Alabama in 1978, served two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives and has parlayed her expertise and connections—plus her deep-rooted affection for the state’s port city—into a lengthy list of coastal clients seeking a voice in Montgomery.
“I always wanted to help people, to advocate for them, ” says Lyons, a Pensacola native who divided her youth among her father’s appointments in Demopolis, Montgomery, Mobile and Troy. The Azalea City and its sense of community, however, always held a special place for her.
“I always wanted to come back here, back to the water after school, ” says Lyons, whose husband, Jimmy Lyons, serves as director and CEO for the Alabama State Port Authority.
Lyons, a partner with Lyons and Crane in Mobile, says her lobbying career actually began after her second House term ended in 1990, when a long-time client asked for help drafting “enabling” legislation. Soon after, a local child-care center sought her assistance with regulatory issues and then the Mobile County Commission requested enabling legislation of its own.
“By definition, a lobbyist is anyone who attempts to influence a public body, ” she says, noting that the requirements are actually quite simple and include only registering, disclosing a client list and issues being addressed and then reporting periodically on any activity performed toward those pursuits, such as money spent.
Lyons says the term governmental relations pretty much sums up her support role—she generates background information, conducts comprehensive research into the issues at hand, pursues attorney general opinions, helps draft proposed legislation and lines up the appropriate sponsors for such bills.
“Pretty much, what I do during this ‘down’ time is all the legwork that has to get done before you ever show up for the session, ” she says.
And with clients ranging from both the city and county of Mobile to the port city’s Chamber of Commerce, airport and local seafood consortiums, Lyons says the almost hyper-local focus of her client base is no accident.
“People here know me, and they know that it’s the place I call home just like they do. That matters, ” she says, noting her visible presence also provides clients with a certain “comfort level” in hiring someone they know.
In turn, Lyons says reputation and word-of-mouth have historically driven her client base because coastal clients understand her focus is “almost exclusively on issues affecting this area of the state.”
Of course, nailing down exactly what the term lobbyist means depends entirely on the client, she says.
“I’m what they need me to be. It’s a wide range of titles and responsibilities, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to help them all get the recognition and face time they need in Montgomery. I’m always most satisfied when I represent a client I don’t think would have received representation otherwise, ” Lyons says.
And while the ongoing probe into questionable practices regarding anti-gambling legislation and the role lobbyists played in the debacle “dominated” the political climate in Montgomery in 2011, Lyons says the negative light it has cast on her field is undeniable but also cyclical and quite “healthy” in the long term.
“For the most part, lobbyists and legislators are terrific, ethical people, but there are exceptions to every rule and when you’re a high-profile figure you’ve got to expect people to ask questions when controversy arises, ” she says. The probe “has certainly caused a distraction to many of us trying to get our less controversial measures passed.”
Bear in mind, lobbying is far less glamorous than political commercials depicting smoke-filled, back-room deals would have the public at large believe, she says.
“It’s really far less exciting than that. It takes a lot of hard work and patience because democracy can be very messy, ” she says, noting she and her peers spend the majority of their time during a session simply waiting their turn to steal a few minutes from the legislator of the moment.
“This isn’t Congress. (Legislators) don’t have staff scheduling every minute of every day for them, so when the mayor of one of their towns drops in or a constituent calls, that becomes their priority—not us—and that’s the way it should be, ” she says. “Personally, I understand how demanding (the legislative process) is on time, so as a lobbyist, it’s my job to try to provide them with the tools they need to get up to speed in a hurry.”
“Our legislators are expected to take every phone call, attend every ribbon cutting in their district and never forget a name or stumble on an issue. It’s a very demanding task, and they don’t get much credit in that way. That’s why anything I can do to help them hear a client’s message or concern helps everybody, ” Lyons says.
Kelli Dugan is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.
By Kelli M. Dugan