Paul and Danelle Romain lobby like father, like daughter.
One week after the close of the 2016 legislative session, Paul Romain and his daughter and business partner, Danelle Romain, are sitting in their ninth floor Portland office, reflecting on a time years ago when they worked for different lobbying firms.
“We opposed each other; it was fun,” says Danelle, who represented Anheuser-Busch; her father represented the Oregon Beer & Wine Distributors Association.
Paul’s side won. “She wouldn’t talk to me for two weeks,” he says.
Danelle laughs: “Oh, that’s normal.”
And so it goes at the Romain Group, an influential business lobbying firm with a history that dates back to 1979, when Paul, 69, started working as a sole practitioner. Danelle, 38, signed on in 2006, and their blend of experience and youthful dynamism helps drive the firm’s success.
It's a relationship that combines legal and political savvy with plenty of jousting: the kind of interplay you see between a father and daughter who not only love each other but also happen to work awfully well as a professional team.
“We’re both lawyers, and we pride ourselves on looking at things from a legal standpoint,” says Paul. “And when we take on an issue, we want to know it better than anybody else.”
Their spirited interaction reflects the Romain Group’s thorough approach, Danelle says. “We both like to control situations, which can cause conflict. We contradict each other, and I think clients like that we are fully thinking though an issue.”
For 37 years, Paul steered first his own practice and then the Romain Group toward a select group of legacy businesses: fossil fuel companies, pawnbrokers, beer and wine distributors and consumer-owned utilities.
Now the business is on the cusp of change, with Danelle taking the reins and her father slowly transitioning away from the firm. She became an equal partner this year and is now the Romain Group’s “official decision maker,” a marked change from the past, says Danelle.
“Oh, no, the power’s been there 39 years,” her father responds.
The seeds of the family lobbying business were planted during Danelle’s childhood. Her parents divorced and remarried when she was very young, and her stepfather, Len Bergstein, owns the public affairs firm Northwest Strategies. “I grew up in both houses; I was just immersed in politics,” says Danelle.
During the recent legislative session, Paul, Danelle and Bergstein partnered together for the first time in their careers. The trio represented a group of developers, the Holland Partner Group, while working on the landmark housing bill to lift the inclusionary zoning ban. “People joked in Salem it was My Two Dads,” Danelle says.
Back in the office, the paterfamilias context is a double-edged sword, says Danelle. “It’s nice but can be a little patronizing,” she says. “Sometimes I’m called kiddo in the office.”
Paul describes a recent lunch meeting he and Danelle hosted for utility clients. “We were discussing a bill, and all of a sudden Danelle says, ‘You are not doing that.’ I turned to someone and said, ‘I’m so proud of her.’ She was absolutely right and really asserted herself.”
After graduating from law school, Danelle worked for lobbyist Mark Nelson in Salem — another powerful business lobbyist who is in the process of retiring — for two years. But the daily commute (Danelle lives in Portland) got to her, and she wanted more control of her clients. So when her father came calling, Danelle jumped at the chance.
Meanwhile, Paul was thinking about both expanding the business and retiring. “Danelle had the best training,” says Paul, referring to her tenure with Nelson’s firm. “I was a little nervous at first, but it’s worked out extremely well.”
He elaborates: “There are times when I’ll say something, and Danelle will say: ‘Oh God, I can’t believe you said that.’ But we’ve developed a relationship where we’re both happy with each other’s work, which is the most important thing.”
That dynamic has evolved over time. The duo divides up the workload based on competence and availability. Danelle gravitates toward the utility industry; Paul, beer and wine. An iconic figure in Salem, Paul is steeped in institutional knowledge. He’s also known as a tough negotiator. Danelle is more inclusive and in tune with the current legislative makeup.
“Paul has great experience and he’s a trusted, known entity in Oregon,” says Chris Sarles, CEO of Oregon Fruit Products, who worked with the Romain Group when he was the president of the Beer & Wine Association. “But Paul will make an enemy here and there. Danelle has a great way of working with everyone. She can pull off the same thing as her father, and everybody still loves her.”
The Romains’ generational differences parallel changes that have taken place in the lobbying business over the years. “When I started, lobbying was done at the bar,” says Paul. “It was all entertainment; all ‘hail fellow well met.’ That day and age is gone.”
Danelle picks up the thread. “Which is a blessing. I have two kids [two boys, ages 3 and 5]. I don’t want to spend my evening in a bar in Salem.”
An influx of women and young people is also reshaping the profession. “When I first started I remember going to parties in Salem and being warned: Stay away from this person when they’ve had too much to drink, or sexual harassment situations,” says Danelle. “I don’t know any situation like that today.”
Now the controlling partner, Danelle is the firm spokesperson and makes decisions about political contributions. Looking ahead, she aims to diversify the Romain Group’s clientele beyond the roster of mostly old-school, backroom businesses. She would also like to see a different image for the firm.
“We have an excellent reputation, a lot of which comes from my father’s years of bringing in big wins,” she says. “But I have a different personality and style, and I employ different tactics to get us a seat at the policy negotiation table.”
Oregon has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, says Danelle. “I want to reflect that. I want to be approachable.”
New talent will help with that effort. David Rocker, a law partner at the Portland firm Davis Wright Tremaine, will join the Romain Group in July — the first time a nonfamily member will be part of the firm’s lobbying team.
Danelle is also ready to train a new generation at home. “I can’t wait to take my boys to Salem,” she says. “It will be nice to teach them the process.”
Romain senior echoes the sentiment. He describes “the most thrilling part” of the 2016 legislative session:” weekday mornings, when he picked up Danelle for their daily drive to Salem.
“I’d pull up to her house at the crack of dawn, and the boys would be standing in front of the glass door,” Paul says. “They’d say: ‘GrandPaul is here! GrandPaul is here!’”
Paul reflects on his career and the firm he built into a powerhouse. “The one thing you know for sure is you’re going to exit. Anytime you have a child who can be successful and carry on stuff, it’s good.”
On politics: “When you’re a lobbyist, you need 31 friends in the House and 16 friends in the Senate, and you need a friend in the governor’s office,” says Paul. “I don’t care whether the friends are red, white or blue. It doesn’t make a difference.”
On pawnbrokers: “Pawnbrokers are the entry-level bank,” says Paul. “It’s amazing how many people go to pawnbrokers to buy things, or if they can’t get a loan, or to store a gun. They are one of the best, safest places to store a firearm.”
On municipal-owned utilities: “They are the green power,” says Danelle. “They have hydro-power, methane recapture. They are responsible directly to the people; they don’t have a profit. They may not be the trendiest, but when we get down to the legislature, they tend to be at the forefront of whatever is going on.”
On gas taxes: “We are opposed to the Portland gas tax because we don’t believe in local taxes,” says Paul. “We are trying to work on a state transportation package. If Portland passes the gas tax, the chance of a state tax is slim to none.”