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Now free to chat up his former congressional colleagues, Jim Matheson, the conservative Utah Democratic congressman-turned-lobbyist, has signed a slate of clients in recent weeks that includes Salt Lake Community College, a major energy company and a group of payday lenders worried about new federal rules.
Matheson joined Squires Patton Boggs, a big bipartisan lobbying firm, in January 2015, just a few weeks after he stepped away from his 14-year career in the U.S. House. By law, he was barred from lobbying lawmakers or their staffs for one year. It's a "cooling-off period" that he says has some merit. But since the beginning of 2016, Matheson has cobbled together a diverse group of clients, none more controversial than the one he signed April 1, the Ad Hoc Coalition for Fair Access to Credit.
The coalition comprises four payday lenders none based in Utah that have hired Matheson, along with former Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, to track the actions of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The bureau, formed in 2011 in reaction to the Great Recession, promises to release new rules governing the short-term, high-interest loans later this year, with the stated goal of ensuring the public isn't preyed upon.
Matheson said his job is to point out to regulators that the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, which created the bureau and which Matheson voted for in the House, not only sets up a process to regulate payday lenders, but also requires "maintaining consumer access to capital."
The son of late Utah Gov. Scott Matheson equated being a lobbyist to being a public defender, suggesting that everyone deserves adequate counsel when interacting with the government, and, at the same time, he said, "you've got to be comfortable that the specific policy is fair to pursue."
In this case, he said the payday lenders are not trying to avoid a federal rule, but they want to make sure it is fair and that it doesn't unnecessarily restrict their business.
"We would all agree that we want our regulatory entities to follow the process they are supposed to follow," he said.
That may include a push for new legislation or, at the least, an effort to get House members and senators engaged in the topic. That could prompt Matheson to visit the woman who claimed his seat.
Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, won in Utah's 4th Congressional District in 2014, the year Matheson decided to retire. She sits on the Financial Services Committee and has a seat on the subcommittee that oversees the bureau and payday lenders.
Matheson, who beat Love in a close race in 2012, said he has not talked to her about this issue or any other. While he has lobbied some members of Congress this year, he hasn't yet met with any of Utah's representatives.
Jean Hill, who lobbies for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, has been an advocate for greater restrictions on payday loans. She would love to see the bureau institute an interest-rate cap, though she concedes that is unlikely.
She holds out hope that payday lenders will help craft rules that protect borrowers, and she sees Matheson's involvement as a potentially positive step.
"I respect Jim, and while in office, he was very conscientious toward working for the common good," she said. "I hope he continues that in his lobbying practice as well."
It is fairly common for politicians to become lobbyists. Frank Pignanelli spent six years as the Democratic leader in the Utah House. Now he is one of the state's most prominent lobbyists. It was a switch he hadn't envisioned.
"The reason I was intrigued is the legislative process and the political dynamics are intoxicating," he said. "What I like about my job is that it offers all of the same excitement as holding office but without all of the constituent and fundraising nuisances. I'm probably more engaged in public policy as a lobbyist than I was as a legislator."
Among his many clients are payday lenders, which are most commonly overseen at the state level.
Pignanelli's advice to Matheson is to be proud of his clients, even if some are not universally loved.
"If you agree to represent somebody," he said, "you have to provide them with the same zealous support you would for a nonprofit everybody loves."
Pignanelli said he's proud to represent payday lenders because they are well-regulated in Utah, and, while they have their detractors, the majority of customers are satisfied with the service. He says Matheson's representation of payday lenders is consistent with his House service.
"As a conservative Democrat, he believed in the ability to have options available for financing," Pignanelli said, "and, at the same time, he wanted them well-regulated."
Matheson served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which would occasionally touch on payday lending. There was no major bill on this topic during his time in Congress. He did, however, receive $56,300 in campaign contributions from the Utah family that owns Check City, one of the state's largest payday-lending companies.
Pignanelli said Matheson is a "perfect lobbyist" because the work combines his interest in the details of public policy with a "shrewd political mind."
Matheson said what he's liked about the job so far is its focus on results.
It is about getting something done for a client, which requires a practical look at the political landscape and a recognition that both parties need to play a role. He said in Congress, the debate was much more partisan.
Beyond the payday lenders, Matheson is representing Duke Energy and the UnitedHealth Group, a leading insurance company. He has signed up Salt Lake Community College, which wants to widen its appeal nationally at the same time it works to make textbooks cheaper.
He'll represent a Colorado nonprofit that helps disabled people as it tries to navigate rules that prohibit a company from consulting with patients and counseling them at the same time.
And he just landed on the team helping Los Angeles in its bid to get the 2024 Olympic Games.
"It is nice to be involved in a range of different issues," said Matheson, who was an environmental lobbyist before he was elected to Congress.
Pignanelli could envision Matheson running for another public office at some point. "He'll probably say no, but his name is out there and he left with a lot of goodwill."
Matheson, who continues to reside in Utah, didn't say no, he just said he has no specific plans.
"I have about a half-million [dollars] in the campaign account, and I'm not giving it away right now," he said. "It is nice to keep the option open."