By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — When it comes to peddling influence, Brian Ballard has all the bases covered.
He’s parlayed his reputation as one of the Florida Capitol’s most powerful lobbyists into a similar niche in Washington, D.C., where his clients range from the American Kitchen Cabinet Alliance to Major League Baseball.
He’s launched a public-relations firm to further burnish his clients’ images.
And Ballard, a key player in the rise of a string of Republican governors going back more than three decades, has cemented a foothold as one of Florida’s most effective GOP fundraisers.
Two years after helping boost President Donald Trump into the White House, Ballard played a major role in securing a victory for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Ballard, 58, grew up in Delray Beach and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, where he also attended law school.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Brian Ballard:
Q: What’s the biggest difference between lobbying in the nation’s Capitol and lobbying in Florida’s Capitol?
BALLARD: A lot bigger. It’s size, really, and it’s learning hundreds of issues, kind of all at once. So, for me, it took me 25 years to understand Florida government and the processes of influencing government. Here, we’ve kind of got thrown into the deep end of the pool pretty quickly. So it’s just been a learning curve, but I would say it’s not that much different. It’s just a lot larger.
Q: You’re close to President Donald Trump. Critics of the president in the past few weeks have called his behavior erratic, unhinged or just plain dangerous. Do you see a change in him, or is this the Donald Trump that you helped get elected?
BALLARD: There’s no change in him. Let’s think about this. First of all, he had no chance to win the primary. He wins the primary. He has no chance to win the general. He wins the general. When he wins the general election, and I was an elector, I had over 17,000 pieces of mail sent to my house asking me to not vote for him. There was an organized, multibillion-dollar campaign, for the first time in American history, to have the Electoral College turn against the person who won the presidential election. During the transition, there were marches and protests against him. After that, there was just everything in the world thrown against him. Mueller. Russia. Impeachment. He’s not mentally there, there’s going to be a 25th Amendment run that the Cabinet was weighing in to remove him from office. This guy has not had a fair chance to govern since he was elected. He’s no different than what the people saw in him during the primary and during the general election when he won an overwhelming electoral vote majority. Listen, he’s a tough negotiator. He speaks what he believes, and I think that’s exactly what America voted for. I think he is one of the most transformational presidents America’s ever had, and if he gets a second term — which I think he will — he’s going to be one of the most significantly positive presidents that America’s ever had. I’m as big a fan as I have been of his presidency now than I ever was.
(Do you wish he’d knock it off with the tweets?)
Listen, he’s been advised that by a lot smarter people than me. But he has obviously had success in getting his message directly out to the people. Some folks don’t like it. It’s frustrating to some people. But to me, this guy has proven that it works. Sometimes he does things to stir the pot. Sometimes he does things to reset a negotiation. But the guy runs for office first time, he’s president of the United States. I would say don’t take advice from those folks who you crushed during the campaign to tell you why you shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t do that. The guy’s got a lot of instincts that I’m very happy he’s running our country.
Q: What do you think President Trump’s chances are for re-election in Florida?
BALLARD: I believe with the help of Gov. DeSantis, I think the president is going to win Florida relatively easily. It’s never that easy in Florida, but his margin will be bigger than last time. I think Democrats, depending on who the nominee is, but if any of the four that are leading now, I think Democrats will figure that out earlier than normal and will not put their resources in Florida. They’ll start putting a lot of resources in Florida, but at the end of the day, I think they will leave Florida and go to other states in the Midwest, the Rust Belt, where the president won last time. I think Florida is going to wind up to be a much safer state this time than four years ago.
Q: What advice do you give young lobbyists entering the profession?
BALLARD: I taught lobbying in Florida at FSU for 10 years, and what I always told every student was, if you’re going to go into lobbying, you cannot get the reputation of being a BS’er. If you tell someone something that’s not true, you’ve lost that person for the rest of their career and they’ll tell people. So you have to be straight. You have to make your case, and obviously make it as positively as you can, but you can’t distort the facts. And if you do that, you get that reputation that never leaves you.
Q: People love to speculate about you because you have one of the biggest lobbying firms in Florida and your book of business in Washington seems to be growing by the minute. Lobbying in the state Capitol is a cutthroat business, surrounded by rumor and innuendo. Has your expansion in D.C. created any problems for you back home in Tallahassee?
BALLARD: Well, some of my friends in the lobbying business, I think, speculated that I’ll be selling my house or not being involved in Florida nearly as much. I will say, over the summer I haven’t been in Tallahassee as much as I normally have, but as far as long-term activity, Florida’s the central part of my focus. It’s the most important part of our practice, not only Tallahassee, but Miami and Tampa and Orlando, Jacksonville and Palm Beach. We’ve got so many great folks that work for us in Florida that it’s going to always be the central part of my focus. It’s where my home is. It’s where I raised my kids. I’m not going anywhere. I don’t think I’ll ever retire, I’ll be honest with you. I just love what I do too much. So expect to see me back during committee weeks full-time. As I was last session, I’ll be in Tallahassee full-time during session and basically split my time 50-50 when session’s not in, or committee weeks are not in. I’m not there 100 percent, that’s for sure, but I’m not far away.