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Bobby Byrd, John Riley peel back the curtain

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Two memoirs give an unflinching look at state government & public policy

The irony was not lost on Robert Lee Byrd.

The second-term Democratic legislator from blue-collar, labor-union-strong Elsmere, who also served as party whip in the Delaware General Assembly, was still smarting after he lost his seat in the 1978 primary when he was approached by DuPont general counsel Chuck Welch to be a lobbyist for the staunchly conservative Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. Which surprised the youthful Byrd, because he had just adroitly managed to sidetrack a right-to-work bill in Dover that business had been salivating to get passed.

Byrd of Legislative Hall by Robert Byrd

But Welch knew there had been a decision made to revamp the Chamber and name as new head Bill Wyer, who had been chief of staff for Republican Rep. Tom Evans. “They made the decision earlier in the fall, but they had some concerns, because Wyer was a conservative Republican,” Byrd writes in his new memoir, “Byrd of Legislative Hall” (Regent Press). “And he and Joe Biden were not on good terms, In fact, they hated each other. They decided they needed a Democrat to balance it out” ““ and someone who had Legislative Hall-way creds with the more-liberal lawmakers.

Even though it may have made sense, some Chamber board members reacted to hiring Byrd as would the family dog in being told to play nice with the cuddly new housecat ““ it went against their nature to accept someone liberal and who a few weeks earlier had been the enemy. But one of Byrd’s defenders closed the argument for hiring him. “You all know Dover,” he told his business colleagues. “We don’t need a Boy Scout down there to represent us.”

We all know that lobbying exists, and most concede it is a necessary, if often deplored, part of governing. Yet the world in which lobbyists and their handlers operate is one that most citizens know little about, a world that has its juicy stories, and Byrd ““ “Byrdie” to his friends and enemies alike ““ knows how to tell them.

Byrd’s book is one of two Delaware memoirs recently published. The other is by John Riley, a lifelong Republican, but one who rose from the same hardscrabble existence as Byrd did. In his book, “Delaware Eyewitness“, Riley tells in detail about how he got to where he did by going through the same forest where Byrd dwelled but by taking a different path through it ““ competitive golfer from high school, a brief stateside Army stint during the Vietnam war, salesman for Xerox, briefly a county politician, a headhunter, state economic development figure, occasional lobbyist, fight manager for Henry Milligan and PR and government affairs head for Hercules-cum-Ashland during the sturm und drang that played out during and after the 2008 takeover.

Riley has a much more buttoned-up, pro-business, anti-regulation evaluation of lobbying than does Byrd. “Besieged with hundreds of requests regarding complex issues, congressional and senate offices are staffed by young aides with limited knowledge of the issues they work on and little real-world experience. They simply would not be able to do their jobs without the help of lobbyists and the organizations behind them,” Riley writes. On the other hand, meeting with regulators, who had experienced specialists and lawyers, left Riley with the opinion that those get-togethers “rarely resulted in progress.”

Delaware Eyewitness by John Riley

Byrd has a somewhat different perspective of his career as lobbyist, one that recognizes the warts as well as the beauty marks of the profession. After unwillingly leaving the General Assembly and after a stint in the Chamber, he became an independent lobbyist both as a partner (most notably with ex-DuPonter Bill Wood) and as an independent agent. Along the way, he represented such high-profile clients as the Smokeless Tobacco Council, Anheuser-Busch, PSEG Nuclear, Norfolk Southern, John Rollins’ enterprises, 3M (but not Riley’s Xerox) and casino gambling.

Part of the charm of Byrd’s stories is that he paints a flaws-and-all picture, but one that might make the reader nostalgic for the days when politicians and their interests traded favors with their opponents so that both got something out of the deal.

“I have been going to conferences since 1975 or 1976,” Byrd writes (with the assistance of journalist Celia Cohen), “so I know what I am talking about when I say what they really are, and the legislators are going to be mad when I say it. The conferences are summer vacations for legislators. Sure, they learn things, but come on. So why do I go to them as a lobbyist? It is part of the whole thing of being a lobbyist. You help the legislators have a good time.”

And: “I lobbied for alcohol. I lobbied for tobacco. I don’t think anybody would be surprised that I lobbied for gambling, too. Vice has been very, very good for my career.”

But perhaps Democrat Byrd would agree with one evaluation by Republican Riley. Riley writes, “Many leaders I have observed fall prey to the sound of their own voice and fail to listen. They also too quickly reward those who agree with them and isolate or even eliminate those who disagree.”

Another major difference between the two books ““ and the two men ““ is that although they often occupied the same turf, Byrd was usually behind the headlines while Riley was often in the headlines, whether it was for his golfing accomplishments or his very high-profile libel suit against The News Journal’s Ralph Moyed.

Through the years between the 1960s and today, Riley and Byrd managed to stay true to their respective party roots, but yet were able to succeed by being able to work with the opposition, even being friends with them. After reading Riley’s memoir, you would want to play a round of golf with him, assuming you were allowed into the club in the first place and if Riley would give you enough strokes. After reading Byrdie’s bio, you would want to go with him to the nearest bar, assuming that the bar was pouring the really good stuff and that you would be willing to pick up the tab.

There is one surprising note in each volume. Although both Byrd and Riley surely crossed paths and know a lot of the same people, and although many of their stories overlap, the two books illustrate that there are still different worlds within the same world, even within a state as small as Delaware.

Neither man bothers to mention the other in their tell-all biographies. 

By Roger Morris
Contributing Writer

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