Mike Kahl, Influential and Respected Sacramento Lobbyist, Dead at 71
Mike Kahl, one of Sacramento’s most effective and influential lobbyists for more than a quarter century died November 18 of Parkinson’s disease. He was 71.
Principled, strategic and tenacious, Kahl and his partner Fred Pownall, built one of the most respected and one of the biggest grossing lobbying firms in Sacramento, representing the oil industry, water districts, and timber concerns, among many other clients.
Kahl pioneered a lobbying style grounded more in the policy of an issue than in political contacts. He was successful at it because, in most cases, he had studied the homework twice while his opponents were skimming the Cliff Notes.
“He preached to all of us that you had to deal with good public policy. This wasn’t going to be about whether you were a good guy or if people liked you,” said K.C. Bishop, a long-time Chevron lobbyist who worked closely with Kahl. “Good, solid public policy would win in the end but you needed to do the work to get there.”
Members of the firm he created still joke about Kahl’s penchant for filling up a whiteboard with script, boxes and arrows highlighting and linking the myriad aspects of an issue and ways to accomplish a client’s objectives.
“He’d spend a lot of time on the front end and not jump into an issue without thinking through very angle,” said Ed Manning, who first met Kahl on the other side of the negotiating table on 1990 legislation to create an oil spill prevention program then, years later, was asked by Kahl to join his firm.
Kahl’s approach to lobbying is still practiced by several of the state Capitol’s most skilled lobbyists.
“Mike was a dear friend and a fellow Californian,” said US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who first met Kahl in 1968. “He was an influential and beloved figure in Sacramento, and he will be missed.”
Kahl’s entry into politics began 50 years ago when he received a fellowship from a graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley. Kahl got one of the fellowships earmarked for Republicans and Kirk West, the former head of the state Chamber of Commerce received the other one. “I think because Mike and I were about the only Republicans in the program,” West recalled.
Kahl went to work for John McCarthy, a Bay Area Republican who carried the 1957 legislation creating the Bay Area Rapid Transit District.
He then became assistant to Bob Finch, tapped by President Nixon as Health, Education and Welfare Secretary, in 1968.
Kahl was also close to Jack Veneman, a moderate GOP lawmaker from Modesto, who was one of Finch’s undersecretaries.
The White House referred to the younger more activist elements at HEW as “Finch’s crowd.”
Kahl had “Finch’s Crowd” lapel pins made as a badge of honor. After the first news story about the badges’ existence ran, the pins vanished from lapels.
“I still remember meeting with Mike in 1968 when I was first thinking about going to work for (HEW),” Panetta said. “The first thing he did was offer me a scotch and water. He was only in his late 20s, but I remember he had the quiet confidence of someone twice his age. We worked closely together at HEW, and I grew to deeply admire and respect his commitment to improving the lives of his fellow citizens through public service.”
Panetta was hired to run HEW’s Civil Rights Office.
Kahl, Finch, Veneman and Lew Butler, another California undersecretary, tried to protect Panetta from the ire of the White House, which felt he was enforcing the federal Civil Rights Act too “overzealously.”
Panetta was eventually forced out, returned to California, re-registered and successfully won a seat in Congress representing the Central Coast in 1976.
Among Kahl’s tasks in Washington D.C. was helping create the US Environmental Protection Agency. He returned to Sacramento in the early 1980s and opened his own firm.
One of his first clients was the Western States Petroleum Association, which remains a client of the firm he created, now known as KP Public Affairs.
“He had an ability to sit back and view the political landscape and figure out a way to accomplish whatever his objective was in a really effective, balanced way,” said Cathy Reheis-Boyd of WSPA.
Kahl was adept at building — and harnessing — coalitions often comprised of odd allies, like environmental groups and timber companies.
While his lobbying strategy didn’t center on realtionships with lawmakers, several were personal friends. He often went fishing with former Assemblywoman Sally Tanner, a Democrat.
Kahl’s influence was felt throughout the Capitol. When West headed the Chamber of Commerce, Kahl recommended he hire Alan Zaremberg, then Gov. Pete Wilson’s legislative secretary, and now the leader the state chamber since West’s retirement.
Kahl merged with Pownall in 1996, creating a lobbying firm that was to become the biggest in California. The two were an odd-couple. Kahl — tall, athletic, stoic. Pownall — short and sociable.
A photo of the two is in the hallway at KP Public Affairs. Pownall is standing wearing a signature bow tie. Kahl, in shirtsleeves, suspenders and tie, sits on a stool to make himself the same height.
“Even though everybody knew he was a powerful guy, Mike always had time for the most junior staff person,” said Bishop.
Echoed Reheis-Boyd: “If you walked into his office and said, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ he’d sit down with you at his conference table and take as much time as it took.”
Kahl was remembered by several lobbying colleagues as one of the first to store files on a computer.
A sailor, relaxation for him was taking out his boat, Nordic Reach.
“The final weekends of his life were spent sailing on Mission Bay and taking a final flight in a helicopter to view the beautiful San Diego coast,” wrote Kahl’s son, Brian, in an email circulated to family friends.
“He was respectful. He was unflappable. He was thoughtful. And he was an example for a whole bunch of people,” Bishop said. “In the true Aristotelian sense, Mike was a good man.”
Memorial services and a celebration of life will be held Saturday November 24, 2012 at 11 am at the East County Mortuary Chapel, 374 N. Magnolia Avenue, El Cajon, California.
The burial service will take place after the memorial at Singing Hills Memorial Park, 2800 Dehesa Road, El Cajon, California.
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