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Making a difference on Capitol Hill

Kai Anderson thought he would be a professor until a USGS fellowship landed him in a congressional office – and in the middle of environmental decision making. The job launched a long career as a lobbyist.

Kai Anderson in front of Capitol building
Photo Credit Rennie Anderson

What non-academic job involves teaching, research, political savvy, scientific rigor, and corporate competence? The rarely illuminated, often underestimated role of a lobbyist.

For Kai Anderson, lobbying was the perfect match for his education in geological sciences and experience working on Capitol Hill. As the founder of the energy and environment practice with the advocacy firm Cassidy & Associates, he works with clients who depend on the scientific perspective he gained as a student with the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth).

“I’m still an educator, I’m still a translator, just around different kinds of issues and with a decidedly different audience than my PhD committee,” said Anderson, BS ’93, PhD ’98. “Lobbyists are sort of like lawyers – basically, you’re advocating a point of view.” And for that you need facts and a grasp of science.

Anderson works with diverse clients like Patagonia – eager to remove an environmentally damaging dam – and Tiffany & Co. – seeking to block pebble mining that would alter Alaska’s wilderness. The key is finding the people who can impact policy.

“My job is really to understand the stakeholders and decision-makers well enough to know who should we ask to help us,” Anderson said. “You’re never going to convince 535 members of Congress to do anything – you have to identify the handful of folks that are going to make something happen.”

Mapping the issue

The most important skill for becoming a successful lobbyist is communication, according to Anderson. And that starts with listening.

“I need to be in a position where I can envision, describe the problem, and then figure out how to put a strategy together that doesn’t require any sort of leap of magic – to do that, you have to understand the issue,” Anderson said. “Probably the most important thing is listening to the person that’s formulating the problem.”

When he recruits clients, Anderson treats it like a two-way interview, making sure he recognizes in whose political self-interest the issue is aligned.

Patagonia originally hired Cassidy & Associates to help remove the Matilija Dam, which is located on the Ventura River in Southern California, just upstream from Patagonia’s headquarters. The dam was built in the 1940s and was full of sediment by 1950. It no longer provides the water supply and flood control for which it was designed, but it does emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. It also blocks about 20 miles of water habitat for endangered Southern California steelhead trout.

To brainstorm a plan for removing the dam, Anderson started by drawing out a map of the key players, government stakeholders, and precedents for other removals.

“Other dams had been taken out, one of them in Washington state. Rather than taking it out piece by piece, they drilled a hole in the bottom of it, put dynamite in to blow it out, and let the power of the river flush the sediment through the system,” Anderson said. “It turns out, gravity is free at all times – that costs a lot less than moving it mechanically.”

From an original estimate of $200 million for the Army Corps to remove the dam – a proposal too expensive for Congress to accept – Anderson helped cut cost estimates nearly in half. After working with Patagonia to re-envision the project, he encouraged collaborations to drive the effort. He connected Patagonia with other parties on the philanthropic, private, and nongovernmental side who had an interest in dam removal.

Today, the Matilija Coalition is working to obtain funding from state, federal, local, and private sources to remove the dam as soon as possible and reduce the overall cost of the project. Patagonia is generally interested in climate, regenerative agriculture, and animal protection, so Anderson closely watches the Farm Bill.

Tackling the science

Like many of the projects Anderson undertakes, the Matilija Dam removal project involves complex scientific processes that require the expertise of geologists, biologists, and engineers.

You can't really fully envision all the things you can do with the skill sets you develop at Stanford Earth.

Thanks to his degree at Stanford Earth, Anderson learned how to think like a scientist and read scientific articles thoroughly, he said. He also gained vital experience from organizing a collaborative project on 3-D reservoir modeling in Central California for his PhD thesis in Geological and Environmental Sciences.

“That was a fantastic experience from the standpoint of learning to communicate and cross- pollinate with people that speak a completely different language, because geophysicists, petroleum engineers, and geologists are different cats,” Anderson said. “Taking these different populations of really smart people and working through a complicated project was super useful – it’s really not that different from what I do now, where I take an issue brought to me, let’s say, by a high-tech company.”

Anderson’s background in science also helps him communicate and support scientists so they can impact people who can enact change.

“Scientists hate the notion that they would be lobbying, so what I tell scientists who are going to go to the Hill is, ‘You’re just educating them about your issue, right?’” Anderson said. “It’s no different than teaching.”

Landing the gig

When Anderson graduated from Stanford, he planned to find an academic position at a research institution. But an opportunity on Capitol Hill changed the playing field.

After his wife, Rennie Anderson, Earth Systems Program ’93, received a JD from Berkeley Law, she accepted a clerkship on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. So, Anderson applied to a USGS Geological Society of America AAAS Fellowship. The one-year fellowship placed him with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, with whom Anderson worked on one of the early climate change bills, the Credit for Voluntary Early Action Act.

As the fellowship ended, he went back to searching for a professorship in California. But on a flight back to Washington, D.C., he received an email about an opening in Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s office, thanks to connections he had made in Lieberman’s office.

“I’ll never forget that flight,” Anderson said. “I stumbled into a job in Reid’s office working on energy and environmental issues.”

Under Reid, Anderson had the opportunity to work on public lands protection, which connected him with the fieldwork he had done as a Stanford student. While working to reconcile resource conflicts in the wilderness, he found his calling.

“There’s not a lobbyist training program, and there’s not a public lands conservation training program anywhere, essentially,” Anderson said. “The stuff I did – and still do – out on public lands is sort of an accident, which I wouldn’t be as good at if I hadn’t come to Stanford Earth, if I hadn’t done my fieldwork in Nevada, if I hadn’t done my scientific training, if I hadn’t learned to work with different kinds of people and communicate with people who think differently.”

Because he followed an unexpected trajectory, he advises students to explore as many career avenues as possible, such as taking internships. He admits that he knew very little in college about “how many different cool things there are to do in the world.”

“You can’t really fully envision all the things you can do with the skill sets you develop at Stanford Earth,” Anderson said. “I think it’s easy to get yourself in a track and accidentally limit your potential by being too wedded to that track. You should have an open mind.”

Turning ideas into action

Anderson joined Cassidy & Associates in 2005 and started its energy and environment practice. In 2014, he became the co-chairman of the company, and in 2015, he became the CEO. In June 2017, he led a management buyout from the publicly traded advertising company the Interpublic Group (IPG), making it an independent firm.

The more he gains experience in environment and energy issues, the better equipped he becomes to finding the right people and understanding their motives. For example, if he is tasked with passing a carbon tax to address climate change, Anderson would first think about what other objectives it could be tied to.

“In this Congress, what would I hitch it to? I would try to hitch it to the tax package – that’s going to be something that Republicans are really going to want,” he said. “If I want to be part of that package, I need to get a handful of Republicans who will tell their leadership I will not support that bill unless there’s a carbon tax attached.”

But having an idea is just the beginning of a process that can take years.

“Who are all the people that can make contacts there? How do I influence that person? Who’s going to be opposed to me? How do I isolate them?” Anderson said. “Life is way too short: Whether it’s in the administration or in the Congress, figure out your game plan for those folks and then go execute it.”

Kai Anderson lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, four children, and border collie mix. He teaches in the Stanford in Washington program in the winter and serves on Stanford Earth’s advisory board.

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