To find some of the most influential people in Austin, look no further than the lobbyists employed by hundreds of entities across the state of Texas. The highest paid lobbyists in Texas politics are hired by organizations willing to spend significant resources persuading lawmakers to support legislation that is favorable to their interests.
The phrase “follow the money” is commonly used in political discussions, but elected officials and journalists like to focus on campaign cash. After the ballots are counted and the winners are chosen, the money influencing government is largely absent from public discussion until the next election comes around. Yet during the 2020 election cycle, more than twice the amount donated to campaigns and PACs to influence Texas state-level elections was spent on lobbyists to influence those currently in office. So while Texas citizens are probably familiar with big-name campaign donors like Charles Butt or Michael Bloomberg, many of the most powerful people in Austin are largely unknown outside of political circles.
Here are the 10 highest paid lobbyists in Texas politics, including notable details about their backgrounds and employers, and what their access and influence costs. As a reminder, lobbyists are allowed to report their income in ranges, rather than a specific dollar amount. To see the high and low end of the range, along with detailed transaction information, visit any of the lobbyists’ pages at the links below.
As a former Chief of Staff to Gov. Greg Abbott — working with Abbott in some capacity for 16 years — Hodge tops this list. After leaving Abbott’s office for a career in lobbying, Hodge’s proximity to power quickly shot him to the top spot among Texas lobbyists. Hodge works for Strategic & Public Affairs Consulting and currently has no taxpayer-funded contracts. (You can read more about how we classify organizations as taxpayer-funded or privately funded here and here.) His top client is The Chickasaw Nation.
Andrea McWilliams has been described as “one of the highest-paid hired-gun lobbyists in Texas” and “a consigliere to the powerful and political.” Raised on Congress Ave in Austin, and a capitol chief of staff by 21, she and her husband eventually founded McWilliams Governmental Affairs Consultants. The McWilliams are now known for their lobbying expertise and for entertaining the “political elite” at lavish parties in their West Austin home. Twenty percent of Andrea McWilliams’ clients are taxpayer-funded.
Dean McWilliams — the other half of McWilliams Governmental Affairs Consultants’ top lobbying team — is known for many of the same accomplishments as his wife. McWilliams spent many sessions as a capitol staffer, and his fundraising skills caught the attention of the national media during former President George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. Taxpayer-funded clients make up 18 percent of Dean McWilliams’ contracts.
Carol McGarah serves as the CEO and consultant for Blackridge, a boutique lobbying firm in Austin. She served as the Committee Director of the Senate Natural Resources Committee for 10 years – a position that allowed her to establish relationships with lawmakers and environmental agencies from across the state. McGarah’s taxpayer-funded clients represent 17 percent of her total reported lobbying contracts.
Commonly known in Texas political circles as “Rusty,” Kelley is a business partner to Carol McGarah at Blackridge. He has been written up by Texas media outlets as “The Good Ol’ Boy” of the Texas lobby crowd because of his friendly, easy-going personality, and also as part of possible legislative ethics issues while sitting on the board of a bank founded by former-State Rep. Dennis Bonnen. Kelley served as chief of staff to former Democratic House Speaker Billy Clayton and a chief sergeant at arms in the Texas House. Seventeen percent of Kelley’s clients are taxpayer-funded.
Todd Smith serves as the Owner of Impact Texas Communications, LLP. He garnered media attention while serving as a political consultant for Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s campaign in 2018, after donating $40,000 worth of services, garnering a $29,000 loan for the campaign, and then ending up with a $180,000 per year appointment once Miller took office. Three percent of Smith’s clients are taxpayer-funded. His top two contracts listed are his own firms: Impact Texas Communications, LLP and Todd Smith & Associates.
Known by his middle name, Reed Clay is the founder and CEO of Crestline Solutions. Clay spent eight years with Gov. Greg Abbott — moving from the Attorney General’s office to the Governor’s Office with him. Most recently he served as the Chief Operating Officer for the State of Texas. Taxpayer-funded clients make up 19 percent of Clay’s lobbying contracts.
Royce Poinsett is an attorney and lobbyist, and the founder of Poinsett PLLC. Poinsett served as General Counsel to former-Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick’s office from 2004 to 2008, and Counsel to Gov. Rick Perry from 2001 to 2004. Twelve percent of Poinsett’s clients are taxpayer-funded.
Brian Yarbrough is an attorney, lobbyist, and partner at Erben & Yarbrough. Yarbrough’s limited list of client contracts include the Port of Corpus Christi Authority, Raise Your Hand for Texas Public Schools, General Motors LLC, and Texas Association of Counties. Eight percent of Yarbrough’s clients are taxpayer-funded.
Robert Miller is a partner at Locke Lord LLP who focuses on lobbying at all levels of government—local, state, and federal. While attending law school at The University of Texas, Miller served in the 68th Texas Legislature as Legislative Director to State Sen. Don Henderson. After law school graduation in 1985, he started with Locke Lord as an associate. Miller also served as the Chairman of the Board of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County from 1998 to 2002. Miller’s list of client contracts include Landry’s Inc, Houston Municipal Employees & Police Officers’ Pension Systems, and a number of other notable Houston-area companies and organizations. Taxpayer-funded clients make up 19 percent of Miller’s lobbying contracts.
For a more detailed explanation of how Transparency USA classifies lobbying, as well as the arguments for and against the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, check out this article. Whether you support or oppose the practice, it’s important to have the facts and to hold the government accountable.