Facebook Encounters Challenge in Bid to Hire a Prominent Democratic Lobbyist

WASHINGTON— Facebook Inc. spent more on federal lobbying last year than any other company, but its influence operation in Democratic-dominated Washington is conspicuously lacking in one crucial area: Democrats.

As President Biden and Congress threaten tougher regulations, prominent Democrats have been rebuffing lucrative jobs at Facebook, and senior Democratic lobbyists have been leaving its Washington team.

Facebook has been trying since January to hire a big-name Democrat to oversee its U.S. lobbying operations, a job that would pay more than $2.5 million a year in salary, stock and bonuses, according to people familiar with the situation. It is also looking to hire Democrats and Republicans for more than a dozen high-level legal, lobbying and public-policy jobs, according to people who have been approached about the roles and job postings on LinkedIn.

Democrats who have passed on Facebook’s outreach include veteran Capitol Hill aides, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden and aides to former President Barack Obama, including Valerie Jarrett, according to people familiar with the job search.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said it takes time to find the right person to lead its Washington lobbying team and that the company hasn’t struggled to attract and retain Democrats.

Last month, Facebook hired John Branscome, a Democratic tech-policy aide from the Senate Commerce Committee. Its most recent Democratic lobbying hire before that was Daniel Kidera, a former Obama administration official and scheduler for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who was hired last year.

The vacancies mean Republicans run Facebook’s Washington lobbying office, led by its vice president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, a former aide to President George W. Bush.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, doesn’t have close relationships with Democratic leaders, and its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, worked as a Democratic aide in the Clinton administration and hasn’t been heavily engaged in Washington in several years, according to current and former Facebook employees.

Crystal Patterson, a Democratic strategist for a decade, had worked in Facebook’s Washington office for about seven years when she agreed in February to help manage its congressional Democratic outreach.

“I thought to myself, ‘Am I taking the worst job in Washington?’ ” she recalled in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Patterson, a former Facebook lobbyist, near her home in Washington, D.C.

She said she quickly grew frustrated with the company’s inability to develop a plan to make headway with Democrats, and quit last month.

Facebook started this year with seven Democrats and eight Republicans on its lobbying team, before Ms. Patterson and two other Democrats left. Currently 22 Democrats and 39 Republicans now lobby for the company, including outside firms Facebook has on retainer, according to the Journal’s analysis of lobbying disclosure reports and current and former Facebook lobbyists.

Facebook’s difficulty recruiting Democrats for Washington roles is the latest sign of the company’s declining political fortunes and could make it harder for the company to influence efforts by Democrats to write tough new rules for internet platforms and take antitrust action against Facebook and other technology companies.

It also comes as Facebook deals with the political fallout from internal company research documents showing harms from the company’s products, including contributing to negative self-esteem among teenagers and the fostering of social discord. Disclosure of the documents in a series of Journal articles called the Facebook Files has spurred fresh calls on Capitol Hill for tougher regulation of internet platforms.

Mr. Stone said Facebook’s openings haven’t hindered its efforts with the Biden administration and lawmakers.

“What we need is a set of updated rules for the internet set by Congress that all companies should follow,” he said. “To help us get there, we hire people from across the political spectrum who understand these issues and can advocate for rules that reflect the realities of today’s internet.”

Brian Rice, an aide to former Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) who has worked at Facebook since 2014, was recently promoted to lead the company’s outreach to the Biden administration. Facebook’s vice president of choice and competition, David Ginsberg, has worked on Democratic campaigns and recently returned to Washington and is involved in public-policy issues, according to the company.

Not long ago, Facebook had allies across the political divide, feted at White House events with Mr. Obama and embraced by many Republican leaders.

Facebook spent nearly $20 million on lobbying last year, the most of any company in 2020, but finds itself under attack from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Some Republicans accuse Facebook of stifling conservative speech, while some Democrats blame it for helping elect former President Donald Trump by not doing enough to police false news stories on its platform. The company rejects both lines of criticism.

Katie Harbath, one of Facebook’s former Republican Washington employees, said the 2016 election was a source of ridicule for the company’s Democratic lobbyists.

“It was like an overnight switch,” she said. “It went from working at the coolest company to the company that got Donald Trump elected, in their eyes.”

Katie Harbath, one of Facebook’s former Republican Washington employees, said the company’s Democratic lobbyists considered the 2016 election a source of ridicule.

Mr. Stone, of Facebook, said Facebook is “a platform for free expression that routinely makes difficult calls on content, and it’s no surprise Republicans and Democrats often disagree with our decisions—but they also disagree with each other.”

The company’s efforts to smooth things over with Democrats after Mr. Trump’s election hit another wall in 2019.

Facebook decided against taking down a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) that was altered to make her appear drunk. She refused to take phone calls from Mr. Zuckerberg. Some Democratic lobbyists said they declined to work for Facebook in order to stay in Mrs. Pelosi’s good graces.

Facebook’s congressional outreach to Democrats had been run since 2013 by one of Mrs. Pelosi’s most trusted former aides, Catlin O’Neill, granddaughter of former House speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.

Ms. O’Neill quit after the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill, as Facebook came under fire from Democrats who said it didn’t do enough to curb social-media posts promoting Mr. Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged. She didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Her departure came as Mr. Biden, a Democrat, was taking office, and as Democrats were gaining razor-thin control of the Senate, in addition to the House. It isn’t unusual for companies to rejigger their Washington offices after an election changes which party controls the White House and Congress.

Facebook identified as a vulnerability the newly Democratic-led Justice Department’s antitrust division and the Federal Trade Commission, which is now chaired by anti-tech crusader Lina Khan.

Facebook reassigned its vice president of U.S. public policy, Kevin Martin, a Republican and former Federal Communications Commission chairman, although he retains a leadership role in the office.

Facebook hired a headhunter and launched a comprehensive search for a prominent Democrat who could lead its lobbying efforts. But as the job search geared up, Facebook was confronted with new political controversies.

After taking office, Mr. Biden criticized Facebook for its inability to prevent false information about Covid-19 vaccinations from spreading through social media.

This summer, the president blasted Facebook, saying “they’re killing people.” Mr. Biden later sought to clarify those remarks, saying it wasn’t Facebook itself but the information on its platform that was causing fatalities.

President Biden criticized Facebook over the spread of misinformation about Covid-19.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the time, Mr. Kaplan, the company’s Washington leader, was on a sabbatical. The company responded with a statement saying the president was looking for a “scapegoat” for not meeting his vaccination goals—an escalation of the situation that blindsided and incensed some of Facebook’s Washington policy employees, some of them said.

Facebook’s testy relations with the Biden White House were another reason Democratic veterans have been wary of working for the company, according to people familiar with the hiring process.

“It’s the same reason Democrats don’t work for the NRA,” said Pat Williams, a Democratic lobbyist who once oversaw AT&T Inc.’s Washington lobbying. “You still have to look yourself in the mirror.”

Democrats who have declined Facebook’s overtures include Ms. Jarrett and Broderick Johnson, a Capitol Hill veteran who also worked for Mr. Obama in the White House, some of the people said.

Ms. Jarrett, who sits on several corporate boards, told a Facebook employee she wasn’t interested in talking to the company about a policy role after she was approached, people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Johnson took a job with Comcast Corp.

Jessica Hertz, a Facebook lawyer who left last year to work for Mr. Biden and then was appointed White House staff secretary, was approached informally about returning in a senior legal position.

Ms. Hertz left the White House this month, but she told Facebook she isn’t interested in returning, according to people familiar with the outreach.

Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

Photo: Ian Bates for The Wall Street Journal

The company has more than a dozen openings for legal, lobbying and public-policy positions, many of which pay more than $100,000, according to the company’s job listings. Available positions include public-policy manager for youth at its Instagram unit, director of civic governance and policy communications manager for content and dangerous organizations.

In addition to Ms. O’Neill and Ms. Patterson, Nkechi “Payton” Iheme, an Obama veteran and former Senate aide, left in August after five years and eight months with Facebook.

After Ms. O’Neill’s departure, Ms. Patterson stepped in to help the company’s efforts on Capitol Hill. She said she enjoyed the challenge of her work at Facebook, but by this summer concluded little would change.

Ms. Patterson said she believes only an internal reckoning about the societal responsibilities of the company or the creation of a federal oversight panel will improve Democrats’ view of the company.

“At this point,” she said, “it’s almost like a scarlet letter working for Facebook.”

Write to Julie Bykowicz at julie.bykowicz@wsj.com, Brody Mullins at brody.mullins@wsj.com and Emily Glazer at emily.glazer@wsj.com

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