“There’s a lot of people that stay 20 years, and they retire. My argument is, what are these people supposed to do?” Adler asked. “Do you expect them to go and do something, do you want to force them to do something else? I mean that’s just what, it’s just their job. That’s how I think about it. I don’t look at it as unethical.”
All of this makes Adler a rather unique Washington character. At a time when most people shun the This Town persona, he plays it up. He is an unapologetic purveyor of the revolving door between the Hill and K Street, itself among the most controversial but everlasting elements of Washington’s dark underbelly. To many observers, it’s everything that’s wrong with politics: a constant flow of personnel from posts where they make laws to ones where they try to change or take advantage of the laws they helped craft. But to Adler, it’s been a woefully misunderstood opportunity.
He argues that staffers in the public sector are often overworked; that they leave their jobs because of burnout and find solace at higher-paying gigs on K Street. And, to a degree, political leaders agree with his assessment. They just have different solutions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced this past summer that House aides could now make as much as $199,300 per year — potentially more than some lawmakers — in an effort to combat the brain drain.
For Jeff Hauser, director of The Revolving Door Project, a group that works to combat corporate special interests, Adler isn’t the problem, he’s a “symptom” of it. Noting that former congressional staffers are hardly social pariahs to their former colleagues when they leave the Hill for lobbying gigs, he added: “It’s inevitable that there will be people helping — unabashedly helping — people revolve out of congressional service and into corporate service.”
Adler grew up in a Kosher household in Winchester, Mass. to a mother who worked as a teacher and a father who sold paper products. As a student at George Washington University, he dreamed of working on the Hill. And after a brief stint working for the Tennessee Valley Authority, he got a gig driving then-Sen. Al Gore’s car while the Tennessee Democrat ran for president in the late ’80s.
When Gore lost and the staffer whom he had briefly replaced returned from the campaign trail, Adler was out of a job. He no longer wanted to work in government, citing the long hours and tough work. Instead, he landed a gig at PR Newswire, a press release distribution service, but grew tired of the job. A fraternity brother suggested he look into a headhunting firm, where he went on to work on the technology team (Adler repeatedly claimed that he was the best employee in the country or company at these jobs).
“People were just a bunch of geeks,” he said of the software engineers and tech professionals he helped recruit.
While he toiled away, his then-wife had an altogether different existence. She was a lobbyist at the time for the Distilled Spirits Council, meaning that, among other things, she had access to quality booze. Meetings there included a full bar with “top shelf stuff,” as Adler recalled. Naturally, he wanted in.
So Adler began recruiting lobbyists at The McCormick Group, an Arlington-based staffing and recruiting firm. Like his wife’s colleagues at the Distilled Spirits Council, those guys were far more fun than the nerdy tech professionals. Including his time as a tech recruiter, he stayed there for 23 years before starting his own shop in 2019.
The first year, with a burgeoning pandemic, was tough. He brought in very little at the start, Adler said. In fact, his accountant told him he needed to borrow money from his 401K. Now, it’s largely back to business as usual, he insisted.
Over time, he developed a method for luring staff on the Hill to the Dark Side. He’d call a Hill staffer at their direct line and pitch them on the private sector job. There was no need to play up the salary, Adler said, because everyone understood it would be a raise. Sometimes, the staffer wasn’t interested. In those cases, he’d gather information on what it would take for them to leave and names of other staffers to target. Other times, the staffer would ask to exchange cell phone numbers so that the two could speak that night, outside the ear shot of colleagues.
If they say, “Can you hang on a second, I want to close my door,” or “Can I call you back from my cell phone,” you know they’re interested, said John Hesse, Adler’s longtime associate and self-described apprentice.
Those were the small fish. For lawmakers, the process is a bit different. Wynn, the former Maryland representative, was introduced to Adler through his chief of staff after he lost the 2008 primary, he said. Adler served as an adviser of sorts to Wynn as he navigated where he would land next. The congressman ultimately resigned during the lame duck period, prompting a special election, and signed with the firm Dickstein Shapiro (he was connected through an old law school classmate, he said, although Adler maintains that he was still paid).
Jones, the Alabama Democrat who lost to Republican Tommy Tuberville in the 2020 election, got connected with Adler through a mutual friend. The two did not begin talks until after he left office, Jones said, once he had a better idea of what he wanted to do with his professional life after the Senate and once he realized that a position in the Biden administration — namely attorney general — would not materialize.