One of Tennessee’s most effective and individualistic lobbyists, Nelson Biddle, is about to run afoul of the fashion police in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Biddle’s dressed down, Western look appears to offend the “professional” sensibilities of the House arbiters of style.
“On the days when we are up here in session,” says House Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry, a Memphis Democrat, “we want the lobbyists to dress professionally like our members do. When they dress down, it just takes away from the professionalism of the House.”
The new dress code edict, apparently discussed by the House leadership at one of its regular meetings, is not long on specifics. In response to a written question, House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh sent word that he was unaware of any formal dress code being adopted for lobbyists.
DeBerry’s sudden pronouncement seems aimed generally, like a scattergun, toward all “professional” lobbyists, that amorphous mass of humanity who ply the legislative halls seeking power, money, and righteousness on behalf of their clients. But when the scattergun is examined in a practical light, it morphs into a rifle with a telescopic sight. And the most obvious person in the cross hairs is Nelson Biddle.
Over a span of 30 years, Biddle has become a fixturean institution, reallyon Capitol Hill in Nashville. Wearing blue jeans fitting as tight over his triathlon-tempered body as white on rice, Biddle is rigged out most days in snakeskin cowboy boots, dark sunglasses, and a Western cut jacket that would be right at home in Johnny Cash’s closet. His face often sports the unshaven look popular with so many pro ball players, and always dangling from his neck and outside his pearl button shirt or tank top are the dog tags that he wore as a combat Marine in Vietnam.
Like a number of other lobbyists, Biddle first heard about the dress code order from Priscilla Craig, president of the Tennessee Lobbyists Association. Craig says DeBerry asked her to pass along the edict to the TLA membershipwhich actually doesn’t include Biddle, since he is not by temperament a joiner and is particularly opposed to the idea of a group hiring a lobbyist to lobby for lobbyists.
“I thought [the dress code] was unusual in light of all the other problems being faced by the Legislature right now,” Craig says. “But I told Speaker DeBerry I would do my best to pass the word.”
Biddle’s reaction is less circumspect.
“A dress code for lobbyists?” Biddle says irreverently. “Are you kidding me? Hell, we’re not employees of the Legislature. Besides, the Capitol Hill press corps dresses more shabbily than I do.”
On a more serious note, Biddle notes that “The Legislature is struggling with a lot of serious stuff, and I really don’t believe those in charge are taking time out to worry about unenforceable dress codes for lobbyists. Every citizen, including professional lobbyistswhether wearing overalls or dressed to the nineshas a constitutional right under the First Amendment to be up here, in a public building, to petition the Legislature for redress of grievances. The House Leadership can’t be serious about this. Can they?”
Asked about the punishment for violating the dress code, DeBerry says, “I don’t want to get into that.” However, one lobbyist says that House members apparently have been asked to refuse to talk to lobbyists not dressed “professionally.” Asked specifically about Biddle, DeBerry says, “Nelson can go talk to the people in the Senate.”
Meanwhile, one lobbyist aptly notes that DeBerry’s petty efforts to rid the Capitol of denim instead of curbing the abuses of TennCare, balancing the budget, or reforming the tax system is just further proof that “The House fiddles while the state burns.”
Biddle has long been, as Winston Churchill said of Russia, a riddle wrapped in an enigma. And it’s not just his Western duds clashing with well-heeled lobbyists that makes him stand out like a white poodle on a coal barge. Biddle never wines and dines or attends social functions. He can, often as not, be found curled up in a committee hearing room chair in the corner reading Plato or St. Augustine while the droning pitch of legislative voices rises and falls like the hum of cicadas on a summer night.
His fellow lobbyists consider Biddle one of the best of their trade. He got his start as the late Gov. Ray Blanton’s lobbyist and was credited with engineering the passage of some of Blanton’s most difficult bills. After Blanton left office, Biddle became the chief of staff and closest confidant of Lt. Gov. John Wilder. In 1983, he became the legislative liaison for the Tennessee Municipal League, a job he left in 1998. A free-lance contract lobbyistí he now represents a range of interests, including the resort cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Through all those jobsí Biddle has maintained his Western look and his offbeat manner. Over the years, despite his eccentricities, Biddle has earned the respect, as well as the close friendship, of some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists. A mark of that friendship is the way so many top lobbyists love to kid Biddle about his lifestyle. Heavy-hitting hired gun John Lyell sometimes tells Capitol Hill visitors that Biddle is “the lobbyist for the homeless.”
The famous liquor lobbyist, Tom “The Golden Goose” Hensley, tells people that “the CIA strategy in Vietnam was to drop Marine Biddle behind the lines just so he could screw up the minds of the Viet Cong.”
Meanwhile, the history of Capitol Hill fashion is about as murky as swamp water. However, the House and Senate separately do have a code of conduct, including a dress code. But legislative administrator Connie Frederick says the rules apply strictly to legislative staff. Each code reads that “the standard dress is, in the case of female employees, a dress, suit, skirt, and blouse or other coordinated ensemble and, in the case of male employees, a suit or dress trousers and jacket, together with appropriate accessories.”
Lobbyists recall how the obscure dress code was born in the first placewhen, about 10 years ago, a legislative secretary came to work without panties. The Sharon Stone-esque episode apparently prompted Naifeh to establish a dress code for staff. “Then somebody got the bright idea of making the dress code apply to House members as well,” one lobbyist recalls. “I don’t think it was ever formally adopted, but Naifeh said he expected everybody to honor iteven the press.”
Biddle, however, has a plan:
“I’m just going to come down here in a skirt and blouse,” he says.
Joe Sweat is the former director of the Tennessee Municipal League and now a volunteer lobbyist for the ACLU.
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