James J. Butera is a man on the edge.
It's certainly not his demeanor that inspires this description: the 51- year-old thrift lobbyist is quiet and unassuming. It's more the way he does business.
"I make a living on the edges of the major issues," Mr. Butera says.
He's the kind of effective, well-connected lobbyist bank and thrift executives call on when they need to tackle narrowly defined issues on Capitol Hill.
From his first lobbying jobs with bank and thrift trade groups to his current post running the three-man law firm Butera & Andrews, the ex-marine has quietly built a solid reputation among lawmakers, financial industry leaders, and other lobbyists.
"Jim understands financial institutions and the legislative and political process as well as anybody I know," says Rep. John J. LaFalce.
The New York Democrat referred to his relationship with Mr. Butera as more than a business affiliation. They're friends. And it's acquaintances like this that give Mr. Butera an edge, the access he needs to succeed.
"He has deep personal connections with members of Congress," says one bank lobbyist.
And those connections are not restricted to one side of the aisle. "I'm a registered Independent," Mr. Butera says. "My philosophy is that we should support the politicians who support our clients."
"The switch to a Republican majority in Congress didn't even make Jim lose a beat," says Alfred A. DelliBovi, president of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York.
Mr. Butera's formula for success is simple: He doesn't push legislation that isn't going anywhere, Rep. LaFalce contends.
"He's not going to make crazy suggestions, and he's not interested in getting headlines - he's interested in getting things enacted," adds Rep. LaFalce. "In fact, with Jim, the fewer the headlines the better."
Indeed, Mr. Butera generally won't speak on the record about anything that involves his clients or legislation he is working on.
"I'm not a big believer in the public relations aspect of lobbying," Mr. Butera says. "I just don't feel that's where the action is, and it never really helps to forward your cause."
A number of Mr. Butera's clients retain his services to supplement the lobbying provided by their national and local trade groups.
Take Dime Savings Bank of New York, one of a number of thrifts in the Big Apple that Mr. Butera represents. The savings bank works closely with the national thrift trade group, America's Community Bankers, as well as the Community Bankers Association of New York State, according to Frank L. Wright, spokesman for Dime Bancorp, which owns the $20.3 billion-asset thrift.
However, because of their broad membership base, Mr. Wright says the groups can't always cater to Dime's specific needs.
"We have a certain level of sophistication, such as a securities brokerage and insurance activities, not shared by a lot of thrifts," Mr. Wright says. "We felt it important to have our own representation in Washington, and, in our view, Jim is very effective in addressing specific issues."
With institutions becoming more specialized, Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., sees Mr. Butera's method of lobbying as the wave of the future.
"I'd say Jim is very well positioned to thrive in this new culture and climate," Rep. Lazio says.
Yet Mr. Butera hasn't restricted his business universe to Capitol Hill. He also represents borrowers trying to settle loans taken from institutions that have gone into receivership with the Resolution Trust Corp. and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
"I'm one of the few people sorry to see the RTC go," Mr. Butera says, laughing.
And his firm is expanding beyond Congress and the regulatory agencies into the courts.
He'll take the first step in this direction Feb. 23, when he defends directors and officers at Union Savings Bank in oral arguments before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
The prospect of arguing in court for the first time brings a smile of anticipation to Mr. Butera's face.
"We're a law firm, so we're in the lawyering business," says Mr. Butera, a 1972 Georgetown University Law School graduate. "The interrelation between the courts, the administrative agencies, and Congress is extremely important, and we have to be aware of all this stuff."
Mr. Butera generally supports legislation knocking down barriers to business innovation, rather than bills that attempt to get ahead of the market.
He says legislation that would merge the bank and thrift charters is a case in point.
"If somebody wants to convert to a bank, God bless them," he says. "But our position is, with the marketplace already moving toward consolidation, it should be done by the market, and not by Congress.
"The government cannot broker business deals," Mr. Butera argues. "Congress can't win on those issues - it's just not a political function."
Naturally, Mr. Butera's view on this measure is influenced by the institutions he represents. He works for a number of unitary thrift holding companies that would have to divest their nonbank investments in order to comply with the charter conversion legislation. "We will have substantial client interest in opposing any bill that would force thrifts to convert to banks," he says.
But Mr. Butera is all for legislation protecting thrifts that convert to bank charters from having to pay billions of dollars in back taxes. Currently, converting thrifts must pay taxes on bad-debt reserves, a hurdle that often makes it too expensive for institutions to make the switch.
It's an issue Mr. Butera has been working on since 1989. The measure was folded into the budget reconciliation bill last year that President Clinton vetoed.
"The bad-debt bill is a big winner for Jim's clients," says a bank lobbyist.
While most of Mr. Butera's prestige stems from his success on Capitol Hill, he is also known for his contributions to veterans affairs, a commitment that stems from the Vietnam War.
Mr. Butera served two tours of duty, in 1966 and 1969. While his Marine Corps experience is never far from his mind - his service saber hangs on his office wall, along with his purple heart and posters promoting the return of Vietnam MIAs - Mr. Butera scoffs at the notion that combat experience is useful in the business world.
"I hate it when people say, 'My Marine Corps training is the reason for my business success,'" he says. "The only thing combat really does for you is give you a perspective. If you have a bad day at the office now, nobody dies."
Yet his partner, Wright H. Andrews, suggests that Mr. Butera has retained some of the qualities of a good leatherneck.
"He's an old marine," Mr. Andrews says. "He picks an issue and works it hard. He's like a bulldog - he doesn't let go."
After his combat tours, Mr. Butera returned to the States, got his law degree, and started his lobbying career at the American Bankers Association. He crossed over into the thrift world in 1974 when he started a 15-year stint with the National Association of Mutual Savings Banks, which in 1980 became the National Council of Savings Institutions.
Mr. Butera left the National Council in 1989 after losing a bid for the trade group's top job. "The president's term was up, I thought I should be the replacement, and the board thought it should be someone else," he says.
However, it may have been the best thing that ever happened to him.
Out of his living room, he started what is now Butera & Andrews. Now, Mr. Butera's firm operates in plush offices overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, and he's driving his third Jaguar.
After years of working Saturdays and most Sundays, Mr. Butera is looking forward to hiring some help and taking more time to hone another skill considered by some to be essential for Washington insiders.
"I'd like to have about seven or eight lawyers at the firm, and then I'll be able to sharpen my golf game."