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Corporate America Shells Out Big Bucks to Fete CBC

When the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation kicks off its annual legislative conference today in Washington, D.C., the business community will be there with an unprecedented show of force. The response, lobbyists say, is due to CBC members’ unparalleled power at the helm of committees and subcommittees and in the ranks of Congressional leadership.

“The black caucus now is seen as a tremendous lever to be able to bring greater participation in the African-American business community [with] the broader corporate community,” said Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), a CBC member who has an MBA from Wharton.

But it certainly isn’t just black-owned businesses that are clamoring for a seat at the CBC Foundation’s conference. Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, Dell Inc., General Motors Corp., AT&T, Coca-Cola and Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, among dozens of others, all are planning to host exhibits, participate in discussions or fete Members during after-hours shindigs.

In the past, CBC members could debate key policy issues during the foundation’s legislative conference.

“The difference this year,” said Bob Maloney, who has his own lobby shop, “is that they’re in a position to turn policy and thought and meaningful conversation into actual legislation.” As a result, he said, clients want to be there to make sure they voice their concerns and ideas at the dozens of issue forums and brain trust meetings scheduled over the next few days.

Maloney said he helped one client, Hightowers Petroleum, secure a spot in a session hosted Friday by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and called “High Gasoline Prices and High Utility Costs: Building Bridges Between the African American Community and America’s Energy Industry.” Hightowers CEO Stephen Hightower, who is black, will participate in the discussion. “His opportunity to express the views of the energy industry in this forum is a first,” Maloney said. “I think that’s an example of how the African-American leaders have reached out.”

Keith Wright, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the CBC Foundation, said he doesn’t have any numbers yet that show whether corporate sponsorship has increased at this year’s conference, but he does have some evidence. In the past, participants usually have been able to secure last-minute tickets to the big awards dinner on Saturday — but not this year.

“The dinner is completely sold out,” Wright said. “The sense is that [sponsorship] is up this year, and we’re happy about that. Typically with Washington, D.C., when there’s a changeover, people are looking to find where’s the new source of power.”

And a powerful group it is; among the CBC’s members are Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee; and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Lobbyists say they have seen a surge of interest from their corporate clients, who want to be included in the conference. And there are more lobbyists on K Street with ties to the CBC as well.

Anita Estell, a lobbyist with Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus, said the CBC alumni network now on K Street has grown exponentially in recent months. “The CBC should be commended for grooming a strong cadre of leaders,” she said.

Estell has corporate clients, including those from the defense and grocery industries, that will participate in the conference along with her clients from black colleges. “The relevance of this CBC week is historic,” she added.

Paul Brathwaite, a former CBC staffer who recently joined the lobbying firm Podesta Group, said his shop has about a dozen clients that are taking part in this week’s events, many at his urging. “I had the complete backing of the firm to reach out to our clients and offer the Congressional Black Caucus events and Congressional Hispanic Caucus events as important events for them to participate in,” Brathwaite said.

Companies such as AT&T, Dell, General Motors and firms like Estell’s all say they have purchased tables at the Saturday dinner. In addition, AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones said her company is hosting two receptions for Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Julia Carson (D-Ind.). Neither is a fundraiser.

Despite all the buzz and long list of events day and night, some lobbyists said that companies and groups actually have scaled back hosting receptions because of the new ethics and lobbying laws. “While there’s been an increased interest in activities related to the CBC foundation, there’s also been a reluctance to do much privately because of the new ethics rules,” one corporate telecom lobbyist said. “A lot of widely attended events that occurred in the past are not happening.”

But many will.

Presidential hopefuls Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will join panel discussions. And D.C. professionals also are planning to host an event for Obama’s presidential campaign at Bohemian Caverns, a jazz spot in the U Street neighborhood.

Corporate executives from far outside the Beltway are eager to get in on the action.

James Page, manager in the global diversity department of Dell, said his company is sponsoring a networking luncheon for small-business leaders during the conference in conjunction with a new Dell computer, Vostro. Dell also will sponsor a cyber cafe, where participants can check their e-mail and, for example, print out airline boarding passes.

“The amount of networking you’re going to be able to do is going to be almost unequaled compared to past years,” said Page, who is based in Texas. “You’re going to get a chance to see Charlie Rangel, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee; John Conyers, chairman of the Judiciary Committee; Barack Obama; James Clyburn, the Whip.” Members, he said, who are “really making a difference in history right now.”

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