A New Force on K Street

Growth of Hispanic Lobbying Community Mirrors Rising Political Clout

Posted April 25, 2008 at 6:07pm

At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about the fundraiser this week for Rep. Solomon Ortiz. On Tuesday night, lobbyists representing telecom, technology, financial services, energy and other interests will gather at Sonoma, a Capitol Hill wine bar, to pitch in for the Texas Democrat’s re-election.

Such events happen several times a day, year-round, as lawmakers scramble to meet mounting campaign costs and party dues with unending appeals to lobbyists.

But a closer look at the Ortiz dinner reveals a K Street first. The host committee is made up entirely of Hispanic lobbyists.

It is the beginning of a series of events that a loose collective of Hispanic former Hill aides have planned for the members of the 21-strong Congressional Hispanic Caucus. More broadly, the activity signals a coming-of-age for Hispanics in the influence industry.

“We’re seeing the fruits of the investments made in Congress where minority staffers were given an opportunity to have the responsibility of senior-level positions,” said Cindy Jimenez, an adviser to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who last year left for a job with the Information Technology Association of America. “Naturally, those staffers move on to government relations, and now we’re looking at each other, trying to figure out what we can do to have a voice in the legislative and political process.”

Next Wednesday, the group will host a dinner fundraiser for Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) at Charlie Palmer Steak. And on May 21, they’re getting together again — this time for a breakfast at Johnny’s Half Shell — to raise money for Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). Others are in the works for Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and John Salazar (D-Colo.). Eventually, the lobbyists said they will benefit lawmakers who don’t belong to the CHC but represent majority-Hispanic districts, such as Reps. Gene Green (D-Texas) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.).

The effort so far is informal: The group has no name and no definitive membership. Its first meeting, to discuss “next steps,” is planned for the second week of May, Jimenez said.

The fundraising drive comes two years after the formation of the Hispanic Lobbyists Association, organized by eight Hispanic lobbyists to formalize their mentoring efforts for those new to their ranks downtown. But the money events represent a leap forward for the community made possible by a recent exodus of top-level Hispanic staffers to K Street posts.

In addition to Jimenez, last year Moses Mercado, a one-time deputy chief of staff to then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), left his job as a director of the Democratic National Committee to join Ogilvy Government Relations. Joining him there at the end of last year was Dean Aguillen, a senior adviser to Pelosi. Marcela Urrutia-Zamora, senior policy adviser for Hispanic affairs to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), left last month for a lobbying job with Verizon.

Others helping organize the events include Ingrid Duran, who was executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute before leaving to start her own firm, D&P Creative Strategies; her partner, Catherine Pino; Estuardo Rodriguez and Larry Gonzalez of The Raben Group; and Gilberto Ocañas of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

Those involved so far appear to number fewer than a dozen. Most know each other and claim friendships dating back a decade, a time when Hispanic staffers were a rarity on the Hill.

“Thank goodness, things change,” said Gene Green, who has employed Duran, Jimenez and Mercado. “Frankly, they’re a part of the system now. And if they want to make changes in the system, they need to elect folks they can agree with.”

Both the former staffers and their Congressional sponsors are hot political commodities right now. The Democrats’ return to power handed subcommittee gavels to 11 CHC members. One, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), got the full chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. The caucus also counts among its members four appropriators, four members of House Financial Services Committee, two members of House Energy and Commerce Committee and one member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Corporations have taken notice.

The caucus’s political action committee — Build Our Leadership Diversity PAC, or BOLD PAC — kept relatively steady fundraising during its first three cycles in existence, with receipts hovering around $250,000. But by the end of March, the account had already pulled in $351,941, according to CQ MoneyLine. New fans of the PAC this cycle include such blue chip companies as Amgen, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, Diageo, Freddie Mac, Merck and Pepsi.

Meanwhile, outside the Beltway, Hispanics are emerging as an increasingly potent electoral force. All three presidential campaigns are actively courting their votes, and prognosticators cite them as a potentially decisive swing bloc in November.

That backdrop gives new relevancy to the lobbyists push, those behind the effort say. “Companies are saying, ‘How do we capture a piece of that? How do we work with Hispanic Members of Congress and the Hispanic community?’” Ingrid Duran said. “Now that there’s a critical mass of Hispanics in lobbying positions, we’re reaching out to them.”