While many college students join sororities and fraternities for the parties and the social life, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) signed up for a more serious reason. Fudge pledged Delta Sigma Theta at Ohio State University in the early 1970s in hopes of networking with a group of strong, smart women.
Little did she know her affiliation would lead to a seat in Congress: Fudge met her good friend and predecessor, the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, through the sorority.
“Some of it is fun, absolutely, but people lose sight of the big picture, and that is the network,” Fudge said. “It is an opportunity to create for yourself a cadre of friends that you will have for a lifetime.”
That network of friends extends all the way to Congress. There are 141 Members of Congress who have pledged into the Greek system, according to Kevin O’Neill, a lobbyist at Patton Boggs who represents on a pro-bono basis the two largest umbrella groups for fraternities and sororities, the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference.
O’Neill, a Lambda Chi Alpha at Syracuse University, is hoping to use that common bond among Members today when current students and alumni of the Greek system hold about 400 meetings on Capitol Hill.
The group is lobbying to enact tax legislation that it says would help restore aging Greek houses and bring them into compliance with updated safety standards.
The group’s biggest priority is passing a bill that would address the disparity between universities and nonprofit organizations, such as fraternities and sororities, for the creation and improvement of college infrastructure.
Universities are allowed to accept tax-deductible charitable donations for college infrastructure improvements, such as dorms. Fraternities and sororities, as well as religious-affiliated organizations, cannot.
While lobbyists for the group believe the change in tax law would level the playing field for donors wanting to help address necessary housing upgrades, they are aware of the public relations hurdle that they must cross to get the legislation passed.
“We’re very careful not to make this out to be just a bunch of frat boys looking out for their buds,” Winstead’s William LaForge said.
LaForge, a Pi Kappa Alpha at Delta State University in Mississippi and former chief of staff to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), said the lobbying effort is about housing and safety.
“The opponent really is the status quo and getting the tax writing committees to make this tweak, make this change, because there’s always fear when you open up a can of worms about the Greek system. You have the horror stories of hazing,” he said.
Still, having powerful lawmakers and K Street lobbyists sharing a common bond could certainly help the proponents of the legislation.
Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), an Alpha Phi Alpha, is always keeping an eye out for ways to help a brother. Alpha Phi Alpha has a large network in Congress including Reps. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.).
“Brothers look out for brothers,” Scott said. “I certainly would not be where I am if I did not have a lot of helping hands along the way, and one of those very, very critical helping hands was through Alpha.”
Scott credits his fraternity with getting him through college by helping him find scholarship money as well as connecting him with a brother in Washington, D.C., who offered him a place to stay when he was an intern with the Labor Department.
Fudge also got her start in Washington through her sorority sister Tubbs Jones.
When Tubbs Jones was elected to the House in 1998, she asked Fudge to serve as her chief of staff.
The women traveled to D.C. together, and upon their arrival, then-Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, who is also a Delta Sigma Theta, hosted a party in their honor.
“Alexis reached out to us and said, You know, you guys are new here … let me introduce you to some people,'” Fudge recalled. “That immediately gave [Tubbs Jones] an advantage that most freshmen would not have.”
Not only did Fudge’s friendship with Tubbs Jones lead to a chief of staff job, it also paved the way for her ascent in Congress. When Tubbs Jones died suddenly in 2008 of a cerebral hemorrhage, Fudge was elected to replace her. Today, Fudge employs two staffers who are also members of Delta Sigma Theta. Over the years she has also welcomed Delta Sigma Theta interns.
Those relationships can also spur campaign contributions.
When rumors began circulating that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who rushed Kappa Kappa Gamma at Duke University, was planning a run for Congress in 2000, one of the first people to offer support was Sara Glenn, a lobbyist for Shell Oil and a sorority sister.
“One of the first things I got was an e-mail from a fellow Kappa who was a lobbyist and that really connected me to more than a few folks,” Capito said. “It really helped me to begin networking here in Washington through meet-and-greets and things like that.”
That push for campaign contributions hasn’t been lost on fraternities and sororities.
O’Neill and others formed the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee in 2005 to support alumni of the Greek system and those committed to upholding a life in service. The group’s goal is to raise $1 million by the end of the cycle, according to O’Neill.
Being in a fraternity “is all about getting into position to move to the next level,” Scott said.