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For Black Lobbyists, Progress Is Real but Big Challenges Remain
By Anna Palmer and Matthew Murray
Roll Call Staff
June 9, 2009

Donni Turner never imagined herself as a lobbyist. Nothing against the field, she said. The thought just didn’t occur to her when she graduated from Howard University in 1998.

“When I was in law school, I did not know of a black lobbyist,” said Turner, who is now a principal at the Podesta Group. “I thought I either had to be a litigator, go to the corporate world or get a government job.”

But shifting cultural attitudes and diversity recruiting downtown and on Capitol Hill appear to be changing the way that many African-Americans view their career options.

An African-American family now lives in the White House, and Podesta’s senior black lobbyists make up a higher ratio among their peers at the firm than African-Americans do in the overall population.

Even more, black lobbyists say they are beginning to see fissures in the once-rigid stereotype of former Congressional Black Caucus staffers being exclusively hired to influence their old CBC colleagues after they leave the Hill.

In a recent interview at their Chinatown offices, Podesta’s six African-American lobbyists reflected on their experiences on the Hill, at the firm and in corporate boardrooms. And while more minorities than ever before have found opportunities in Congress and on K Street during the past decade, Podesta’s retention of six black lobbyists is definitely the exception and not the rule downtown.

“There are government relations offices around town that can take a very broad view,” said Walter Pryor, a Podesta lobbyist. “And then you look in other places, and the firms speak for themselves.”

Paul Brathwaite, the firm’s most senior black lobbyist, came to Podesta soon after the Democrats gained a majority in Congress almost three years ago. At the time, he was the firm’s only black lobbyist. Podesta’s first African-American hire, Beverly Barnes, left more than 10 years ago to join the Clinton administration.

Brathwaite, who had been the CBC’s executive director, said the culture and prominence of the Podesta franchise made the move attractive.

Pryor soon followed Brathwaite to the firm. During his interview, Pryor recalled, he realized that Brathwaite was already working there. And although the interview process was going well, he assumed they would pass on hiring him.

“I was, like, ‘It’s too bad they already have their CBC person because I’d really like to go there,’” Pryor remembered.

Pigeonholed

Black lobbyists describe being pigeonholed for years as their firm’s entree to the CBC, the nearly 40-year-old caucus that now has 41 members, including chairmen of four House committees.

There were some exceptions.

Smith Davis, an African-American partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said lobbying black lawmakers was a small part of his job when he began working at the firm decades ago.

Davis, a Republican, also spoke about the changing attitudes toward race in Washington, D.C., since he started lobbying 30 years ago. And he should know: Davis’ skin color does not make it obvious that he is African-American.

“In part because of the way I look, I’ve gotten to see some of the things that people were saying and feeling that they wouldn’t have said if they thought I was a person of color,” Davis said. “The country has come a very long way, and you don’t see that behavior in D.C. very much anymore. Washington’s changed immensely in that regard.”

Bryan Cave’s Julius Hobson has seen much of that transformation firsthand.

Hobson began lobbying in 1973 as a member of the D.C. Board of Education at a time when there were only a handful of African-American lobbyists on K Street. Even more unusual were black lobbyists who broke out of lobbying traditional civil rights issues.

“Part of it was you couldn’t get a job as a lobbyist unless you had worked on the Hill, but you couldn’t get a job on the Hill because most white Members wouldn’t hire you,” Hobson said.

Veteran black lobbyists credit former Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), then-chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, as a key conduit for hiring minority staffers in the Senate.

In particular, African-Americans have made inroads in rising to the top echelon of corporate government relations. Verizon Wireless’ Howard Woolley, Viacom’s DeDe Lea and Gina Adams at FedEx are just a few examples of black lobbyists leading Washington offices. Black lobbyists attribute corporate social responsibility and diversity initiatives as reasons that companies have moved to add more African-Americans to their senior ranks.

A Minute Part of the Profession

While progress certainly has been made, black lobbyists say there is still much work that needs to be done.

The number of black lobbyists has increased over the past 10 years, but they still remain a remarkably small segment of the K Street population.

In 2006, the Washington Government Relations Group, the association for black lobbyists, had just 200 lobbyists in its directory. That number has now grown to nearly 450, according to the trade group’s president, Marcus Mason.

“The increase comes from two sources: new lobbyists coming downtown and lobbyists who were downtown getting greater responsibilities and looking [to connect with] others in their field,” said Mason, who is a partner at the Madison Group.

While the association’s directory doesn’t cover the entire cross section of African-American lobbyists, it is still indicative of the fact that black lobbyists are a minute part of the entire federal profession, which topped 10,770 lobbyists during the first quarter of this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The WGRG, which started as the Second Wednesdays Group in the 1960s, was originally formed as a socializing network. Its mission in recent years has become much more focused on trying to open up the dialogue between African-Americans on K Street and others on Capitol Hill.

In addition to acting as a job bank to help place black staffers and lobbyists in Congressional offices, the association is also putting together a best-practices seminar for black lobbyists and plans to launch an online directory of black lobbyists that can act as a clearinghouse for companies looking to hire African-Americans.

Black lobbyists have also banded together to create informal networking groups.

Former Clinton administration lobbyist Paul Thornell, who is now at Citigroup, began gathering with black Clinton aides-turned-lobbyists in late 2003. The group, which meets about monthly, has expanded to more than 60.

In addition to providing a regular forum for African-American lobbyists to meet, the group gets together with key players on the Hill and also helps provide strategy to increase diversity at the mid- and senior-staff levels on Capitol Hill.

“We, in very direct ways, have tried to be a resource to people on the Hill,” Thornell said. “It’s not just acknowledging there’s a problem, but helping put strategies in place to help remedy that.”

Crediting Clyburn

As black lobbyists have increased their presence on K Street, the number of African-American staffers on Capitol Hill has increased, too. But there still remains a scarcity of minority aides at the senior staff level and in leadership offices.

Recognizing this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) started the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative two years ago, hiring Martina Bradford to run it.

While there are no statistics available on the number of minority staffers in the Senate, black lobbyists say Bradford has systematically created a pipeline for African-Americans and other minorities to be hired on Capitol Hill.

There is no formal diversity program in the House, but Bradford said she has gotten inquiries from House offices about starting a similar initiative.

Black lobbyists credit House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and his chief of staff, Yebbie Watkins, for promoting and placing African-Americans in key leadership positions in the House.

Podesta’s Jaime Harrison and AJ Jones were the first African-Americans to hold their positions in the House leadership as floor director and policy director for the Majority Whip, respectively.

Watkins, who has been on Capitol Hill nearly 17 years, noted that while there has been an increase in the number of black staffers over the last five years, most of that is due to minority hiring by CBC members, not the entire Congress.

“I think there is still a dearth of senior African-American positions on committee staff,” Watkins said. “We’re much better than we were simply by the fact that there are four CBC members who chair full committees, and they’ve brought an increased diversity, but I think as an institution we could probably do more.”

Just Good Business

With roughly one-fifth of its principals African-American — a rarity in the still predominantly white and male downtown offices — Brathwaite nonetheless said the firm did not set out solely with diversity in mind.

“It wasn’t by design,” he said. “Tony [Podesta] doesn’t approach it like that, and Kimberly Fritts, who runs the day-to-day operations of our firm, doesn’t approach it like that. The leadership of our firm is just enlightened.”

Podesta said the hires are just good business. “The fact that our firm is diverse among all our senior people helps us to provide better service to our clients,” he said.

Still, the group agrees that diversity begets diversity. By creating a workplace in which race is a contributing — but not necessarily a defining — characteristic, they say Podesta has created an environment where minority consultants and Hill recruits are encouraged to step outside of stereotypical racial lobbying roles.

“Sometimes when I go to a client meeting, I will be the only face of color in the room,” said the Podesta Group’s Turner, who was a legislative assistant to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I’ll give them the answer that they want but then also be able to broaden the discussion. It’s up to us to also enlighten other people in the room — whether it’s clients or Congressional offices — to let them know the broader perspective we can provide.”

A North Carolina native, the Podesta Group’s Jones is perhaps the best example of how his firm’s black lobbying team is smashing racial stereotypes in Washington.

A former World Health Organization consultant, Jones, who joined the firm in early 2009, interviewed at numerous firms before joining the Podesta Group. At each interview, he recalled that “you could almost see people say, ‘OK, black guy. He’s going to talk to [California Democratic Rep.] Maxine Waters and my black people who have black problems.’”

There was just one hitch.

“That’s just not my background. I went to school in Iowa. My experiences are asymmetrical, and I just wanted to go to a firm that would appreciate that,” Jones said. “I can speak just as clearly about health care as I can about credit derivatives, and I wanted a firm to appreciate that and not just a firm who wanted me as their representative, their black face at a party.”

Jones also described why he ruled out other firms before deciding on the Podesta Group. In addition to brimming with overwhelmingly older, white lobbyists, the other firms also offered few apparent opportunities to grow. “Comfort,” he said, “is a big deal,” particularly considering the long and stressful hours.

“There is a cultural fit. I was the youngest thing coming to these firms by 20 years,” he recalled. “You start to ask yourself: I know I’m not the only smart black person around. I know there’s a lot of smart black people around who interviewed here. Why didn’t they come here?”

For K Street, the question remains to be answered.