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K Street works to court minority lawmakers
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) hosts a monthly breakfast, usually attended by about 15 lobbyists and people from the private sector. At its first meeting after the midterms, more than 100 people were in the room.
"You can't help but notice it," said Michael Williams, founder of the Williams Group and a regular attendee of the breakfast, of the new attention from K Street.
CBC and Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) members are finding themselves courted by lobbyists after Democrats won the House for the first time in eight years. The blue wave gave the caucuses a record numbers of lawmakers and new influence in the party. And a number of black and Hispanic lawmakers are expected to take the gavels on powerful committees next month and fill out some leadership posts.
Black and Hispanic lawmakers are taking note as lobbyists look to build relationships and promote their legislative priorities. And as they prepare to take the majority, they are voicing their concerns about how K Street does business, particularly since President Trump took office.
"This can't be relationships of convenience," Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill last week. "You can't just do it because African-Americans have more pull."
Richmond spoke about the importance of improving diversity in lobbying firms.
"It was crystal clear to us that when Trump was elected, trade associations, law firms and lobbying groups cleaned house unfortunately of African-American advocates and those trade groups and those firms and corporations know exactly who they are," Richmond said. "I'm going to meet with them because that's my job to meet with them, and I'm not going to make it easy for them and I will be very frank in reminding them what they did."
Richmond said it's good that firms are hiring more African-American lobbyists, but that shouldn't only be because House Democrats are back in power.
"The insult there is the insinuation that African-American members can only talk to African-American lobbyists," he said. "It's that misconception that we can only lobby people who look like us."
The incoming Congress has lobbying shops looking for new ways to strengthen their ties with minority lawmakers and boost diversity in their own ranks.
Many powerful House committees will be led by Democratic lawmakers with long experience in Congress.
Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.) is expected to take the gavel on the Financial Services Committee; Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) the top spot on Natural Resources; Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) on Homeland Security; and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) on the Science, Space and Technology Committee.
And it's not just on the committees. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D), a rising star in the party, was elected caucus chairman in November.
"People are now looking at that as, 'Holy crap, he's the No. 5 guy in the caucus and he's younger than anybody else above him so he has some legs,' " Williams said. " 'What does that mean? How do I get to know him?' People are trying to fit the new paradigm into the old paradigm."
"Hakeem Jeffries is somebody who I think people identified as a young, interesting member of Congress, so I'm not surprised to see him move into leadership," David Thomas, a partner at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, told The Hill.
"If you follow House Democrats, you get a sense of who are the work horses, who are the ones who are here for the right reasons and have that right combination of policy chops and political acumen that make you rise to the top," Thomas said.
Jeffries was a lawyer for CBS and Viacom before entering Congress and someone many lobbyists believe would be a bridge between centrist Democrats and the new progressives.
Many of the financial and social issues that matter to black and Hispanic Democratic lawmakers and newly elected members - tougher oversight of corporations and financial institutions and new efforts to address wage inequality and promote affordable housing to name a few - are already causing anxiety among some lobbyists and interest groups.
"Diversity and inclusion, as well as minimum wage, are going to be huge topics of conversation amongst the CHC and CBC, and that makes the business community downtown nervous," a lobbyist told The Hill. "A lot of heart palpitations. But it's hard to tell at this phase in the process where these priorities end up."
Williams saw opportunities for K Street to work with veteran lawmakers.
"[These members have] been around a long time and they're serious about their craft. It's not going to be inherently a CBC issue because a CBC member is chairing the committee," Williams said. "They're going to look at it, what's best for the economy? What's best for consumers?"
Many younger progressive Democratic lawmakers have made it clear they intend to take a tough line on the lobbying world.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), already a progressive icon, blasted the presence of lobbyists at a bipartisan orientation event.
Thomas suggested that for K Street, reaching out to new lawmakers is always a tough task.
"The challenge for us is how do we get to know the new freshman, many of whom have never served in public office before?" he said.
But even reaching out to established lawmakers can be a new challenge.
Thomas cited Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), the newly elected assistant Democratic leader, as someone K Street has "had an eye ... for a while."
Others, though, are now moving to build bridges with the five-term lawmaker.
"People say, yeah there's potential there but we're not going to talk to you until we need to. So there is a scramble," Williams said.
Williams said lobbyists who haven't reached out to lawmakers who will soon be in power in the House, like Waters, will have a steep learning curve.
"If you've never worked with her before and you sort of made her this boogie man and you never tried then you don't know that," Williams said of Waters. "You're starting from scratch ... thinking she's a transactional politician, but know she actually believes the things she believes."
Minority lawmakers also have their own demands for K Street.
Richmond wants to see lobbying firms talk about diversity, especially on
corporate boards and the C-suite level. He also wants to talk about expanding opportunity.
"How their policies and whatever they're coming in to talk about, how it affects poor people, black and white, vulnerable people, black and white," he said. "Our Black Caucus will be 54, 55 members, we'll represent over 80 million but only 18 or so million are African-American."
"We're not going to be pigeon holed," Richmond said.