Pressure on K Street to reflect growing diversity in Congress

Pressure on K Street to reflect growing diversity in Congress
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The new Congress boasts a record number of women and minority lawmakers, raising pressure on K Street to bring more diversity to the lobbying world.

“It’s incredible that Congress is taking the lead,” former Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Ex-GOP Rep. Denham heads to lobbying firm K Street boom extends under Trump, House Dems MORE (R-Fla.), who just joined Akin Gump, told The Hill. “They force that little old lady to cross the street whether she wants to or not.”

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November’s Democratic wave brought new highs in the number of women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and openly LGBT lawmakers. In the House, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) are enjoying record memberships and unprecedented clout.

Many on K Street acknowledge their industry has been slow to catch up.

“Certainly, K Street needs to do better,” said Arshi Siddiqui, an Akin Gump partner. “I think this new class of freshmen will help speed up this process.”

Bert Gómez, a lobbyist with Becker, said he saw a mariachi band in the House hallway on the first day of the 116th
Congress, highlighting the growing influence of Hispanic lawmakers.

“That’s unbelievable. That tells you right there,” he said.

“I’m already seeing it that firms are hiring more Latinos, they’re certainly interviewing more Latinos. They’re engaging more with women, they’re engaging more with blacks,” Gómez said. “I’m not sure what the hiring numbers look like but I think there’s more conversation about it.”

The CBC and CHC are pushing K Street to make a commitment to diversity.

“This can’t be relationships of convenience,” Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondJudiciary Committee Dem: Impeachment should be considered Biden makes hard push for African American vote Hillicon Valley: Facebook, Google face tough questions on white nationalism | Nielsen's exit raisers cyber worries | McConnell calls net neutrality bill 'dead on arrival' | Facebook changes terms for EU data MORE (D-La.), the then-CBC chairman, told The Hill in December. “You can’t just do it because African-Americans have more pull.”

K Street has long struggled with boosting diversity in its ranks, especially in its most prominent jobs.

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Of Open Secrets’s 20 top lobbyists on Tuesday, determined by number of clients, 14 were white men, 5 were white women, and 1 was an Asian-American woman.

“K Street is kind of insular,” said Sam Geduldig, a partner at United by Interest. UBI is made up of diverse lobbyists with their own firms who work together to connect lawmakers from the poorest congressional districts with economic development projects.

“We just think we’re a little ahead of the curve,” he said of his firm.

Several sources told The Hill that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders are the least represented on K Street.

“Sometimes, when I enter a room and I don’t know anybody, and I’m the only one who looks like me, I sometimes feel the need to prove myself, why am I here, what’s my value,” Irene Bueno, a partner and co-founder of NVG, LLC, said.

H Street Project, an informal group of Asian-American lobbyists, has about 100 people on their mailing list. Bueno said the numbers are improving since she started lobbying in 2002.

“There are now more Asian-American lobbyists, both Republicans and Democrats, I see the numbers growing as Asian-Americans reach senior levels on the Hill ... [and] leave the Hill,” she added.

Some worry, though, that even with a new Congress, K Street has not really changed.

“Is there a real commitment to diversity on K Street? In my opinion, the answer is no,” Michael Williams, a partner at UBI, said. “Gender diversity or racial diversity, you’re going to get one or two people ... just enough to scratch that itch. And then what happens once the itch is scratched, do you hire anybody else?”

“There is a lack of female leadership downtown,” Williams said about gender disparities on K Street. “It transcends control [and] whoever is in Congress.”

Lobbyists are often later in their careers in Washington and for many, that means they have families. For female lobbyists, the culture of K Street, which includes long hours and late nights, can be a difficult balance.

Anne MacMillan, a lobbyist at Invariant, which was founded by Heather Podesta, says she benefits “150 percent” from having a woman at the helm of the firm.

“It’s really challenging to be a working mom in D.C.,” she said. “Employers recognizing that and providing the space for those women to flourish unfortunately is not the norm just yet.” 

“I think there are more and more women in great positions on and off the Hill,” she added. “We’re getting where we need to go as opposed to when I when I was on the Hill and it was primarily men lobbying me. We’re turning the corner.”

Firms with strong female representation might be the exception to the rule, but many say they play an important role in recruiting women to K Street.

“I have had many successes, but I’ve also experienced setbacks and frustrations that are all too common for many diverse lobbyists,” said Dana Weekes, a lobbyist at Arnold & Porter. “I am fortunate, though, to work in a legislative practice that is majority women.” 

Many say making K Street more welcoming will require a sea change in attitudes.

For example, lobbying firms faced criticism in the past for hiring minorities or women only to lobby minority or women lawmakers.

Geduldig, from UBI, thinks K Street needs to break out of its comfort zone.

“Nobody gets uncomfortable on K Street and I think that’s the biggest disservice that K Street has right now. In order to be a good lobbyist, you need to get uncomfortable,” Geduldig said.

“If you just hire someone based on the way they look or their background, that’s not going to get you very far. You have to look at the whole package,” said Ros-Lehtinen about mentoring new talent. “If we do our mentorship in the correct way, you’re going to have the whole package. A certain demographic is going to get you through the door but it’s not going to help you land a job or a client.”

While lawmakers expect K Street to change, many said Capitol Hill also needed to improve, pointing to the lack of diversity among congressional staffers, an important launching pad for future K Street talent. Less than 14 percent of all top House staff are people of color, according to a September report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

“It has to start on the Hill because if there’s no talent, if members aren’t hiring enough diversity on the Hill, then where’s the farm team coming from?” Omar Franco, a lobbyist with Becker, said.

“It is going to be very difficult when all of the staff directors, or all of the lead counsels or all of the lead policy folks, are not diverse when companies and lobbying firms come looking,” said Paul Brathwaite, chief strategist at Federal Street Strategies, who began his career after six years as executive director of the CBC.

There are many groups working to bring changes to K Street.

Women in Government Relations has roughly 1200 members. The Washington Government Relations Group, a nonprofit for African-American professionals, has about 300 members on its email list and more engaging on social media. And, the Hispanic Lobbyists Association currently engages with about 200 policy and government relations professionals.

When Ben Grove, legislative director for Thompson Coburn, worked on the Hill for a Republican office, he would step away to attend meetings with other LGBT staffers.

“I would walk down the hallway to a Q Street event and sort of sneak in,” he told The Hill.

He’s now president of Q Street, which has 4,000 LGBT lobbyists, Hill staffers and public policy advocates on its mailing list.

Those numbers are due to the growing talent pool in Capitol Hill, Grove said.

“[Firms are] hiring the best staffers who are out there and not looking at whether they’re gay or lesbian.”