Black, Latino lobbyists bristle at progressives pushing corporate K Street ban on Biden

A battle is brewing on K Street over an effort by progressives to ensure a Biden administration is devoid of any former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists. 

Black and Latino lobbyists say a ban of that sort would end up shutting out minorities and could make the administration less diverse if Democrats win back the White House.

The tensions date back to April, when eight progressive groups wrote a letter calling on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida MORE to vow not to appoint any “current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists, or people affiliated with the fossil fuel, health insurance or private prison corporations” to his transition team, Cabinet or as top aides.

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That demand did not sit well with some minority lobbyists, who argue that corporate lobbyists shouldn’t be denied a spot in the administration.

“Given the wokeness of these people, I find it odd they are so comfortable lumping a large group of people together. They have an agenda that is limiting and it has always been limiting,” said Michael Williams, founder of the Williams Group, one of the few Black-owned lobbying shops in D.C.

Williams served as special assistant for legislative affairs to former President Clinton.

Biden hasn’t made any promises with regard to a proposed ban, but a campaign spokesperson drew a contrast between Biden and President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE.

“Vice President Biden has made it clear that he's going to make it a priority to clean up Trump's mess by putting in place tough safeguards against the sort of rampant cronyism and lobbyist influence we've seen over the last four years, even as Biden ensures that his administration's staffing reflects America's diversity,” Biden for President spokesman Michael Gwin said. 

Nicole Venable, a lobbyist at Invariant, criticized the effort by progressives, saying their goal to have a Biden administration filled with staff reflecting all of America is undercut by these types of restrictions. 

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“The new Administration will have their hands tied behind their back if they can only consider people who have either never worked in government or who have no experience in the private sector. You want a mix of staffers who have government experience, been ‘downtown,’ in trade associations, who have corporate experience or some who have it all,” she told The Hill in an email.

Venable is the founder of Black Girl Magic Network, an association of female lobbyists of color. She served as a senior aide in the Clinton White House.

Alliance for Youth Action, one of the groups that signed the April letter to Biden, stressed that progressives are particularly concerned about corporate lobbyists serving in a future administration.

“The letter we've sent doesn't call for a ban on lobbyists, it calls for a ban on explicitly CORPORATE lobbyists like the ones who have been able to push a harmful agenda within the Trump administration which have taken away government's ability to protect people of color, young workers and children from pollutants in our air and water and predatory economic practices which continue to hold them in poverty,” Carmel Pryor, senior director of communications at Alliance for Youth Action, told The Hill in an email.

Paul Thornell, a principal and the only Black lobbyist at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, said that approach would still have detrimental effects.

“The reality is, if you want to be in a position where you’re choosing from the broadest diverse group of qualified people, especially in the economic space, you do have to acknowledge that a number who would serve in a Biden administration will come with corporate experience from the finance sector,” he said.

Other groups that signed the letter include Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement.

The effort by progressives is reminiscent of an executive order signed by former President Obama during his first term restricting lobbyists from serving in the White House after pledging to do so during his 2008 campaign. But his order wasn’t without exceptions. 

Former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn served as deputy secretary of Defense, and Cecilia Muñoz, a former lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza, served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Dozens of others were also hired by the administration.

Cristina Antelo, founder of the lobbying shop Ferox Strategies, argued lobbyists have often worked on policy issues from both inside the Beltway and in the boardroom, a skill set other applicants might not have. 

“It’s not that a former lobbyist would come to something with malintent but instead has the benefit of playing the role of a liaison in the middle. I think it is a mistake to implement a preference for people who have spent their entire lives as an academic or an analyst in a think tank. If you never get to see the impact of policies in play or practice or have to be one of the business players that put it to work, then to you it’s all theory,” said Antelo, a founding member and former president of the Hispanic Lobbyists Association. 

Thornell, who was deputy director of legislative affairs for former Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreGallup: 61 percent support abolishing the Electoral College Business groups start gaming out a Biden administration Cruz says Senate Republicans likely have votes to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee MORE, said implementation of the proposed ban would mean a shallow and not diverse talent pool for top posts at financial agencies. 

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“If you were to draw up a list today of who could be Treasury secretary and give me a list of African Americans who could step into that job, that list will not be as strong if you’re going to leave Wall Street people out,” he said.

Similarly, he mentioned the difficulty filling seats at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. or Securities and Exchange Commission, pointing to a lack of diversity among Senate staffers as another issue with a ban.

“You’re not going to find Black people for those jobs in terms of top banking staff in the Senate because they’re not there. The Senate numbers for diverse top staff on the Democratic side and the Republican side are embarrassingly low,” he said.

Congressional staff are often nominated for seats at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. 

Venable, of Invariant, noted that a ban could also end up keeping some former corporate lobbyists unemployed following job cuts prompted by the coronavirus.

“Now we see COVID impacting many of our government affairs colleagues. Even proposals like putting in place a one or two year ‘corporate’ ban would remove qualified, diverse candidates who may have been recently sacked or furloughed out of the running,” she said.

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“These candidates have the experience, the policy expertise, the Washington networks and have been negatively impacted by COVID — and you are saying they should be barred from appointments in the administration?” Venable added.

One trade association minority staffer who spoke to The Hill said a corporate lobbyist ban not only excludes subject matter experts, it also assumes all lobbyists come from privileged backgrounds. 

“It’s very easy to say ‘no lobbyist’ when you have millions in your trust fund or if you have a spouse that’s working as a lobbyist,” the lobbyist said.

Williams similarly said that the decision to leave government to become a lobbyist for the private sector varies based on privilege.

“They don’t take into consideration what the nuance is. Why? Privilege. They’ve never needed to go take a job to have to pay for their kids to go to school,” Williams said.