Hispanic campaign donors look for new ways to flex their political muscle
By Karen Tumulty,
They are an unlikely trio, these relative newcomers to the world of major-league political fundraising: a Hollywood actress who gained fame as a desperate housewife, a Texan who grew up walking picket lines with his labor-organizer father and a Harvard-
educated lawyer from Puerto Rico.
But they may be on their way to becoming big players in a city where access to money means access to influence.
One of the most remarked-on stories of the 2012 election was the impact of the nation’s rapidly growing Hispanic population at the ballot box. Largely overlooked was the emergence of a cadre of wealthy Latinos as a force in political fundraising.
Especially successful was a network called the Futuro Fund, organized by television star Eva Longoria, San Antonio architectural-design-firm owner Henry Muñoz III and San Juan lawyer Andres W. Lopez. It pulled in upward of $30 million toward President Obama’s reelection.
“We wanted to make sure the Latino community stops being a number and starts being looked at as a market,” Longoria said in an interview. “It may have been a shock to some, but not if you look at trends in Hispanic buying power.”
Now the three are pondering how to build a Latino political organization that will help shape the national debate — not only on such issues as immigration laws and Puerto Rico statehood, but also on education and economic opportunity for Latinos.
“If we are ever going to get what we want, we have to be politically involved,” Muñoz said. “Politics has a currency. It has votes and money. Our community has been known for votes, and now it has to be known for money.”
That, however, is a tall order. An Associated Press survey found that while Hispanics account for 16 percent of the population, less than 4 percent of itemized political contributions (those of $200 or more) during the 2012 campaign came from predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.
It is understandable, given that the median household income for Hispanics in the 2010 Census was $37,759, compared with $54,620 for non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics have also been hit harder by the recession, with unemployment rates persistently higher than the national average.
In recent weeks, Muñoz and Lopez have been quietly making the rounds in Washington, tapping their contacts, including at the White House, and soliciting advice. Among the possibilities they are considering is setting up a Latino research and advocacy center modeled on a liberal powerhouse, the Center for American Progress.
They bristle, however, at suggestions that they will be just another arm of the Obama political operation.
“We can’t cast ourselves necessarily as a partisan entity or an Obama-specific entity. The question is, how do Latinos, having reached a tipping point in this cycle, move on not just for the next four years, but the next 40?” Lopez said. “That will necessitate talking to both sides of the aisle.”
Though there are already a number of established Hispanic organizations, most grew not from politics but from the civil rights movement. Activists say they are not as influential as they could be and often struggle for funding.
Many of those groups have also criticized Obama for not living up to his promise to provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country.
Longoria, a ninth-generation American, said the new organization’s agenda would reach beyond immigration.
“I understand how immigration bumps against everything,” she said. “It touches the economy, and it touches jobs, and it touches educational outcomes and achievement gaps as well. But that’s just a part of the bigger pie chart of our concerns.”
Muñoz, Lopez and Longoria got to know one another when they served on a commission exploring the possibility of building a Latino American museum on the Mall. From that friendship grew an idea they presented at Obama campaign headquarters in June 2011: Allocate one staffer and some time on the candidate’s schedule, they promised, and they could bring in $12 million.
“Historically, the [Latino] community has not been a heavy source of fundraising,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “The three of them flew to Chicago and told us we were missing an untapped potential.”
Tapping it did not prove to be as difficult as many had expected.
“What we found out was many [Latinos] hadn’t even been asked,” Lopez said.
The Futuro Fund’s first big event was an October 2011 fundraiser that brought Obama to the home of movie stars Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith.
“It was unbelievable, especially for someone like me. I am not even from this country,” Banderas, a Spaniard, later told KTLA television in Los Angeles. “It was actually like a fairy tale.”
Some who had donated before were persuaded to give more.
Ralph Patino, a lawyer in Coral Gables, Fla., wrote a $30,000 check in 2008, but both he and his wife gave maximum contributions of $75,800 this time. On the night of the final presidential debate, he hosted a watch party for 700 Hispanic Obama supporters at Miami’s historic Olympia Theater.
Patino said he even persuaded a Republican Latino friend to switch sides and write a six-figure check to the Obama effort.
“We have the power of the purse. We have the power of the vote, and we want to be included,” Patino said. “This was perfect.”
The Futuro Fund organizers also insisted on having a voice in campaign strategy. Muñoz, for instance, persuaded Obama’s top strategists to give the keynote speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention to his hometown mayor, Julian Castro.
He noted that the Republicans were training a spotlight on such up-and-coming Hispanic leaders as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
“Who is there in the Democratic Party who looks like the future?” Muñoz recalls asking the campaign.
The Futuro Fund organizers also traveled the country, making contacts and soliciting ideas from other Latinos. Muñoz spent Election Day in Wisconsin and marveled: “I didn’t know there was a barrio in Milwaukee.”
Messina predicted that future presidential campaigns will be jockeying for favor with the network that Longoria, Muñoz and Lopez have developed.
“Success garners many friends, and they’re going to have a lot of candidate friends,” Messina said.