Number of Black Lobbyists Remains Shockingly Low

Robert G. Drummer's association for black lobbyists has about 100 members.
Robert G. Drummer's association for black lobbyists has about 100 members. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, August 7, 2006

Robert G. Drummer has been a lobbyist for a long time. He represents the American Moving and Storage Association and the City of Atlanta. But one thing has not changed since he first left Capitol Hill as an aide in 1995: the number of African American lobbyists like himself has remained remarkably small.

"The number has risen, but it's been a slow growth," he said. As president of the Washington Government Relations Group (WGRG), a trade association of black lobbyists, Drummer should know. The organization has about 100 members and a database of black federal lobbyists that tops 200.

The database probably doesn't capture every African American registered to lobby in the District. But even if it includes only half of the real total -- or even a quarter -- the number is still minuscule. According to the nonpartisan, the total number of currently registered federal lobbyists is 29,702.

How is it possible that any profession -- let alone a profession that deals with the government -- has such a tiny representation of African Americans?

Lobbyists suggest a few reasons. One is that blacks are underrepresented in Congress, especially in the Senate, and the result is that relatively few African Americans get the experience they need to become professional lobbyists. Another explanation is that because black lobbyists have been so rare for so long, the network of predominantly white people who do the hiring for lobby groups doesn't routinely reach out to blacks.

And then there's the K Street Project excuse. Pressure on lobbying groups from the Republican Congress over the past decade to hire Republicans only has limited the market for blacks, since very few tend to belong to the GOP.

But none of these analyses account for the basic, embarrassing fact of the shockingly low number of African American lobbyists.

At a recent luncheon meeting of the WGRG, everyone agreed there was a problem. "There's something broken," said Paul N.D. Thornell, the senior lobbyist for United Way of America. "Rarely in a room of other lobbyists do many people look like me."

"Lobbying in health care is a little bit better," said Stefanie J. Reeves of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "But it's not that good."

In an earlier column I wrote that the number of women and minority lobbyists has been growing in recent years, but that was only partly true. Women lobbyists have become commonplace while African American lobbyists remain exceptional. I did a disservice by not pointing that out.

There will be people who will think it's wonderful that blacks have been able to stay away from so tainted a vocation. I disagree. Lobbyists are integral to the process that produces our nation's laws and regulations. When any group is not at the bargaining table, everyone suffers. And like it or not, lobbyists are among the most important folks at that table.

The pool of black congressional aides -- from which lobbyists are often drawn -- is pretty shallow, especially in the Senate. The June issue of DiversityInc magazine reports that of the approximately 1,000 most senior staff jobs in the Senate, only 2.9 percent are held by blacks.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company