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Number of Black Lobbyists Remains Shockingly Low

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 PoliticalMoneyLine.com, 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.

Nonetheless, African American lobbyists have banded together in both loose and formal ways for 25 years. According to the WGRG's new Web site, http://www.wgrginc.org/ , a group of 20 regulars who represented DuPont, Mobil and Westinghouse (among other big companies) began meeting consistently in 1981. In the mid-80s, the lobbyists named themselves the Second Wednesday Group because they tended to gather on the second Wednesday of each month.

In the mid-90s, the group went dormant. But it was revived in its current form in 1997 by John Chambers of the law firm Arent Fox. These days, the nonpartisan WGRG helps lobbyists network with congressional staffers and each other. It also promotes charitable works and educational activities with an eye toward promoting lobbying as a career for African Americans.

There are so few black lobbyists in town that some of them try to take a jocular view of the situation. "Ain't but two of us," joked Fred McClure of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP, when asked how many African American lobbyists there are -- "one Democrat, one Republican." McClure would be the Republican in that formulation, and that can be lonely, he said.

Patrice Webb, a lobbyist for Free Press, a nonprofit media reform organization, has noted with regret that blacks often are directed into social policy rather than corporate-type lobbying roles. Michael J. Frazier, an independent lobbyist and former Transportation Department official, agrees. "I can't figure out why the Fortune 500, which generally has been good on diversity in other areas, isn't as good at having diversity in their government affairs offices," Frazier said.

But Drummer, the WGRG's president, believes that the situation will gradually improve. "That's our hope and expectation," he said. We'll see.

BellSouth, Whistle-Blower Part Ways

Last December, Vicki A. Taylor handed a set of documents to The Washington Post that revealed the then-common practice of lawmakers and their staff members of accepting meals and other gifts from lobbyists that exceeded congressional limits. Taylor, a clerical worker, provided proof that lobbyists at her employer, BellSouth Corp., frequently exceeded the limits.

After The Post's story appeared in January, Taylor was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into her actions. Now, said BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey, "She is no longer working for the company." Taylor's attorney, Melanie Sloan, explained in an e-mail, "She settled with BellSouth in a confidential agreement." Neither McCloskey nor Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, would elaborate.

CQ Buys PoliticalMoneyLine.com

PoliticalMoneyLine.com is one of Washington's indispensable utilities. I used some of its information in today's column.

Now the million-dollar Web site has a new owner, Congressional Quarterly, which is good news for anyone who cares about following political money. PoliticalMoneyLine's indefatigable founders, Kent Cooper and Tony Raymond, both graduates of the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics, have maintained the gold standard of public disclosure for the past 10 years. Now with CQ's help, Cooper wants to go for platinum.

"I'm extremely pleased about this new relationship," Cooper said. "We hope to get even better at what we do."

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address iskstreetconfidential@washpost.com. He will be online to discuss lobbying, lawmaking and diversity on K Street at 1 p.m. today athttp://www.washingtonpost.com.

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