A New Corporate Lobbying Firm Is Taking Identity Politics Seriously

Bipartisan lobbyists at United by Interest are targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Freedom Caucus.

From left to right: Joe Velazquez, Sam Geduldig, David Morgan, Jennifer Stewart, Jim Terry, and Michael Williams, photographed at the UBI office in Washington, D.C., in Dec. 2017. Photo: Courtesy of UBI

An unusual legislative strategy to revive an infrastructure bill is being tested in the House, with members of the Congressional Black Caucus teaming up with conservative Republicans to sign onto a new bill.

The measure would raise money by selling distressed government loans on the private market, using the proceeds to pay down the deficit and invest in infrastructure improvements. The funding mechanism may be a bit gimmicky, but what’s genuinely unique about the way the legislation has come together is the alignment of two blocs not used to collaborating on legislation.

The bill, like much that happens in Congress, is a product of K Street — in this case, what Roll Call recently called “an atypical firm.” That is something of an understatement. The lobbying team behind the push is a bipartisan project made up of two white Republicans, three black Democrats, and one Hispanic Democrat who think they can use the confluence of poverty and identity politics to craft a legislative strategy that does an end run around House leaders in both parties.

The firm is called United by Interest, and it was founded with the insight that of the 100 poorest congressional districts, 32 are represented by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, 20 by a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and 22 by a Republican either in the Freedom Caucus or the conservative Republican Study Committee. The support of all three groups, the argument goes, should be enough to get the center of both parties in line. With strong support from the base of each party, the center finds it harder to object to legislation.

At least one in five constituents in 83 of those districts lives below the federal poverty line, and passing legislation to lend them a lifeline would, in a functioning system, be something everyone would agree upon.

Linking up the left and right, though without the Congressional Black Caucus component, is effectively the strategy that former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders used to pass legislation increasing transparency in the Federal Reserve in 2010. The measure was fiercely opposed by the Fed, the White House, and leadership in both parties and both chambers, but the alliance of Paul and Sanders left the center nowhere to go. It ultimately passed 96-0 in the Senate.

Poverty is the through-line connecting the districts that United by Interest is focusing on, whether they’re rural or urban.

Poverty is the through-line connecting the districts that United by Interest is focusing on, whether they’re rural or urban. Racial and partisan identity is the dividing line, though some Freedom Caucus districts include a not-insignificant population of black constituents, too. But the lobbying firm, so far without clients, believes that the Democratic Party’s more recent interest in identity politics, which strengthens the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses, can be leveraged for legislative gain.

When the Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971, then-Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr. explained its philosophy: “Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies — just permanent interests.” Today, his son, Rep. Lacy Clay Jr. of Missouri, is an original co-sponsor of the infrastructure bill. (Clay faces a primary challenge August 7 from Cori Bush, a nurse, pastor, and community organizer, with help from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.)

The firm’s partners — Democrats David Morgan, Michael Williams, Jennifer Stewart, and Joe Velazquez; and Republicans Sam Geduldig and Jim Terry — split up the lobbying according to their partisan relationships.

Putting together a coalition of minority Democrats and Republicans is nothing new, but the partners say their approach is fundamentally different from the cynical way it’s historically been done. Other firms rely on what are known as “CBC specialists” whose job it is to find black members of Congress who sit on key committees and are willing to sign on to a bank bill or some other deregulatory measure.

“I dislike it, I think it’s not genuine,” said Stewart of the practice, adding that United by Interest would not be taking the same tack. “I’m very honest with clients. I’m not going to sell out my members.”

The bill Clay is co-sponsoring also has the backing of Freedom Caucus member Ted Budd of North Carolina and Republican Study Committee member Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania. After Wednesday’s Congressional Black Caucus meeting, at which Clay distributed a letter outlining the proposal, more of its members are expected to sign on soon.

Under the bill, known as the Generating American Income and Infrastructure Now Act, money raised from the sale of Agriculture Department loans would go primarily to districts with high concentrations of poverty to fund infrastructure projects. The bill stipulates that a portion of the workforce come from the community in question.

Williams, one of the Democratic partners at the firm, said the firm’s strength will come from not approaching Congressional Black Caucus members as votes to pluck off for a rollback of Dodd-Frank or some other corporate interest. Rather, the firm will succeed by trying to get members to join with conservatives on legislation that genuinely helps their districts but that may not have the immediate support of party leadership. Some Democratic leaders, for instance, are opposed to the idea of an infrastructure bill during an election year, which could be used by President Donald Trump as a win to boost the GOP in the midterms. (Indeed, Kelly, a co-sponsor of the bill, is a top Democratic target in Pennsylvania after his district was redrawn and made more competitive. Democratic leaders tend to prefer that vulnerable Republicans not be able to wave around bipartisan legislation in an election year.)

By going directly to Congressional Black Caucus members and appealing to their interests back home, United by Interest hopes to circumvent such objections. But it has to be a decent bill, not a corporate giveaway packaged as economic growth, Williams said.  “If that component doesn’t exist, and the client doesn’t have a way to make that argument, then we’re not the organization for that,” he added. “What we’re doing is what Paul Ryan started off doing with John Lewis with the poverty initiative, which is now pretty much defunct. We’re saying, hey, that was a good concept.”

Ryan, the outgoing House speaker, partnered with Lewis, who represents a Georgia district, in an effort to find common ground on anti-poverty legislation. “That process we think works as an organizing principle, but again, you’re not going to go lobby the Volcker Rule. You’re not going to be able to lobby Dodd-Frank reform around that. It has to be something tangible where Freedom Caucus members will be able to say, ‘Hey, I get it, I see the net tangible benefits here for my constituents,’ and the CBC members say, ‘I get it,’” Williams said. He was referring to past efforts by banks to seek out Congressional Black Caucus members to support a rollback of the Volcker Rule, which bars banks that get taxpayer backstops from gambling with those federally guaranteed funds.

The question, then, becomes what other issues could play across partisan boundaries with a similar strategy, and which corporate clients may look to exploit the approach. The fossil fuel industry could be one such interest, if the net result means lower energy bills and jobs for constituents in those districts.

The firm is pushing the infrastructure bill on no one’s behalf, to prove that its strategy works. It is hoping to net actual clients moving forward, and if corporate America winds up exploiting the strategy, it will only be because both parties have refused to seriously tackle poverty, leaving the trans-partisan opening. Long neglected, districts represented by members of the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses have fared poorly in the aftermath of the Great Recession. And K Street itself has done very little to diversify its white-dominated culture.

Geduldig, one of the Republican lobbyists behind United by Interest, has earned a reputation for pointing out the lack of diversity in Washington, D.C. Year after year, Geduldig is one of the biggest donors on K Street to the Republican Party. He’s also been emailing white male reporters in New York and Washington going on the last decade to point out the homogenous racial makeup of their various news outlets, charging them with hypocrisy.

“Sam Geduldig has been taunting white liberal journalists for lack of diversity on the Left for years, and occasionally roping me into these email ‘conversations,'” said Tim Carney, a reporter for the Washington Examiner who is among the journalists at Politico, HuffPost, Axios, the New York Times, MSNBC, and elsewhere that Geduldig has trolled.

Geduldig, a former top aide to House Speaker John Boehner, has long resented what he calls hypocrisy from Democrats and the media who brand Republicans as racist while ignoring their own record of excluding black and brown people from their top ranks.

“It’s our belief that this energy and momentum can be used for bipartisan legislative victories and policy advancement if channeled correctly.”

For years, his frustrations resulted in little more than haranguing reporters. Slowly, though, Geduldig began taking action, he said, when he realized he was little different than those he was criticizing. He started by contributing several thousand dollars to a crowdfunding campaign run by the Huffington Post to station a reporter in Ferguson, Missouri, for two years. He later donated money to the 2016 Senate campaign of Democrat Donna Edwards, arguing publicly that the Senate didn’t need one more white male Democrat. Maryland sent Chris Van Hollen — a white male Democrat — to the Senate anyway. Geduldig’s firm, the CGCN Group, began sponsoring the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association.

In a 2016 interview for an article on the Edwards campaign that I co-wrote, Geduldig was straightforward about why he gave.

“I was lobbying the Senate the other day and I noticed Cory Booker was the only black Democrat,” Geduldig said at the time, referring to the Democratic senator from New Jersey. “The institution needs diverse senators, like the House. That’s why I am contributing.”

Williams read the article, and Geduldig’s comments, and decided this was a Republican he had to meet. The two eventually struck up a partnership that became the basis of United by Interest. They brought in additional lobbyists to flesh out the team, and they centered their efforts on the argument that the wings of the party were the true leaders, and that the center was becoming hollowed out. “The firm is rooted in the idea that the poorest communities in the poorest congressional districts represent the most energized constituencies in both parties,” Geduldig said. “It’s our belief that this energy and momentum can be used for bipartisan legislative victories and policy advancement if channeled correctly.”

Williams said that the plan is only to work with Freedom Caucus members, among the most right-wing members of Congress, on select issues. “Before, what folks had been trying to do is say, ‘Let’s bring everybody together and let’s just do it because it’s the right thing to do.’ We’re saying, ‘No, don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do, because that’s nonsense.’ Political realities are realities. There is a good amount of tribalism that exists. So let’s find an organizing principle — and this organizing principle is economic growth and development, and that happens to be one everybody shares,” he said. “If that’s what we’re organizing around, I’m down to work with the Freedom Caucus. Outside of that? I don’t really trust them.”

Top photo: Photographed at the United By Interest offices in Washington, D.C., in December 2017, left to right, Joe Velazquez, Sam Geduldig, David Morgan, Jennifer Stewart, Jim Terry, and Michael Williams.

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