Lobbyists Mingle With Congress Under the Banner of Celebrating Diversity

Corporate lobbyists are sponsoring events celebrating racial progress to advocate for their clients' business interests.

The US Capitol in Washington, D.C, on June 26, 2022.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 26, 2022. Photo: Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images

Cristina Antelo, a corporate lobbyist known for her reach within the Democratic Party, held court last month at a gala where her clients and other lobbyists rubbed shoulders with lawmakers and congressional staff.

Such a scene would be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists host parties and fundraisers on a nightly basis in order to forge connections with policymakers, gather political intelligence, and nudge politicians into actions that benefit their clients.

But this time, the influence effort was branded as a righteous celebration of racial progress, exploiting the cultural emphasis of liberal institutions to lobby on issues that have nothing to do with increasing diversity.

It was a “night to welcome and celebrate diversity in the 118th Congress.” The event was titled #DiversityAcrosstheAisle, featuring a dozen sitting members of Congress and many staff members. The lobbying shop, Ferox Strategies, currently represents a range of interests, including Walmart, Reynolds American, and Eli Lilly and Company.

In one photograph from the event, Irene Bueno, a lobbyist for Pfizer and Comcast, huddles with staffers to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.; Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.; and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. In another picture, Tiffani Williams, a vice president for the Daschle Group, along with Lisa Feng of Alexion Pharmaceuticals, both grin alongside a large group of other congressional staff members to senior Democratic lawmakers.

Bueno has a lobbying agenda that is focused on business interests. Her disclosures show her lobbying largely on behalf of pharmaceutical interests on intellectual property, data exclusivity, and government reimbursement policies.

Antelo’s firm is a fairly traditional lobbying firm in many respects. In 2019, The Intercept reported on hacked emails from a surveillance company called Perceptics. The emails showed how Ferox Strategies had worked with tough-on-immigration Republican lawmakers to insert provisions into legislation that would have enabled its client to win contracts for reading the license plates of vehicles crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ferox Strategies stands out as one of an emerging set of influence agents that have exploited the appetite for virtue signaling around diversity to push policies benefiting their clients.

The firm often flaunts its access to identity-based organizations in Congress to leverage client relationships. Ferox Strategies helped Diageo, the distilled spirits giant, contact legislators using access to the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus “regarding production facilities in the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

Antelo, the former interim president of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, or CHCI, the nonprofit arm of the congressional caucus, is a member of the 2044 Council, an organization dedicated to increasing staff diversity in the Senate.

In a message to clients sent after the event, Ferox bragged about using the diversity as a way to ingratiate its corporate clients with Democratic leaders.

“Ferox clients Walmart, Alexion, and Waste Management joined a who’s who of corporate sponsors to generously celebrate the most diverse Congress ever,” the message noted. The invitation for the event included the LGBT Congressional Staff Association, the Black Women’s Congressional Alliance, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, and other identity-based professional societies for Capitol Hill staff.

The largest race-based congressional caucuses each have sister nonprofit groups that are funded and led by corporate lobbyists. The advisory board to the CHCI, for instance, features representatives from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Mastercard, Exxon Mobil, Apple, Airbnb, DaVita, Toyota, Reynolds American, Microsoft, and New York Life Insurance, among other interests.

Last month at the Anthem, a Washington, D.C., nightclub, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra appeared with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to swear in its first-year class of nine new members. The event featured live music and a message from Jeffries.

But before Becerra could administer the oath, Marco Davis, the president of the CHCI, paused the program to thank the sponsors of the swearing-in ceremony, including Genentech, Google, Amgen, Walgreens, and Target. He then handed the microphone to Omar Vargas, the head lobbyist for General Motors.

Lobbying disclosures show Vargas has focused on influencing Congress on tax credits, emissions standards, and recycling issues, among other policies important to GM’s bottom line. The company did not disclose any lobbying on issues related to diversity. But at the swearing-in ceremony, Vargas hit the right theme for the occasion.

“To be very honest with you tonight,” said Vargas, “General Motors and I are personally extremely committed to diversity in the public policy profession.”

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