Aug. 30, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

For Black Lobbyists, Progress Is Real but Big Challenges Remain

Donni Turner never imagined herself as a lobbyist. Nothing against the field, she said. The thought just didn’t occur to her when she graduated from Howard University in 1998.

“When I was in law school, I did not know of a black lobbyist,” said Turner, who is now a principal at the Podesta Group. “I thought I either had to be a litigator, go to the corporate world or get a government job.”

But shifting cultural attitudes and diversity recruiting downtown and on Capitol Hill appear to be changing the way that many African-Americans view their career options.

An African-American family now lives in the White House, and Podesta’s senior black lobbyists make up a higher ratio among their peers at the firm than African-Americans do in the overall population.

Even more, black lobbyists say they are beginning to see fissures in the once-rigid stereotype of former Congressional Black Caucus staffers being exclusively hired to influence their old CBC colleagues after they leave the Hill.

In a recent interview at their Chinatown offices, Podesta’s six African-American lobbyists reflected on their experiences on the Hill, at the firm and in corporate boardrooms. And while more minorities than ever before have found opportunities in Congress and on K Street during the past decade, Podesta’s retention of six black lobbyists is definitely the exception and not the rule downtown.

“There are government relations offices around town that can take a very broad view,” said Walter Pryor, a Podesta lobbyist. “And then you look in other places, and the firms speak for themselves.”

Paul Brathwaite, the firm’s most senior black lobbyist, came to Podesta soon after the Democrats gained a majority in Congress almost three years ago. At the time, he was the firm’s only black lobbyist. Podesta’s first African-American hire, Beverly Barnes, left more than 10 years ago to join the Clinton administration.

Brathwaite, who had been the CBC’s executive director, said the culture and prominence of the Podesta franchise made the move attractive.

Pryor soon followed Brathwaite to the firm. During his interview, Pryor recalled, he realized that Brathwaite was already working there. And although the interview process was going well, he assumed they would pass on hiring him.

“I was, like, ‘It’s too bad they already have their CBC person because I’d really like to go there,’” Pryor remembered.

Pigeonholed

Black lobbyists describe being pigeonholed for years as their firm’s entree to the CBC, the nearly 40-year-old caucus that now has 41 members, including chairmen of four House committees.

There were some exceptions.

Smith Davis, an African-American partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said lobbying black lawmakers was a small part of his job when he began working at the firm decades ago.

Davis, a Republican, also spoke about the changing attitudes toward race in Washington, D.C., since he started lobbying 30 years ago. And he should know: Davis’ skin color does not make it obvious that he is African-American.

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