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Every DC lobby’s favorite way to buy Democrats off: Minority caucuses and interest groups

by Resurgent Insider Read Profile arrow_right_alt

In the era of hyper-regulation-and-taxation-happy Democratic Socialists, it’s tough for big businesses to get any love– or even neutrality– from today’s Democratic Party.

But increasingly, businesses facing the toughest fights to regulate or tax them to death– or even straight up ban them– are tapping into a particular section of the Democratic Party to help them stave off their most-feared policies: Minority, Democratic-dominated legislative caucuses, the ex-Hill staffers who used to work for their members but have now shifted to lobbying, and minority identity-focused interest groups and non-profits.

The Hill reports:

The financial services industry is turning to former top staffers from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for lobbying talent, a trend reflecting the growing power of the CBC and the increased scrutiny the industry is facing under the Democratic House.

A number of former chiefs of staff to black lawmakers have been recruited to K Street this year. The moves come when  the Black Caucus is at a record membership and with some of its senior members, including House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings(D-Md.), putting financial institutions in their crosshairs. […]

“This is a relationship-driven time so you will continue to see a trend of CBC members, particularly on House Financial Services, get opportunities downtown as a result of the need to find a way to have a line of sight of how does Maxine Waters, how do progressives, think about the financial services sector,” another former staffer told The Hill.

“Relationship-driven” sounds a lot like code for “hire minority lobbyists to get their minority former bosses to do things they otherwise would not even consider.”

In one such example, the Daily Beast reports that e-cigarette maker JUUL is the latest to deploy the tactic in a massive effort to prevent harsh regulatory action by the Food and Drug Administration, or lawmakers concerned about a rise in underage vaping numbers.

The company has hired lobbyists and consultants with deep ties to prominent black and Latino lawmakers, steered money to congressional black and Hispanic caucuses, and made overtures to leading civil rights groups. It has enlisted the services of a former head of the NAACP, a board member of the Congressional Black Caucus’s political arm, and the Obama White House’s top civil rights liaison. And it’s sought the support of National Action Network chief Rev. Al Sharpton.


“I think they are hiring so many people it looks shady as fuck,” said Sam Geduldig, a Republican lobbyist. And he has more direct knowledge than most: Geduldig acknowledged that he himself pitched Juul on his services before it went on its K Street hiring spree.


But on the Democratic side, Juul’s recent lobbying hires include advocates with deep ties to communities of color. Its top federal lobbyist, Chaka Burgess of the Empire Consulting Group, is also a board member of the Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee, to which Juul’s own PAC donated $5,000 last year. 

Burgess did not return a request for comment. His role is broader than outreach just to the CBC, or the African-American community. But Juul also brought on a firm this year that specializes in just that sort of outreach. Fulcrum Public Affairs bills itself as “the only 100% black and Latinx-owned government relations firm in Washington, D.C..” Its principals, Oscar Ramirez and Dana Thompson, are former aides to Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), respectively.

As Juul’s registered lobbyists work to make inroads among black and Latino lawmakers—the company has also donated to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last year—it has also brought on less formal advocates who’ve made overtures to leading civil rights groups regarding the potential public health benefits of Juul among communities where cigarettes are particularly prevalent.

Leading that effort has been Ben Jealous, a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Maryland. Also involved in that outreach has been Heather Foster, a veteran Democratic aide who coordinated outreach to civil rights groups on behalf of the Obama White House’s Office of Public Engagement.

A Jealous aide confirmed that he was working for Juul “in a formal manner.”

Foster’s involvement with Juul has not been previously reported, and her title and precise role was not immediately clear. Her bio at the public affairs firm Widmeyer Communications, her former employer, describes her as an expert in “communicating public policy to civic, nonprofit, business and community leaders” with an emphasis on “developing issue advocacy campaigns and engagement with the federal government.” Foster, who did not respond to inquiries regarding her work for Juul, sat on the host committee of the Democratic National Committee’s African American Leadership Summit in Atlanta over the weekend.

Jealous, a Juul consultant, has reached out on the company’s behalf to prominent figures such as Sharpton, who also said he’d spoken with Foster about the company.

“It was both health and criminal justice and the concerns about health,” Sharpton recalled in an interview last week of his conversations with Jealous and Foster. “The argument was that people who smoke Juul would get off regular cigarettes.” Sharpton said Jealous and Foster provided him with academic and scientific material to support their case. “We are not clear on the medical evidence that they sent us,” Sharpton said. “You have some that say it helps and some who say it hasn’t.”

His chief concern regarding nicotine products generally, Sharpton said, are laws that create black markets for cigarettes—laws that, in the view of many civil rights groups, put African-Americans at greater risk of police misconduct. He pointed specifically to the case of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by New York police in 2014 while being detained for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner.

As it happens, a top Juul executive has also made that precise argument, that crackdowns on nicotine products tend to create black markets where cops are more likely to target individuals—particularly black men—illegally selling “bootlegged” versions.

As bad as this sounds, though, the truth is JUUL is only the latest to play this game.

Telecom giant T-Mobile has been dabbling in it, too, bringing on former Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn– who also happens to be the daughter of House Majority Whip and prominent Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. James Clyburn– to advocate for the company’s merger with Sprint (despite her history of taking the position that there is insufficient competition in the wireless market).

And the technique was also prominently used by major telecom companies back during the fight against net neutrality in the Obama years.

Then, DC advocacy shops like DCI Group and its individual telecoms clients undertook a swath of work focused on generating opposition to net neutrality from minority caucus groups and minority-identity interest groups, often with plausible accusations of “pay to play” and “astroturf” tactics being employed to secure those caucuses and groups’ alignment on policy.

Of course, this occurs on the right, too; increasingly, consultants who work for big business to get their favored policy on the books in the nation’s capital say when it’s a left-leaning policy they need to build support for among conservatives, donations will be offered to the American Conservative Union (ACU). Policy alignment generally follows, even if it means a complete policy reversal or “flip-flop” by the ACU. Industry insiders say this has been especially the case under the tenure of Chairman Matt Schlapp, who also runs a lobbying shop and is married to White House Communications Director Mercedes Schlapp.

The real question is, do these tactics work?

In the net neutrality case, despite fairly extensive minority caucus and minority interest group support, the FCC jammed through net neutrality fulfilling a core desire of the mid-2000-era net roots. Net neutrality remains a top priority of many Democratic Members of Congress.

In the T-Mobile case, even Clyburn’s seeming “pay-to-play” support has not been sufficient to bring on board key Democratic opponents of the deal– which could include state attorneys general ready to sue and grind the merger to a halt.

Will JUUL’s case prove different?

It seems unlikely. While there is an argument to be made about black markets in various products inherently entailing criminal activity, even Al Sharpton who is regarded by many as a notorious “pay-to-play” “advocate” doesn’t seem to be 100 percent buying what JUUL is selling– at least not yet.


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