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Dozens of African-American lobbyists trickle in from the cool fall weather and into the Perennial Strategy Group office on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. Exchanging smiles and handshakes, they chat over hoagies and fruit dished onto white paper plates. The geniality masks an urgent mission. “We want to raise our visibility and credibility in Washington,” Robert Drummer, longtime lobbyist and principal of Drummer & Associates, tells the group as the lobbyists settle down at a long, oval-shaped table. After a long history of being largely shut out on K Street, African-American lobbyists are again trying to step up their game and, through the long-established, but at times inconsisent, Washington Government Relations Group, are making efforts to become more visible on K Street and Capitol Hill.Formed in 1981, the group’s members represent corporations, financial institutions, trade associations, and nonprofits. Some of them are presidents and chief executive officers of their own companies. Members include the likes of Walter Threadgill of Storer Broadcasting; Rufus McKinney with Southern California Gas; Thomas Hart of Westinghouse; Mobil’s Bob Bates, former president of the American Association of Blacks in Energy; and Stacy Mobley with DuPont. At the start, the WGRG’s agenda was largely social and included assisting Congressional Black Caucus staff and members with a variety of public policy issues. Today, the scope has grown. The group is a professional network that reaches out to youth and aims to have its members serve as role models to aspiring lobbyists. Most importantly, the group says, it is determined to tackle issues such as the role black lobbyists play in Washington politics, the opportunities afforded them for advancement, and their struggle to land big clients. Among the obstacles, they say, is the presumption by white firms that all black lobbyists are Democrats and are relegated to only social or civil rights issues. “Black lobbyists are capable of lobbying on anything from big-money transactions to free-trade agreements,” boasts Raynard Jackson, CEO of Raynard Jackson & Associates, Inc., one of the more outspoken attendees at last week’s meeting. “Some companies like to pigeonhole you into black issues. We can do those issues. But we’re capable of so much more.” TAKING THE INITIATIVE The group became dormant in the mid-1990s but was revived in 1997 under the leadership of the late John Chambers of Arent Fox. Today it meets on a regular basis to strategize on how to increase dialogue with key senior-level policy-makers to expand its visibility.At this meeting, Drummer, president of the group since 2004, sits at the head of the table and announces something he’s heard: “Karl Rove wants to meet with us to expand his minority outreach,” he tells the gathering, which is sprinkled with welcome new faces. “Karl Rove wants to meet with us,” another member repeats skeptically. “He needs to,” interjects a member as light chuckles erupt around the table. Rove’s interest might have served as a moment of comic relief, but the group’s agenda is serious�to make such meetings happen with government officials and K Street firms. Drummer tells the group that numerous K Street firms want to hire black lobbyists. The reason they say they don’t: The folks on K Street claim they just can’t find any. “We’re going to take the initiative,” he says. “We’re going to go to K Street and not wait for K Street to come to us.” Toward that end, the group will hold its first-ever holiday meet-and-greet reception with K Street firms, scheduled for early December. LOOKING FOR THE BOTTOM LINE The intimacy of the group is evident as the nearly 30 members sit side by side in a conference room in the 2nd floor suite of fellow member Lamell McMorris’ firm. Latecomers continue to flow into the room and take their places along the walls.It’s a small unit. At best, the nonpartisan volunteer association comprises about 100 members, with a database of about 300 black lobbyists. They represent a miniscule percentage of the 30,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. But that serves as no deterrent. Drummer announces that he’s glad to see several new faces�some young and fresh in the field, others who’ve been in practice and are attending the meeting for the first time. The group wants to make it clear, especially for the youth they mentor through the Horton’s Kids nonprofit organization serving at-risk children, that success isn’t out of reach, Drummer says. And that’s where a few at the meeting butt heads. The bottom line for companies looking to hire any lobbyist, says Larry Hales, president and CEO of Larry Hales Consultancy, is often not race but “the ability to follow the money trail and produce results.” Jackson, sitting wide-eyed in his chair at the end of the table, disagrees, arguing that even the best black lobbyists still get doors shut in their faces . “You can be the best lobbyist in the room at a major company, but when it comes down to it,” the job is going to be given to someone else with political ties, he says. Jackson said not being afforded the opportunity to follow the money trail is one reason some black lobbyists establish their own firms. “We don’t have lots of black in-house lobbyists,” Jackson says adamantly. But some members say it’s not all about sealing million-dollar contracts. Lobbying for social issues is just as important. “We can’t forget the significance of lobbying on behalf of real issues,” responds Amani Council, director of government affairs for the Family Research Council. Council added that being a black female lobbyist adds value to her role at the organization. BETTING ON THE DEMS Despite the misperception that all African-American lobbyists are Democrats, some group members agree that if Democrats regain control of Congress, black lobbyists and Capitol Hill staffers may also gain a greater presence, especially with several ranking Congressional Black Caucus members positioning themselves to become chairmden of House committees. In part, that is what prompted the creation last month of the Hispanic Lobbyists Association. Members of that group sat in on the WGRG’s recent meeting in hopes of replicating that group’s initiative of strengthening the presence of minority lobbyists in Washington. Despite the monthly WGRG meetings where black lobbyists coalesce, Drummer admits that, as an African-American lobbyist, “it can get lonely at times.” But with the group grooming future lobbyists and making more noise in Congress and on K Street, times may soon change. “I hope that 10, 15 years from now, this conversation won’t be the same,” Drummer tells the group before it adjourns. “We’re a little bit behind, but we’re going to catch up and follow that money trail and other things.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted [email protected].

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