By Sonya Kimble-Ellis
The job of a lobbyist is to affect change. For a number of African-American lobbyists who are now working in Washington, the process has been slow but steady. Just three years ago, the Washington Government Relations Group, an association of Black lobbyists, was said to have 200 members. Today, that number has grown to more than 450.
Some of the most effective of those lobbyists come from varied backgrounds in politics and law. They bring years of experience, knowledge and know-how to the table. Laura Murphy, a lobbyist who owns her own firm, Laura Murphy & Associates, has been impacting public policy for thirty years and has been surrounded by politics for most of her life.
“There were fourteen runs for political office in my immediate family,” said Murphy, who grew up in Baltimore, MD, “so I’ve been handing out campaign literature since the age of seven.” At one point her father ran for citywide judgeship on a ticket with Parren Mitchell, Baltimore’s first African-American to serve in the U.S. Congress. Both men won. Her help on their campaign led to a college internship with Mitchell and eventually a job as his legislative assistant on Capitol Hill. That hiring marked the beginning of an impressive political career.
Paul A. Brathwaite, a principal at Podesta Group, a government relations and public affairs firm in Washington, hadn’t set his sights on lobbying. “I didn’t start out in my career to be a lobbyist, but it has been a great career decision,” he said. “I enjoy working with clients and advocating on their behalf before the government.” Before getting to this stage Brathwaite earned a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University, trained in law, and worked tirelessly advocating for change in Washington.
A lawyer who had worked as a non-profit executive and high school educator, Jaime Harrison is glad he eventually turned to lobbying. Presently a principal at Podesta, he became a lobbyist after working as the executive director of the House Democratic Caucus. He also served as counsel for Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) and was the first African-American to serve as floor director for a leader of the House of Representatives. “I began to think about my life after the House of Representatives,” he said. “I realized that I had dedicated six years to building a skill set and expertise in understanding the workings of Congress.”
Lobbyists research what happens during the legislative process. He he has to learn who the members of Congress are as well as those who compose the congressional staff. Like Harrison, Brathwaite and Murphy’s years of experience prepared them for that aspect of the job. Murphy worked for elected officials at the federal, state and municipal levels. She was chief of staff to California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and worked as the director of tourism under D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. She served as director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Legislative Office before opening her firm in 2007.
Brathwaite’s career took shape when he worked as the Clinton administration’s deputy assistant secretary of labor for the Employment Standards Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. Before joining Podesta he served as the executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. “As executive director, I was responsible for overseeing all Caucus related activities which included leadership elections, certifying committee assignments, and policy task forces,” he explained. During his tenure, the organization “laid the groundwork for the House Democrats return to the majority. Moving into lobbying was a good next step,” he said.
As lobbyists, they each have to know the important issues surrounding the legislation in which their clients are interested. Once discovering those issues and the key players, they have to go about the process of gathering and presenting information, arranging testimony, and setting up meetings with congressional staff.
“I enjoy lobbying,” said Murphy. “It’s a first amendment right. It’s the right to petition your government over grievances.” Most people, Murphy explained, don’t realize that members of Congress don’t get the opportunity to be informed on every issue before they have to vote or take a stand. The role of the lobbyist, she maintains, is to distill information and to educate elected officials about the impact of certain laws and policies on their constituencies.
The lobbying Brathwaite, Murphy and Harrison do is usually on behalf of the clients they represent or for issues they themselves feel passionate about. “My work with clients are on the major issues facing the country,” said Braithwaite. “Whether that is on the current health care reform efforts or financial regulatory reform, our goal is to inform policy makers on how their legislative proposals are going to impact them.” Clients for the Podesta Group include associations and coalitions such as the National Association of Home Care, Hospice Diabetes Access to Care Coalition and Renewable Fuels Association. Brathwaite provides counsel on policy issues that affect transportation and telecommunications.
Murphy, who helped organize two human rights conferences, said she is presently interested in the effect of President Obama’s policies on unemployment and employment opportunities, especially as they relate to minority communities. “I’m working with the National Urban League to try to get the President to pass a bill that’s really going to filter down to people who have been unemployed or who are under-skilled.” She’s also concerned about our domestic human rights policy, the inequality in healthcare, the affordability of energy, housing, and Katrina relief.
Helping to remedy a problem taking place in Hinesville, Ga., is on the top of the list for Harrison. Hinesville is a community that surrounds Fort Stewart. In 2007, the small town of 30,000 began preparing and building for a Brigade Combat Team that the U.S. Army is dispatching to the area. Banks in the community lent $110 million dollars to help local businesses and builders prepare for the more than 10,000 military members and their families. This past summer, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the military would not be coming to the town. “Unfortunately, the community is now facing frightening economic uncertainty, foreclosure is looming on the horizon for many of the housing projects and nothing has been done by the Army to make the community whole,” said Harrison. “In essence, I am trying to help this community by working with the Congressional delegation and the White House to find an amenable solution where everyone wins.”
The Obama Administration
With a little more than a year in office, it seems all can agree that President Obama has had a large number of issues on his plate. But how is he handling the problems and the pressure? “I think his administration inherited a lot but they’re figuring out Washington and how they want to interact with official Washington,” said Murphy, who worked with the administration on several issues. During the initial stages of his presidency, Obama appointed several people to help him learn about human rights and civil rights. Murphy was instrumental in setting up and participating in meetings about the importance of domestic human rights with people who went on to join the Justice Department. Those meetings included individuals like Tom Perez, who is now the assistant attorney general for human rights and Melody Barnes, who heads the Domestic Policy Council.
While Obama was campaigning, Murphy asserted, one of the things that drew the public to him was his effective grass roots organization. “That organization needs to be rehabilitated and turned over to work for him now,” he said.
“I think the Obama-Biden administration has done the best they can given the multiple challenges they faced coming into office,” said Brathwaite. “The economy and getting people jobs remains the most important on-going challenge.” Harrison thinks the administration has done a solid job thus far. He’s impressed with how much they’ve managed to accomplish legislatively during the past year. “My recommendation to the administration and the Congressional leaders for the coming year is to focus on jobs creation,” he said. “They will be successful if they can think outside the box and creatively on how new opportunities can be created.”
The process of implementing change is one that all African-American lobbyists in Washington take seriously and it is a career that is not immune to the outside pressures felt by many black professionals. “I think the challenges faced by African-American lobbyists are the challenges faced by African-Americans in corporate America in general,” says Harrison. “It is that you have to constantly prove your value, intellect, creativity and worth to clients and the outside world.” Braithwaite sees things slightly differently. “I don’t think that there are unique challenges to being an African American male lobbyist, except those you may put on yourself. I approach my job as a client service business. If you perform and are successful, clients will continue to use your services. If you do not, they will probably choose to go in another direction.”