Lobbyists join Congress under the banner of celebrating diversity

Christina Antello, A corporate lobbyist known for his reach within the Democratic Party, held court at a gala last month where his clients and other lobbyists rubbed shoulders with lawmakers and congressional staffers.

Such scenes will be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists host nightly parties and fundraisers to connect with policymakers, gather political intelligence, and push politicians to take action that benefits their clients.

But this time, the influence effort was characterized as a pious celebration of racial progress, harnessing the cultural clout of liberal institutions to lobby on issues that had nothing to do with growing 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 interests including Walmart, Reynolds American and Eli Lilly & Company.

In a photo from the event, Irene Bueno, a lobbyist for Pfizer and Comcast, with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, DN.Y. Also chatting with staff; Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.; and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. In another photo, Daschle Group Vice President Tiffany Williams with Lisa Feng of Alexion Pharmaceuticals, both smiling at senior Democratic lawmakers with a large group of other congressional staff members.

Bueno has a lobbying agenda focused on business interests. His publications show his lobbying on behalf of pharmaceutical interests on intellectual property, data exclusivity, and government reimbursement policies.

Antelo’s firm is in many ways a fairly traditional lobbying firm. In 2019, The Intercept reported on hacked emails from a surveillance firm called Perceptics. The emails showed how Ferox worked with tough-on-immigration Republican lawmakers to insert provisions into the law that would enable his client to win contracts to read license plates on vehicles crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ferox Strategies stands out as an emerging set of influencers harnessing the appetite for virtue signaling around diversity to push policies that benefit 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, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus use the access to contact lawmakers “regarding manufacturing facilities in the US Virgin Islands.”

Antello, 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 diversity as a way to bring his corporate clients together with Democratic leaders.

“Ferox clients Walmart, Alexion, and Waste Management join a group of corporate sponsors who can generously celebrate the most diverse Congress ever,” the release noted. Invitations to 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 associations for Capitol Hill staff.

Each of the largest nation-based congressional caucuses has sister nonprofit groups that are funded and led by corporate lobbyists. CHCI’s advisory board includes, for example, 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 Anthem, a Washington, D.C., nightclub, Health and Human Services Secretary Javier Becerra appeared with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to swear in a first-year class of nine new members. The event featured live music and a message from Jeffries.

But before Becerra was sworn in, CHCI President Marco Davis stopped the program to thank the sponsors of the swearing-in ceremony, including Genentech, Google, Amgen, Walgreens and Target. He then handed the microphone to General Motors chief lobbyist Omar Vargas.

Lobbying disclosures show that 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 has not expressed any advocacy on diversity issues. But at the swearing-in ceremony, Vargas hit on the right theme for the occasion.

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