McClatchy's America

California lawmakers want data on lobbyists’ race, sexual orientation

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, during session in the Assembly chambers in Sacramento in 2013.
Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, during session in the Assembly chambers in Sacramento in 2013. Sacramento Bee file

The heads of six caucuses in the California Legislature are asking lobbying firms to provide them with demographic data – including race, ethnicity, gender and openly gay or lesbian orientation – on their employees.

A letter sent late last month to more than 400 lobbying firms, associations and major groups that employ lobbyists begins with an admittance that the Legislature itself needs to do more work to accurately reflect the makeup of California residents.

Leaders of the Legislative Asian Pacific Islander, Black, Jewish, Latino, LGBT and Women’s caucuses provide the number of members in their own groups. They ask the Capitol’s powerful third house to respond with a similar numerical breakdown of staff members at their private companies to help with the “worthy cause” of making California’s workforce representative of its residents.

The request, which lawmakers said is intended to expand conversation about cultural diversity in the Capitol workforce, elicited a range of responses from Sacramento lobbyists.

Some applauded the caucuses for forcing a male-dominated industry to think about its workforce and hiring practices. Others consider the request government overreach and expressed concern about how the data could be used against them if their employees aren’t diverse enough for the caucus chairs. Lawmakers currently aren’t required to report such information about their own staff members.

“I’ll be honest – we expected some people would be uncomfortable with this,” said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who signed the letter as chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. “We expected some of our friends and allies would be uncomfortable with this. But we decided we needed to be courageous and take a stand and make them more aware of their own practices.”

Unions, companies, individuals, associations, nonprofits and other groups hire lobbyists to influence lawmakers at the state Capitol. A lobbyist’s livelihood depends on their ability to communicate and forge relationships with decision-makers.

The request creates a conundrum for lobbyists, given their dynamic with lawmakers, said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and president of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. When senators and Assembly members ask lobbyists for something, it’s not as voluntary as it may seem, she said.

If a firm isn’t diverse and voluntarily provides data, some legislators may feel less inclined to work with them. A diverse firm could view it as government intrusion in private business and choose not to participate, which could also hurt their bottom line, she said.

Levinson said private companies are, and should be, allowed to hire anyone they want, so long as they aren’t violating discrimination laws.

“Is the government forcing companies to hire people they otherwise wouldn’t want to, to make sure they are seen with favor from lawmakers?” Levinson asked. “It seems to me that this is absolutely designed to exert pressure on hiring practices. I don’t think that this is the Legislature’s role. ”

Retired Sacramento lobbyist Jim Cassie said the request is unprecedented in his more than three decades at the Capitol.

Cassie argues that lobbying firms look for good communicators, whether they are black, brown, purple or blue. He called it off-the-wall for the Legislature to ask these questions without any explanation of how they intend to use it.

“This is something that goes straight to the trash can along with the Reader’s Digest sweepstakes,” said Cassie, a one-time head of an association of lobbyists at the Capitol. “This is about as valuable as the stuff Trump wants on voter data. I don’t understand what he wants to do with that either.”

Advocates for diversity have long opined that the lobbying industry is still a “good ol’ boys club,” slow to break up even as the Legislature began to evolve over the years. It’s difficult to quantify lobbying demographics in Sacramento in the absence of academic studies.

Lobbyists and the companies that hire them must register with the state and file reports on their lobbying activity, including how much money they spend to sway officials. The Secretary of State publishes an annual lobbying directory with pictures of all the registered lobbyists in the state.

A 2015 Bee review of the 1,760 lobbyists registered at the time found that 60 percent were men, a statistic that remained unchanged from 10 years earlier.

But determining race, ethnicity and LGBT status is an exercise in guesswork without a formal survey, which legislators say prompted their request.

At a recent meeting, chairs of the six caucuses discussed recruitment, how they hire chiefs of staff and other key positions and diversity in the jobs pipeline in and out of the Capitol, said Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, who heads the LGBT Caucus. Then it shifted to the lobbying corps, a massive employer in Sacramento and a workforce sector lawmakers feel they can influence for the better.

Instead of relying on examples of the lobbyists who walk into their offices, the caucus heads thought it would be more fair to use data as a starting point to determine whether there’s a “systematic issue or not,” Low said.

“We’re hopeful that by the simple recognition that it’s on our minds, that the lobbying corps thinks of some of the same questions we asked ourselves,” Low said. “If someone comes from the standpoint of ‘there’s nothing wrong and I’m defensive,’ I think therein lies the challenge that we’re trying to address.”

Lobbyist David Quintana doesn’t agree with the approach. The request feels like a directive to him when the Legislature doesn’t have the authority to require firms to provide data, said Quintana, a co-founder of the firm Gonzalez, Quintana, Hunter & Cruz.

“However putting that aside, it is a discussion that has to be had and should have been had a decade ago,” he said.

Quintana said his firm intentionally chose to hire smart and hard-working women and people of color. He says it’s paid off.

They were among the top 20 highest paid lobbying firms in the state during the 2015-16 legislative session, bringing in $5.5 million, according to state data. He looks forward to the day when half of the top 10 firms are owned by Latinos and women.

“If this does anything to get us down that road, then God bless,” he said.

Political Solutions, a women-owned firm, already returned the survey, listing 15 women employees, including two Latinas, one African American and one American Indian. Founding partner Stacy Dwelley said the company strongly supports the effort of the caucus chairs.

Christy Bouma, who leads the lobbyist trade association known as the Institute of Governmental Advocates, had not yet received the letter when a member brought it to her attention. She asked the association’s board to bring it up for a discussion at their next meeting.

“IGA recognizes the rich diversity of our state and endeavors to collaborate where possible with our elected leaders to expand the conversation about diversity,” Bouma said.

Garcia said she understands the concerns of some lobbyists, but described it as a voluntary opportunity to begin a necessary conversation.

“They can sit here and fight it and be afraid of it,” Garcia said. “Sure, we can take data and spin it however we want. Instead they can face the reality that things are changing, expectations are changing, and we’re asking folks to do an intake. Some firms might need change. Some firms may be doing a great job.”

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna