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In late February, some 70 guests arrived for dinner at a hotel near Washington, DC’s Union Station. Nine members of Congress were there, including Reps. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), and Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.), as was former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Also in attendance were lobbyists and executives for Fortune 500 companies and big industry trade groups. Lonnie Johnson, a lobbyist for ExxonMobil, sat next to Hinojosa at dinner; Walmart lobbyist Ivan Zapien gave the closing remarks. Exxon, American Gas Association, Darden Restaurants, and Coca-Cola had underwritten the event. That was how, seven weeks into the 113th Congress, as lawmakers began work on immigration reform and a tax code overhaul, powerful corporate lobbyists scored premium access to politicians.
The dinner was organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), an obscure offshoot of the 27-member, all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus. (Caucuses are factions of lawmakers formed around an issue or ideology, such as the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, and the Tea Party Caucus.) The CHCI, founded in 1978 by a small group of Hispanic lawmakers, says its mission is to “develop the next generation of Latino leaders” by underwriting scholarships and fellowship programs for young Latinos, funding college readiness courses for them, and placing them in jobs and internships on Capitol Hill. But like other nonprofits nominally affiliated with congressional caucuses, CHCI sells access to influential lawmakers in exchange for big donations.
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How Walmart, ExxonMobil, and Coke Buy Latino Friends in Congress