Power Players

Lobbying is a multi-billion dollar industry and is the bread-and-butter of many in the nation’s capital. These are professionals who are paid by their clients to bring about a specific result, such as passage of legislation. But there is a more encompassing term to describe those who dedicate their working lives to building long-term connections: Government Relations.

Government Relations is defined as an educational process, explaining to clients about the government process, and educating officials about the issues important to their constituencies. For in-house practitioners, such as Nelson Perez, Susan Santana, Maritza Kelley, and Angela Arboleda, the clients are their own companies. What they do is make a case for their businesses in public policy, and their portfolio is much more inclusive than just lobbying.

“I think of lobbying as advocating for one particular issue, whereas Government Relations is about a long-term relationship,” says Nelson Pérez, Vice President of Federal Government Relations at National Grid, an international energy company headquartered in London. “If I’m coming to you about an issue and we don’t know each other, then it’s too late. I need to be talking with you long before something comes up.”

Prior to joining National Grid in 2010, Nelson spent four years as the Federal Government Relations Manager for Consolidated Edison in New York. A graduate of the University of Albany and of the Albany Law School, he also worked as a committee counsel in the New York State Assembly.

The number of Latinos in government relations work is small, but it is a powerful group comprised of those who are advocating on behalf of major players in the corporate world. It even includes a husband-and-wife team.

Susan Santana has been an Assistant Vice President for Federal Relations at AT&T for several years, and she is responsible for advocating on behalf of the company’s legislative interests in Congress.  “I spend a lot of time meeting with members of Congress and their staffs, and building those relationships,” she says.

Santana is also president of the Hispanic Lobbyists Association (HLA), which serves as a networking platform for its members, and is very involved in mentoring and working with young up-and-comers in the field.

“I am very lucky that I work for a company that values diversity,” says Santana, one of the highest-ranking Latinas at AT&T. “And I want more Latinos and Latinas to be a part of this. We need more diversity.”

Santana says that one of the toughest parts of her work is having to establish relationships on Capitol Hill with staffers who are constantly changing, coming and going; typical of the rapid turnover on the Hill. “But I love my job. I enjoy people and I love developing relationships.”

Santana, who graduated from both UC Berkeley and UCLA School of Law, is also an ardent believer in giving back to the community, and is heavily involved in education, supporting the company’s annual Hi-Tech Day which introduces minority high school students to careers and studies in science and engineering. Santana is also president of the DC chapter of HACEMOS, AT&T’s Latino employee network.

“I feel excited every day to come to work and represent one of the world’s largest communications companies before members of Congress, not only because it is one of the best companies for Latinas to work,  but because it’s a job I love doing. I’m not only allowed to, but encouraged to, support the community I care deeply about, especially through mentoring young Latinos, either in high school, college or law school, and on Capitol Hill.”

She is one half of a Washington power couple, married to Bert Gómez, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at Univisión, the Spanish-language network. Santana and Gómez are the only married couple in Washington working for two corporations as Government Relations pros.

“We think it’s great. We laugh about it,” says Gómez, who met Santana at an event in Washington. Gómez founded the Univisión government relations office in D.C. several years ago and has been married to Santana for ten years. They have an eight-year-old son, Eric, and live in suburban Virginia. “We always make sure that at least one of us is home every night to be with him, and we stay away from talking about work when we are home and on the weekends. We both work very hard and home is family time.”

Gómez tells LATINO Magazine that having a DC office is vitally important for the work he is involved with, and not having a constant DC presence would be detrimental to the company.

“Univisión is not just about telenovelas. Those are well known, of course, but we also have radio, and there are a lot of telecom issues we have to deal with, and being here in Washington means we are present at the table,” he adds. “If we didn’t have an office here, we would probably be using a firm that has many issues to work with at the same time, and by my being here, Univisión has an office solely dedicated to advocating for its interests in the nation’s capital.”

Before joining Univisión, Gómez was with RJ Reynolds. A University of Miami graduate, and one of the highest-ranking Cuban Americans in Government Relations in Washington, Gómez credits his personality with helping him to get where he is now. “I like people. I like to talk with people, and I get along with them. I’m not shy and I have good instincts.”

Cristina Antelo is a principal in the Podesta Group, and is involved in a wide range of issues before Congress and the executive branch, specializing in intellectual property, trade, financial services and tax policy. Before joining Podesta, Antelo was with DLA Piper, a leading Washington law firm and worked on the Senate Democratic Steering Committee. But it was her work before coming to Washington that prepared her for the work she does now. She was an investment banker at Goldman, Sachs. “Understanding the financial aspects of policies and legislation is very important. A general understanding on how to do business if you have to regulate it and legislate it is key,” says Antelo, adding that she hopes to leverage her financial background into the work she will be doing as a new member of the board of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. “I want to add more business and finance ideas, and get more corporations to fund fellowships.”

Antelo is also past president of the Hispanic Lobbyists Association and plans to continue being involved in the group: “We all know each other and we all want to see each other succeed and mentor others. The group is invaluable. I wouldn’t have made so many contacts and gotten so much good advice had it not been for the HLA. It’s a good sounding board and we look out for each other.”

One of the most important aspects of Government Relations work is establishing relationships with Latino advocacy groups and other constituencies, says Estuardo Rodríguez, a principal at the Raben Group. Rodriguez focuses on three practice areas: diversity and community, public policy advocacy, and strategic communications. “The opportunity to work with Latino groups and with Latino constituent groups to help the Latino community, for instance, has been a great thing to be a part of,” says Rodríguez, who joined Raben ten years.

The theme of giving back to the community resonates with Maritza Kelley, who works in the Washington office of Samsung. “One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job is serving as an ambassador for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, a school-based competition that challenges students to demonstrate how STEM can be applied to help improve their local communities.  Seeing firsthand how these students are creating their own future is truly inspiring,” says Kelley, who previously worked with the advocacy group First Focus Campaign for Children, and with the consulting firm Ibarra Strategy Group, founded by Washington insider Mickey Ibarra.

Having a Washington presence is important, Kelley adds. “The U.S. is a leading hub of innovation.  As the world’s largest technology company, it’s essential that Samsung is part of the conversations which nurture the technology sector.” When asked what the most interesting part of her job is, Kelley replied, “Every day, I have the privilege of experiencing new and emerging technologies. For example, I’ve witnessed how our virtual reality ecosystem has expanded over the course of just a few short months.”

Establishing and keeping relationships is definitely at the heart of what Issac Reyes does at Target’s Washington office. “This is where the legislative and executive work is, and you are able to stay on top of it, and having those relationships definitely helps.” Reyes has more than 18 years of experience in government and public affairs, having previously worked as a congressional staffer and as Director of Congressional & Public Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Herbalife’s Angela Maria Arboleda concurs that relationship building is a big focus of Government Relations.  As Vice President of Government and Community  Affairs at Herbalife -- A global nutrition company that promotes a healthy active, life style and has been supporting entrepreneurial opportunities for the past 35 years-- Arboleda stressed that being the bridge between her company and Congress is one of her top responsibilities. “My job is to tell Congress the stories of the hundreds of thousands of independent Herbalife members who have benefited from Herbalife’s nutrition products and business opportunity, so they have an understanding of what these members do every day- promoting a healthy, active life style in their communities.”

A former senior Senate staffer with over 17 years of professional experience and deep roots in the Latino non-profit sector, Arboleda echoes what others have said about the importance of being in Washington: “Having contact and building solid relationships with policymakers is invaluable, and being authentic and well respected helps.”

 By Patricia Guadalupe