Latinos Gain Political Muscle, and Fund-Raisers Show How

Cal Jillson, political science professor at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, talks about the new generation of Latino leaders focusing on tapping money from the Hispanic community to influence elections and public policy.

By Sheryl Gay Stolbert

SAN ANTONIO — On a wall in his sun-drenched, art-filled Tudor home, Henry R. Muñoz III displays a memento of his childhood: a framed protest sign proclaiming, “Texas needs $1.25 an hour minimum wage.” He carried it when he was 6 years old while riding a burro during a farm workers’ march alongside his father, a labor organizer, and the Mexican-American activist Cesar Chavez.

Today, as the chief executive of a design firm here, Mr. Muñoz is a wealthy San Antonio businessman, civic leader and patron of the arts. After helping to raise millions to re-elect President Obama, he recently acquired another title: finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the first Latino to hold the job.

Mr. Muñoz’s journey from son of a sharp-elbowed union leader to Democratic power broker is a microcosm of a larger coming-of-age story about American Hispanics, who are making their presence felt in politics as never before.

For decades, Latino activists like Mr. Muñoz’s father, a man so wily he was known here as “The Fox,” harnessed their political clout through grass-roots networks and neighborhood campaigns. Now a new generation of Latino leaders — highly educated, sophisticated and rich — is exerting power in a different way, by tapping into Hispanics as a fund-raising pool to influence elections and public policy.

On the frontier of this movement is a trio of Obama donors: Mr. Muñoz, as controversial in San Antonio as he is prominent; Andrés W. López, a Puerto Rican lawyer with two Harvard degrees; and Eva Longoria, the actress of “Desperate Housewives” fame.

Together, they founded the Futuro Fund, an arm of the Obama campaign that raised $32 million, they say, by soliciting fellow Latinos. After the president won 71 percent of the Latino vote, the Futuro founders celebrated the inauguration by joining more established Latino groups in a glittering gala at the Kennedy Center, an event that exposed the nation to elite Latino culture.

Now, as the immigration debate unfolds in Washington, these donors have what Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, calls “a seat at the table,” and they intend to use it. In interviews, they vowed to give voice to Hispanics on issues like health care, education and jobs — as well as immigration — and to remind politicians that they are not a constituency to be courted just at election time....