Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Published: March 7, 2013
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.
“It seemed to me like every four years, people say, ‘Oh, the sleeping giant woke up,’ ” said Mr. Muñoz, over lunch served by his personal assistant, in a house with so many rooms that his cat, a Persian named Barbra (as in Streisand), has her own. “I think that’s not true. We never went back to sleep.'’
Hispanic activists have watched the Futuro Fund closely. “This has been the real missing link in our political strategy as a community,'’ said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Janet Murguía, the president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights group, called it ‘'a real sign that our community is evolving.'’
But some analysts say the show of wealth could backfire.
“There’s a danger in Futuro’s approach,'’ said Mr. Jillson, the political scientist. “Most Hispanics are working very hard, long hours to feed their families, so the idea that they are holding glitzy parties in Washington may not please the Hispanic base.'’
Perhaps, but the three leaders say they have already had an impact. During the presidential campaign last March, they held a $40,000-a-person fund-raiser and policy session at Washington’s W Hotel, where 19 mostly Hispanic donors met with White House officials like Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, and Jacob J. Lew, then chief of staff, and privately with Mr. Obama.
Many Latinos were angered that the president had not worked harder to pass the Dream Act, a bill to help young immigrants avoid deportation, and the donors told Mr. Obama so. They also pressed the president to name a Latino to give the Democratic National Convention keynote address.
The president delivered. He picked Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, a rising Democratic star who is close to Mr. Muñoz, as keynote speaker. And he used his executive powers to help “the dreamers,'’ as Mr. Muñoz calls them, work and study legally. Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, called Mr. Muñoz after that decision.
“I hope you are proud of us today,'’ both men remember Mr. Messina saying.
Republicans, who lack a counterpart to the Futuro Fund, are seeking to engage Hispanics in their own way. Here in Texas, George P. Bush, the heir apparent to the Bush political dynasty, has co-founded a political action committee to help elect Hispanic Republicans.
In Washington, Carlos M. Gutierrez, a commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, has created a “super PAC,” Republicans for Immigration Reform, but conceded, “It’s going to take a while to get immigrants’ confidence and trust.'’
The Futuro Fund has its roots in Latino art and culture, not politics. Its founders met while serving on a government commission to study a possible Latino museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Mr. López, 42, overlapped with Mr. Obama at Harvard, where they occasionally played pickup basketball. In November 2007, “when everybody and their cousin was betting on Hillary,'’ Mr. López said, he hosted Senator Obama in Puerto Rico, and raised money for the 2008 campaign.
In 2011, as the museum commission wrapped up its work – it recommended that Congress authorize construction near the Capitol – Mr. López began looking to 2012. He wanted to organize Latinos in a more systematic way, and asked Mr. Muñoz to join him.
“What we lacked was a big voice,'’ Mr. López said.
Mr. Muñoz, 53, has deep roots in Texas politics; Governor Ann W. Richards named him the state’s first Latino transportation commissioner when he was 31. His 6,000-square-foot home, filled with Latino-themed art, is a must-visit for politicians looking to raise cash. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, was there a few weeks ago. Since 1987, records show, Mr. Muñoz has given more than $430,000 to candidates, mostly Democrats, and party committees.
When Mr. Muñoz held a dinner party not long ago, a dozen elite San Antonians, including a former congressman, a college president and a museum director, showed up. But as the chief executive of Kell Muñoz Architects, now known as Muñoz & Company, he has also attracted detractors.
Under his direction, the firm has profited handsomely from government contracts to design or expand sites like the city’s convention center, the AT&T Center and the federal courthouse.. Critics say Mr. Muñoz, who has a keen sense of design and marketing savvy but no architectural degree, is using his political contacts to muscle his way into winning bids. He shrugs off the charges as fallout from his efforts “to create change.'’
The first person Mr. Muñoz called about Mr. López’s plan was Ms. Longoria. The three presented the idea to Mr. Messina, who said he viewed Hispanics as having “untapped potential.” They picked Futuro as a name and set an initial target of $6 million, but soon doubled that and kept going.
Ralph G. Patino, a Cuban-American trial lawyer from Miami, was among their recruits. In an interview, Mr. Patino said he had given $30,000 to the 2008 Obama campaign, but ignored his invitation to the 2009 inauguration because “there was no one to call me to say, ‘Hey, be part of our group.’ ”
That changed when a friend introduced him to Mr. López. Mr. Patino and his wife gave the maximum allowed, $76,500 apiece, to Mr. Obama and Democratic campaign committees, and raised hundreds of thousands more from other Latinos.
“You know what we kept hearing again and again?'’ Mr. López asked. " ‘Thank you for asking – we’ve never been asked.’ ” Not all Futuro donors are rich: Ms. Longoria, who grew up on a ranch near Corpus Christi, Tex., raffled off dinners with herself for $1.
With the campaign behind them, the three are debating how to carry their work forward. Beyond advancing Latino causes, they would like to see more Hispanics in public service.
Ms. Longoria, 37, with a fan base that includes Republicans, would like the fund to become bipartisan. “We’re in solution mode now,'’ she said.
Mr. Muñoz, who is gay, hopes to model Futuro after the Victory Fund, which raises money for gay candidates. Sitting near a table of old family photographs and framed handwritten notes from politicians like Mr. Obama, he invoked his late father.
“Politics really understands a couple of things – votes and dollars,'’ he said. “My father always used to tell me, ‘No peso, no say-so.’ ”