GSPM Alumnus Discusses Lobbying during Trump’s Presidency

Lobbyist Ivan Zapien shared his perspective on the lobbying industry during a Latinx Heritage Month event with GSPM.

GSPM MasterClass Ivan Zapien
Ivan Zapien (l) and Maria Cardona discuss the lobbying industry during a virtual GSPM MasterClass event.
September 28, 2020

By Briahnna Brown

For the first part of his career, being Latino was a challenge for Ivan Zapien, M.A. ’95.

Efforts to engage Latinos in the political process through his work as executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Council of the Democratic National Committee were “new-fangled and bold” at the time, Mr. Zapien said, and nothing like the climate today where inclusion is more expected.

His work managing Walmart’s Mexico and Central America foundation in the mid 2000s highlighted the need for corporate America to understand Latinos as a consumer base that was driving public opinion, Mr. Zapien said. Even though many corporations are still struggling to fully identify and reach that Latino base, he said, the climate evolved faster in the corporate world than in the political world because of the drive from Latino consumers.

“For a full sample size, a Latino poll wasn't complete unless X number of people were interviewed in Spanish, which if you raised your hand in a meeting and said that, people would be like, ‘Wow, this guy really knows his stuff.’” Mr. Zapien said. “So, the complexity wasn't quite there yet.”

Mr. Zapien shared his perspective during a George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management virtual MasterClass event in partnership with this year’s Latinx Heritage Celebration. Former GSPM fellow and Democratic stategist Maria Cardona moderated the virtual conversation with Mr. Zapien on Thursday night, and the pair discussed politics and the evolution of the lobbying industry.

The Trump administration has been disruptive to every element of Washington, D.C., Mr. Zapien said, and the lobbying profession is no exclusion. The president’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric targeted lobbyists too, he said, and none of his lobbying peers knew what to really expect from Donald Trump’s presidency once he was elected.

“Right after like the fourth day of the administration, it was pretty clear that Donald Trump didn't take anybody's advice,” Mr. Zapien said. “He didn't follow any particular order to anything. He didn't follow any particular procedure.”

Mr. Zapien said that he hopes that Joe Biden, if elected, can restore some sense of normalcy to the field. Not the “clubby, backroom deals,” he said, but going back to the strategic communications plan and processes that Mr. Zapien had grown accustomed to under the Obama administration. The disruptive nature of Trump’s presidency allowed lobbyists to get a lot of work pushed through Congress more easily, Mr. Zapien said, and he hopes the ability to advocate for faster change remains under a Biden presidency.

Lobbying in a virtual world has made him a “frustrated political consultant,” Mr. Zapien said, because Zoom calls replaced dinners, conventions and other social events that made lobbying engaging for him. Politics is still a passion for him even though he cannot connect with people the same way, he said, and his time at GSPM solidified that for him.

His advice to current GSPM students and any young people interested in the field is to seize opportunities as they pop up, no matter whether they think they meet the qualifications.

“I think if I could go back, I would tell myself not to worry as much as I did,” Mr. Zapien said. “Not to worry about finding a linear path as much as I did, and actually take the complete opposite view, which is to work hard, be smart, have high integrity but be really open to really quick jagged turns in your career.”

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