WASHINGTON — Cecilia Soto-Loftus, co-founder of a Malibu party services company, was new to presidential politics when she started raising money for President Obama’s reelection bid last year.
After pulling in more than $400,000, she is getting the red carpet treatment at this weekend’s inaugural festivities, with invitations to a strategy briefing for top fundraisers, a VIP candlelight reception and the official inaugural ball.
The special access reflects the unusual role Soto-Loftus and other Latino fundraisers played in Obama’s 2012 campaign, the first to focus on tapping Latino celebrities, lawyers, business owners and community leaders for cash. The effort, called the Futuro Fund, aimed to raise $6 million — and brought in more than $30 million.
“It really sent a strong message that we shouldn’t be overlooked,” said Soto-Loftus, a Boyle Heights native who hopes to be considered for an ambassadorship, perhaps to Costa Rica or the Bahamas. “And I think we have only hit the tip of the iceberg.”
Though $30 million was a small slice of Obama’s record $1.1-billion haul, the Futuro Fund inducted a new cohort of donors into national politics, and created a Latino fundraising network that other politicians are clamoring to access. Most importantly, the group’s work demonstrated the growing clout of Latinos beyond the ballot box.
“This is practically the final frontier in terms of what we need to be doing as political players in this country,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “We’ve had the elected officials. We’ve had the activists. We’ve had the voters. And now we have the donors.”
Democrats are using the inauguration to cement ties with the new class of donors.
Obama named actress Eva Longoria, a co-founder of the Futuro Fund, as co-chairwoman of his inaugural committee. And on Sunday night, Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise appearance at a gala performance of legendary Latino artists including Jose Feliciano, Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera that Longoria hosted at the Kennedy Center. The event was the culmination of Latino Inaugural 2013, a three-day celebration organized by the Futuro Fund.
“In this election, you spoke in a way that the world — and I mean the world, as well as the United States — could not fail to hear,” Biden said as he thanked the black-tie crowd.
The proximity to power has given Latino fundraisers a new avenue to push their policy agenda. During the campaign, Longoria and others pressed Obama to overhaul immigration laws. Now they aim to continue advocating for immigration reform, for more Latinos in the administration, and for a host of other issues.
“We’re going to be able to have influence on what affects our communities, whether it’s the economy or jobs or education or healthcare,” Longoria said before taking the stage Sunday night.
“The work begins now,” noted Henry R. Muñoz III, owner of a San Antonio architecture firm. “It’s all about how we harness and leverage what we have been able to achieve.”
He and Longoria started the fund with San Juan lawyer Andres Lopez, an early backer of Obama who was frustrated when few other Latino fundraisers participated in the 2008 campaign. “We hadn’t shown our financial muscle and hadn’t earned the respect at that very important table we thought we could earn,” Lopez said.
In mid-2011, the trio made their pitch to Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and finance chairman Matthew Barzun during a meeting in Chicago: Make time for us on the president’s fundraising schedule, and we will bring in money.
“We originally offered [to raise] $6 million, and they said, ‘Do you think you can do 12?’ And we said, ‘We’ll try,’” Muñoz recalled.
A large share came at high-dollar events, such as a fundraiser Obama headlined at the Los Angeles home of actors Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith. But organizers also worked the phones. Concern about the GOP presidential challengers, who quarreled in the primaries over who would be tougher on illegal immigrants, helped spur contributions.
Latino donors “just didn’t feel that the Republicans even understood their point of view,” Lopez said. “And frankly, a lot of them said, ‘I’ve never been asked,’ which was our hunch.”
Alex Nava, a 36-year-old commercial litigation lawyer in San Antonio, had given a few hundred dollars to Obama’s 2008 campaign. He felt little incentive to give more, he said, because “any money I gave would be lost in the larger shuffle.”
Then Muñoz called and explained how they hoped to demonstrate Latino fundraising power.
“I wanted to be part of that,” said Nava, who donated the $5,000 maximum to the 2012 campaign.
A similar sentiment motivated Amalia Perea Mahoney, a 59-year-old art gallery owner in Chicago. Mahoney volunteered for Obama’s campaign in 2008, but had never raised money. That changed after she attended a Futuro Fund briefing at Obama headquarters.
“I thought it was a great tool to get the Latinos a seat at the table,” said Mahoney, who ultimately brought in between $200,000 and $500,000.
Some of the wooing was done by Obama, who met with about 20 prominent Latinos at a Washington hotel in early 2012.
“We felt part of the process, not just on the bleachers watching,” said Ralph Patino, a 55-year-old trial lawyer in Coral Gables, Fla. He now has a photo of Obama with the group displayed in his law firm.
He and his wife, Elizabeth, gave more than $150,000 to the campaign and the Democratic Party, along with nearly $10,000 to the inaugural committee. They were among top donors who met the president and first lady, as well as Biden and his wife, at the White House on Friday.
Elizabeth Patino, a 37-year-old lawyer, said she was now contemplating jumping into politics, perhaps running for city commissioner this spring.
“I didn’t know that I had this piece in me that really likes the political world,” she said. “I was always somewhat afraid of it. But seeing how Latinos could come together and make such a great impact on a national level — it’s just intoxicating.”