Longoria’s Star Rising for Work in Capital

 Longoria’s star rising for work in capital

By Richard Dunham

June 17, 2013

WASHINGTON — The nation’s capital is littered with celebrities promoting their pet causes.

Depending on the week, you could run into Angelina Jolie, Ted Nugent, Yoko Ono, Sean Penn, Chris Rock, Tony Bennett or, yes, Ashley Judd cruising the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to bring glitter to causes obscure or controversial.

Most celebrities draw brief media attention to their cause du jour and board the next jet back to the Coast.

Then there’s Eva Longoria.

Over the four-plus years of the Obama presidency, the 38-year-old Corpus Christi native who rocketed to fame in Hollywood has slowly but surely made her mark in Washington as a serious student of issues, a formidable fundraiser for Democratic causes and a spokeswoman for the emerging, increasingly empowered young generation of Latinos across the nation.

Longoria has become such an ascendant star in Democratic circles that the party’s national finance chairman, Henry Muñoz of San Antonio, says donors are sometimes disappointed when he shows up alone.

“I get that everywhere I go these days: Why isn’t Eva Longoria here?” jokes Muñoz, CEO of the architecture firm Muñoz & Co.

The answer is simple: There’s only so much politicking the actress can do while simultaneously pursuing her day job in Hollywood and running her charitable foundations.

In addition to Eva’s Heroes, a charity that aids developmentally disabled children, she launched the Eva Longoria Foundation last year to promote college access and support business startups among young Latinas.

The foundation’s first big move, announced in April, involves doling out $2 million in microloans to Latina business owners in Texas and California, stemming from a partnership with Warren Buffett’s son Howard.

In Washington, she has appeared on Capitol Hill at hearings and news conferences, shining a spotlight on child-labor abuses in agriculture, the struggles of the learning impaired, the need for better schools to boost young Latinos out of poverty, the dearth of Small Business Administration programs for Latino entrepreneurs and, of course, immigration reform.

She also has put her clout behind efforts to create an American Latino museum on the National Mall, a Latino heritage fund for the national parks and management training for Latino arts groups.

In her spare time, she received a master’s degree in American Hispanic history from California State University, Northridge, last month, with a focus on math and science coursework for Latina students.

She earned her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

“I think she’s a very important role model for young Latinas, because she comes from a poor background,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Los Angeles Democrat. “She had to struggle in the beginning, and she’s an example of someone who had perseverance — never gave up — in terms of pursuing her dream.”

In recent years, Longoria has moved from role model to power player in national Democratic politics, serving as a co-chairwoman for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and his 2013 inauguration.

She’s a generous donor to Democratic candidates, giving $83,300 in the 2012 election cycle, and a prolific fundraiser who helped attract $30 million to the Latino-focused Futuro Fund.

Republican consultant Leslie Sanchez, who, like Longoria, grew up in Kingsville and Corpus Christi, gives Longoria credit for her fearless advocacy and fundraising prowess.

But Sanchez says the actress is firmly part of Hollywood’s “left-of-center community.”

“No one Latina speaks for the community as a whole because we are so diverse,” said Sanchez, a conservative. “While she’s a great communicator, she’s much more to the left than many middle-class Latino families. She advocates the values of Hollywood more than the values of ‘red’ or ‘purple’ states.”

Many of Longoria’s friends beg to differ.

San Antonio Rep. Joaquín Castro, who first met her a decade ago, before she achieved fame from her role as Gabrielle Solis on “Desperate Housewives,” says they talk about kitchen-table issues such as education, the environment and immigration.

“As she developed a higher profile, she wanted to help out,” said Castro, who was elected to Congress in 2012 and received the maximum $2,500 donation from Longoria.

The congressman’s twin brother, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, also is a Longoria fan, describing her as “someone always concerned with giving back to others.”

Longoria shies away from talk about political aspirations. She declined requests for an interview for this story. Her most extensive recent comments on her political future were a firm “no, no,” when asked by the Washington Post whether she planned to run for Congress.

That hasn’t stopped Democrats from making other plans for her.

“She would be a very strong candidate for statewide office,” Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “I’d love to have her run for governor or have a real Hispanic progressive who knows about Texas issues run against George Prescott Bush.”

Some wistful Democrats see Longoria as a 21st-century Ronald Reagan — a dynamic communicator with the potential to alter the partisan landscape in Texas and appeal across economic and social lines nationwide.

But Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University, warned that fantasies about Longoria the politician may never be fulfilled.

“While many celebrities are effective at advancing specific causes, a much smaller number have been able to move to the next level and become effective actors within the political system,” he said.