Story first appeared on The Wall Street Journal
When Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office on Monday, he will be joined on the platform by Supreme Court justices, former presidents—and one of the "Desperate Housewives."
Actress Eva Longoria, the 37-year-old star of the hit television show and twice Maxim magazine's Hottest Woman of the Year, is taking on a challenging new role as a Hispanic activist and power player in Washington, D.C. One of her primary aims is to make the case that "Latinos aren't a drain on the economy or criminals crossing the border," she says. "Most are hardworking people who are America's emerging market."
Ms. Longoria is the most prominent among Latino leaders who are gaining political sway from the 2012 election, in which the Hispanic vote was a critical force in delivering victory to Mr. Obama. A co-chair of his campaign, she stumped for him at rallies across the country and was one of the largest "bundlers," or fundraisers, while hosting star-studded events raising millions of dollars.
Her role reaches beyond fundraising and speechmaking, however, and into policy and strategy. She helped urge Mr. Obama to make a key change in immigration policy last year, and she is teaming with business to explore investments in housing and retail developments in Hispanic communities.
Along the way she has developed a rapport with the president and his advisers. She is now planning meetings this weekend with the capital's elite, including private receptions at the White House and vice president's residence and a bipartisan brunch she is co-hosting at a Georgetown eatery this weekend with Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for George W. Bush and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. There, she plans to begin a Republican outreach by meeting with Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, and other attendees including Grover Norquist.
It is part of a broader strategy to build her personal brand within the nation's fastest-growing market. Ms. Longoria is modeling it on Bono's celebrity-to-political-activist transformation, and has hired one of the singer's advisers.
As she rises in prominence, Ms. Longoria is at risk of being seen as an Obama partisan rather than a policy advocate. "Half of my movie tickets and my products are bought by Republicans," says Ms. Longoria, who is also a spokeswoman for cosmetics company L’Oreal Paris and Lays potato chips.
She has had a few missteps along the way. In the heat of the presidential campaign, Ms. Longoria angered some of her Republican fans on Twitter. In October, she re-tweeted, or re-sent, someone else's message describing GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney as "racist/misogynistic" and calling people who would vote for him "stupid."
She tried to delete it, but some of her nearly five million followers saw the message and objected. She followed up with apologies. "Sorry if people were offended by retweet. Obviously not my words or my personal view. I respect all Americans #FreedomOfSpeech," she wrote.
Ms. Longoria "is beginning to understand that she's at that critical point when she must decide whether to fight causes as an American, or a political partisan," says Bobby Turner, chief executive of Canyon Capital Realty Advisers, who is exploring Hispanic-community investments with her. To have the best chance at success, he says, "She will need bipartisan collaboration."
Ms. Longoria says partisanship has gone too far. "The Republicans and Democrats are acting like two different gangs," she says. "There are some great Republicans and some great Democrats."
She may have a tough time proving her bipartisan bona fides to some Republicans. Last spring for instance she criticized Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a prominent GOP Hispanic lawmaker, saying that he was "coming up with some silly stuff" on Latino issues.
Republicans and Democrats alike are chasing the loyalties of Latinos following last year's election, which demonstrated the power of Hispanic Americans. The Hispanic share of the vote reached 10% for the first time, and Mr. Obama won almost three-quarters of that. As a result, both parties have immigration issues near the top of their post-inaugural to-do list.
Many Americans now agree on a wish to overhaul the immigration system. Republicans tend to prefer doing it step-by-step, dealing separately with new immigrants and children of undocumented workers, for example, and then offering illegal immigrants a path toward some kind of legal status down the road. Democrats generally prefer one comprehensive overhaul bill offering a path toward full citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been working here.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, at 16%, a proportion expected to grow to 30% over the next four decades. And they are an economic force. Hispanic buying power was estimated at $1.2 trillion last year, according to the Selig Center's annual Multicultural Economy report.
"We've earned a seat at the table," says San Juan-based lawyer Andres Lopez. "Now we're going to make it permanent."
Mr. Lopez has joined Ms. Longoria and other influential political and business figures to form the Futuro Fund, a Hispanic organization that initially raised money for the president's campaign, and now advocates for Latino issues. Its leaders include the twin brothers and rising politicos Julian and Joaquin Castro, the mayor of San Antonio and Texas Congressman. Futuro and other Hispanic groups are exploring founding a Latino think tank in Washington.
In a series of interviews in and around Los Angeles in recent days—at a Latin restaurant she owns, in meetings for her charitable foundation, and on-set as she acted in a potato-chip commercial—Ms. Longoria shifted back and forth from high-wattage performer to nerdy student of politics and policy. Last Sunday offered a particularly vivid example of her attempt to balance the roles.
Sunday morning, Ms. Longoria, who is the executive producer of an NBC show called "Ready for Love," in which matchmakers help three young men find true love, held a casting call to pick the bachelors for the second season. Men in their 20s and 30s were ushered in. Ms. Longoria hugged each one, then got down to business. "What's your type?" she asked. "Whose fault was your last breakup?"
At one point, she dismissed one of the hopefuls as too young for the part. Then, she quipped, "What am I talking about? I just dated a 26-year-old." That was New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
From the casting call, Ms. Longoria went to a hotel suite to dress for the Golden Globes, where she was to announce two winners alongside actor Don Cheadle. While a hairstylist blew out her long hair, she texted Trevor Neilson, the political adviser who worked with Bono, to review her Washington schedule for this weekend's inaugural.
She asked him which Republicans would be attending a Sunday brunch at Georgetown's Café Milano that she is co-hosting. "I need to show them that I can work with them," she texted.
Later, in the car on the way to the Golden Globes, she asked Mr. Nielson: Would Mr. Powell, the former secretary of state, be at the event and if so, could she get some time to speak with him privately?
“'It needs to be delivered by you in an emotional manner,' she said to the president.”
Soon, she was out of the car and posing for photographers on the red carpet in her Pucci gown.
In their occasional meetings over the past two years, Ms. Longoria and Mr. Obama have developed a rapport. Last spring, in a private meeting with Hispanic bigwigs, she pressed the president to move unilaterally to protect Latino undocumented youth at risk of deportation. According to Ms. Longoria and two others present, Mr. Obama first blamed Congress for failing to pass the Dream Act, a bill designed to address the problem.
To the surprise of several people present, Ms. Longoria persisted. "But Mr. President, you have to do something," she said. As the conversation continued, she said: "With all due respect, sir, it needs to be delivered by you in an emotional manner."
"What do you mean?" he replied, after suggesting that the executive branch was already working on a plan.
"Show your connection to us," Ms. Longoria said. "You were raised in an environment similar to many Latinos. Talk to us like you're talking to family."
San Antonio businessman Henry Munoz, who sat across from the pair, recalls, "It was a powerful moment. Eva is disarming because she's petite and beautiful, but the president respected her forceful advice."
About two months later, on June 15, Mr. Obama announced a directive in the Rose Garden designed to help illegal immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. as children. They are "Americans in their hearts, their minds and every single way but on paper," he said.
It was at that same spring meeting that Mr. Obama noticed a tattoo on Ms. Longoria's wrist, she recalls, and suggested that she have it removed. She explained that it was the date of her wedding. (She is now divorced.)
"Now, was that a good idea?" she recalls the president saying.
She replied, "Well, I thought so when I got married!"
Ms. Longoria did have the tattoo removed.
Ms. Longoria, born in Corpus Christi, is the fourth daughter of a special-education teacher and Army base worker. As a teen, she worked at a Wendy's burger joint and paid for college by teaching aerobics, piling up credit-card debt and getting loans and grants.
Interested in acting, she moved to Los Angeles where a job as a corporate recruiter allowed her to audition. After three years on the soap opera "The Young and the Restless," Ms. Longoria was drafted by ABC for a new drama, "Desperate Housewives," which first aired in 2004. Her character's sexual escapades shot Ms. Longoria to fame and fortune.
During her eight-season run on "Desperate Housewives," Ms. Longoria increased her support of Hispanic and political causes. She gave to Democratic candidates and made tacos for their volunteers, even as most of her family in Texas remained red-state Republicans.
After Mr. Obama's election in 2008, Ms. Longoria was named to a commission studying a possible Latino-American museum in Washington, D.C. When Mr. Obama, a basketball fan, occasionally saw her, she says, he seemed more interested in whether her husband at the time, NBA star Tony Parker, was around.
Around the time her marriage ended in 2010, Ms. Longoria launched her own production company, perfume line, her Los Angeles restaurant called Beso ("kiss" in Spanish) and a cookbook filled with her Tex-Mex favorites. She also enrolled in a master's program in Chicano studies and political science at Cal State-Northridge, for which she is writing a dissertation. She says she didn't want to be one of "the rich celebrities who don't know what they're talking about."
By 2011, she had become a regular in Washington, including the screening of her documentary "Harvest" on the plight of child farm workers. Also the Futuro group was founded and began working closely with the Obama campaign, which asked Ms. Longoria to get involved. She hosted successful fundraisers in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and elsewhere, at a time when Mr. Obama's business support was dropping.
She was offered a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention. But when the campaign sent her a draft speech, she says, she rejected it as "too much rah-rah and too little substance." She recalls telling the campaign's speechwriter: "I want to show that I came from the lower middle class and why I support the president."
When she took the convention stage, she attacked Mr. Romney for trying to preserve tax rates for the wealthy. "The Eva Longoria who worked at Wendy's flipping burgers—she needed a tax break," she said. "But the Eva Longoria who works on movie sets does not."
The week before the election last November, Ms. Longoria spent two days in southern Florida—home to a particularly powerful Latino electorate—to mobilize volunteers and speak to voters on behalf of the Obama-Biden ticket. While there, she became a visible target for hecklers that showed up at Obama rallies in the days of the campaign. "I got booed, I got beat up," she says, citing one incident where a woman punched her in the arm. When she flew out to Las Vegas for the president's final rally on Nov. 1, she says she was sure Mr. Obama would lose the state.
"How was Florida?" Mr. Obama asked her in Las Vegas, she says.
"I think we're going to win Florida," she replied—"the only time I lied to the president." Ultimately, he won Florida by a whisker.
Ms. Longoria has devoted a chunk of her time the past year to getting her foundation up and running. As an adviser, she retained Global Philanthropy Group, run by Mr. Neilson and his wife, Maggie, who have helped myriad, other stars, including Bono, Richard Branson and Madonna, with their causes.
Ms. Longoria's foundation recently received a $2 million commitment from Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett's son. The fund will make small loans to Latinas in Texas to start their own businesses, according to Ms. Longoria and Mr. Buffett. She got Mr. Buffett's donation, he says, after cooking him an egg breakfast and riding with him on a combine at his farm.
Mr. Turner of Canyon Capital asked Ms. Longoria to speak last fall at his annual seminar on social-impact investing at the Wharton School of Business, and now is negotiating with her to collaborate on for-profit affordable housing and retail outlets in Hispanic communities. Ms. Longoria says she wants to show that Hispanic concerns transcend immigration. "There's not a single Latino platform. It is about the economy, education and health care."
While her various Hollywood commitments prevent her from taking a full-time position in Washington, she says, she declines to rule out politics in the future. Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, says, "Would I like Eva to run for office down here? Hell yes."