Fresno State official looks for support on Capitol Hill

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro has a lot to teach lawmakers – and, perhaps, vice versa.

This week, Castro ventured into the political realm with a round of meetings and Capitol Hill receptions. Though the veteran university administrator has come to Congress before, this week’s venture marked his first since becoming Fresno State’s president in August.

“I wasn’t coming here asking for any money,” Castro said Wednesday night. “My job was mainly to educate. I want to raise awareness of our academic programs, and raise our academic profile.”

In one-on-one sessions with a handful of House members, Castro met the lawmakers he might eventually need to carry Fresno State’s water. In a meeting with a key Agriculture Department official, he talked up his school’s research potential. At a luncheon with California’s House Democrats inside the Capitol, he spoke briefly and tackled an easy question about the school’s football team.

“There are really two purposes to my being there,” Castro said. “The first is to introduce myself, and the other is to raise awareness of the great things we are doing.”

Underscoring the generational shift in university leadership, the 46-year-old Hanford native also kept up a steady stream of exclamation-pointed Twitter comments throughout his several-day trip. His predecessor as Fresno State president, John Welty, visited Washington many times without taking up the Twitter habit.

It’s still the personal touch, though, that people expect. On Tuesday night, building brand loyalty, Castro joined a number of Fresno State alumni at a reception held at the California-appropriate Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar, several blocks from the Capitol.

“You get to know a lot of people that know D.C.,” said Jill Wyman, a 2001 Fresno State graduate and former congressional staffer who now works for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America.

On Wednesday night, Castro joined lawmakers, staffers and dozens of high-level California college and university officials in an annual Back to School Night held in a House of Representatives’ office building cafeteria. School spirits prevailed, lubricated by glasses of Robert Mondavi wine. Fresno State alumni like Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., sported red Bulldog lapel pins. At the University of California at Merced booth, blue U.C. Merced flying discs were free for the taking.

Sponsored by the California State Society, the evening was light-hearted and serious at the same time. School pennants, give-away pencils and colorful pom-poms lent a festive air to the gathering in the Rayburn House Office Building. Beneath the chit-chat and hearty greetings, though, burbled the bottom-line work of building political relationships.

“It helps tell the California higher education story,” said Timothy P. White, a Fresno State graduate who now serves as chancellor of the 437,000-student California State University system.

Paul Sweet, a Sacramento Valley native who formerly directed the University of California’s D.C. government affairs operations, further clarified the higher-education stakes, noting Wednesday that “almost everything going through Congress affects the university, one way or another.”

Federal research funding matters more to the University of California system than to the California State University system. But both rely on federal student aid programs that include the Pell Grants provided to low-income undergraduate students. More than 9,200 Fresno State students received Pell Grants in the fall of 2010, accounting for 52 percent of the university’s undergraduates.

By comparison, 36 percent of all undergraduates at four-year colleges nationwide received Pell Grants.

“Our number one priority is Pell Grants,” said Fresno State Vice President Peter Smits, a veteran of many prior Capitol Hill lobbying trips.

University officials further amplify their messages through an in-house lobbying team. Last year, congressional records show, the California State University system reported spending $680,000 on federal lobbying, while the University of California reported spending $640,000.

By Thursday, Castro was back in California, tweeting to one of the Southern California congressmen he had met earlier in the week.

“Great to see you yesterday at (California) Delegation lunch!” Castro wrote. “Please let me know when you next visit the Central Valley.”

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau