- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Potential presidential aspirants and corporate honchos gathered at the MCI Center last Wednesday night for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's (CHCI) 25th annual gala, a black-tie event that benefits Hispanic youth with college scholarships and summer internships.
Area business leaders and politicos (who had no time to slip into formal wear) were packed onto an arena floor normally covered with discarded beer cups or sweaty athletes, depending on the night. On Wednesday, it was bathed in tasteful low lighting, with large video screens in each corner to ensure that every table felt close to the action.
Between bites of a delectable beef barbecue entree and sips of red wine, the deep-pocketed audience individual tickets were $500, and the average corporate package cost $15,000 heard testimonies from past and current participants in the CHCI program. The reward for attention to the boosterish pitches and electioneering was a performance by salsa sensation Carlos Ponce, the evening's headline entertainer. Singers Gilberto Santa Rosa and Pilar Montenegro also participated in the post-spiel carousing.
The nearly 2,200 attendees donated $2.3 million, according to Ingrid Duran, CHCI's president and chief executive, who noted that the event was the most successful fund-raising event in the organization's history.
"We've outgrown the Washington Hilton, and now we're waiting for the new convention center to open," said Michael Veve, a District-based lawyer and CHCI board member.
The Hispanic population is growing not just demographically, but in "economic muscle," boasted Rep. Robert Menendez. The New Jersey Democrat pointed out that Hispanic Americans will wield approximately $1 trillion in domestic market strength over the next 10 years.
That explained the strong corporate presence Wednesday night, with USAirways and AOL Time Warner advertisements on prominent video-screen display. The event's chief sponsor was Fannie Mae, a company that seeks to expand home ownership.
More consumers, of course, also means more potential voters, and both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain delivered what sounded like presidential stump speeches. Between cheery, feel-good one-liners about the future of Hispanic Americans, each senator sprinkled in stock rhetoric about prescription drug benefits and the war on terrorism.
One of the reasons the September 11 terrorists chose New York City as a target, Mrs. Clinton said, was because of its "diversity."
Mr. McCain, who relishes his "maverick" status within GOP circles, couldn't help a sly reference to his primary battle with President Bush. "I should've had my own recount," he joked. "I keep running into people saying, 'I voted for you.' "
Top Democratic congressional leaders also were on hand, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The gala, canceled last year because of the September 11 terrorist attacks, was emceed by the uncommonly handsome Christian de la Fuente, co-star of the movie "Driven," and Marisol Nichols, the cute and spunky brunette who stars in Showtime's "Resurrection Boulevard" and appears periodically on ABC's espionage drama "Alias."
Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and secretary of housing and urban development under President Clinton, received the Medallion of Excellence for Leadership. A member of several corporate boards, Mr. Cisneros has largely maintained a low profile since resigning his Cabinet post in 1997 amid charges that he paid a mistress thousands of dollars to keep their affair secret. (He later reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.)
Emilio and Gloria Estefan, who were honored for community service, could not attend the gala, as Mrs. Estefan was busy hosting the Latin Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. The couple beamed in a recorded segment of thank-you remarks.
Despite the Estefans' no-show, the attendees last Wednesday night turned the beat and the cash around.

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