SAN ANTONIO On a wall in his sun-drenched, art-filled Tudor home, Henry Munoz III displays a memento of his childhood: a framed protest sign proclaiming, "Texas needs $1.25 an hour minimum wage." He carried it when he was 6 years old while riding a burro during a farmworkers' march alongside his father, a labor organizer, and the Mexican American activist Cesar Chavez.
Today, as the chief executive of a design firm, Munoz is a wealthy San Antonio businessman, civic leader and patron of the arts. After helping to raise millions to re-elect President Barack Obama, he recently acquired another title: finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the first Latino to hold the job.
Munoz's journey from son of a sharp-elbowed union leader to Democratic power broker is a microcosm of a larger coming-of-age story about American Latinos, who are making their presence felt in politics as never before.
For decades, Latino activists like Munoz's father, a man so wily he was known in San Antonio as "The Fox," harnessed their political clout through grass-roots networks and neighborhood campaigns. Now a new generation of Latino leaders highly educated, sophisticated and rich is exerting power in a different way, by tapping into Latinos as a fundraising pool to influence elections and public policy.
On the frontier of this movement is a trio of Obama donors: Munoz, as controversial in San Antonio as he is prominent; Andres Lopez, a Puerto Rican lawyer with two Harvard University degrees; and Eva Longoria, the actress of "Desperate Housewives" fame.
Together they founded the Futuro Fund, an arm of the Obama campaign that raised $32 million, they say, by soliciting fellow Latinos. After the president won 71 percent of the Latino vote, the Futuro founders celebrated the inauguration by joining more established Latino groups in a glittering gala at the Kennedy Center, an event that exposed the nation to elite Latino culture.
Now, as the immigration debate unfolds in Washington, these donors have what Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, calls "a seat at the table," and they intend to use it. In interviews, they vowed to give voice to Latinos on issues such as health care, education and jobs as well as immigration and to remind politicians that they are not a constituency to be courted just at election time.
"It seemed to me like every four years, people say, 'Oh, the sleeping giant woke up,' " said Munoz, over lunch served by his personal assistant, in a house with so many rooms that his cat, a Persian named Barbra (as in Streisand), has her own. "I think that's not true. We never went back to sleep."
Latino activists have watched the Futuro Fund closely.
"This has been the real missing link in our political strategy as a community," said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Janet Murguia, the president of NCLR, the Latino rights group also known as the National Council of La Raza, called it "a real sign that our community is evolving."
But some analysts say the show of wealth could backfire.
"There's a danger in Futuro's approach," said Jillson, the political scientist. "Most Hispanics are working very hard, long hours to feed their families, so the idea that they are holding glitzy parties in Washington may not please the Hispanic base."
Perhaps, but the three leaders say they have already had an impact. During the presidential campaign last March, they held a $40,000-a-person fundraiser and policy session at Washington's W Hotel, where 19 mostly Latino donors met with White House officials such as Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser, and Jacob Lew, then chief of staff, and privately with Obama.
Many Latinos were angered that the president had not worked harder to pass the DREAM Act, a bill to help young immigrants avoid deportation, and the donors told Obama so. They also pressed the president to name a Latino to give the Democratic National Convention keynote address.
The president delivered. He picked Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, a rising Democratic star who is close to Munoz, as keynote speaker. And he used his executive powers to help "the dreamers," as Munoz calls them, work and study legally.
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, called Munoz after that decision.
"I hope you are proud of us today," both men remember Messina saying.
Republicans, who lack a counterpart to the Futuro Fund, are seeking to engage Latinos in their own way. In Texas, George P. Bush, the heir apparent to the Bush political dynasty, has co-founded a political action committee to help elect Latino Republicans.
In Washington, Carlos Gutierrez, a commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, has created a "super PAC," Republicans for Immigration Reform, but conceded, "It's going to take a while to get immigrants' confidence and trust."
The Futuro Fund has its roots in Latino art and culture, not politics. Its founders met while serving on a government commission to study a possible Latino museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Lopez, 42, overlapped with Obama at Harvard, where they occasionally played pickup basketball. In November 2007, "when everybody and their cousin was betting on Hillary (Clinton)," Lopez said, he hosted Sen. Obama in Puerto Rico and raised money for the 2008 campaign.
In 2011, as the museum commission wrapped up its work it recommended that Congress authorize construction near the Capitol Lopez began looking to 2012. He wanted to organize Latinos in a more systematic way, and he asked Munoz to join him.
"What we lacked was a big voice," Lopez said.
Munoz, 53, has deep roots in Texas politics; Gov. Ann Richards named him the state's first Latino transportation commissioner when he was 31. His 6,000-square-foot home, filled with Latino-themed art, is a must-visit for politicians looking to raise cash. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, was there a few weeks ago.
Since 1987, records show, Munoz has given more than $430,000 to candidates, mostly Democrats, and party committees.
With the campaign behind them, Munoz, Lopez and Longoria are debating how to carry their work forward. Beyond advancing Latino causes, they would like to see more Latinos in public service.
Longoria, 37, with a fan base that includes Republicans, would like the fund to become bipartisan.
"We're in solution mode now," she said.