The Hill Article: U.S. Capitol is too white, say critics

This article highlights CHCI's effort to provide young Latinos with access to jobs on Capitol Hill.

By Reid Wilson
06/25/09

The staff on Capitol Hill is too white.

That's what a group of frustrated members, lobbyists and aides are claiming as they press congressional leaders to adopt a version of the so-called Rooney rule.

The rule, named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, has been credited with significantly increasing the number of African-American coaches in the National Football League.

Even with the first black president and African-Americans and Hispanics wielding more power than ever in Congress, there are just two Senate chiefs of staff who are minorities. In the lower chamber, there are only five white lawmakers who have African-American chiefs of staff. And only four African-Americans are staff directors of either House or Senate committees, according to statistics prepared for this article.

"Given such poor numbers, let's acknowledge that there is something broken about the process," said Citigroup lobbyist Paul Thornell, a former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.).
He said there are "few intentional strategies in place to promote minorities."

Thornell and others say the Senate has done more on diversity at the staff level than the House, where there are four black committee chairmen and 17 black subcommittee chairmen. Hispanic Reps. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) chair the Intelligence Committee and the Small Business Committee, respectively.

Still, critics say both chambers should formally embrace the Rooney rule, which requires that NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate when they are filling head coaching vacancies.

Before the 2003 rule was established, 6 percent of NFL coaches were black.
Now the figure is 22 percent.

This month, the NFL extended the Rooney rule to teams' front offices, where the ranks of executives remain overwhelmingly white.

Some on and off Capitol Hill have praised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has a diversity officer to assist Democratic senators with hiring.

But the House has not followed Reid's lead.

"I don't think people are out-and-out prejudiced or biased, but there's a lack of effort," said Robert Primus, chief of staff to Rep. Michael Capuano
(D-Mass.) and one of the few black chiefs of staff to a white member of Congress. "There is a lack of interest on the part of leadership and a lack of effort on the part of the caucus."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is the only senator with an African-American chief of staff, while Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has the lone Hispanic chief of staff.

Other than Capuano, Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and Brad Miller (D-N.C.) are the only white lawmakers with black chiefs of staff.

Among white members of Congress and House leadership of both parties, there simply remains a lack of concerted initiative to bring more minorities into top staff positions, according to a small group of members, staffers and lobbyists trying to boost diversity.

"The staff should reflect the diversity of our country," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a Congressional Black Caucus member who has held conversations about how to raise the number of minority staffers on Capitol Hill. "We need to cast a wide net and make sure everybody has a chance. The problems of our country are complex and we're going to need input from everybody."

"You have to go out and find [minority candidates], cultivate them, and I don't think we do a great job cultivating them," Primus added.

At the urging of minority aides, Reid in 2007 hired veteran Washington operative Martina Bradford to create a database of minority staffers to hand out to Senate offices looking to diversify.

The goal, Bradford told The Hill, is to pattern new hiring after the Rooney rule.

"We have ramped up over this two-year period, gone from dealing with a handful of offices to dealing with virtually all the [Senate Democratic] offices," Bradford said. "They are free to do hiring in whatever way they want to, but they have, by their own free will and volition, adopted this practice."

Several House members have sought out Bradford on the Senate side to find minority applicants.

Reid has a very diverse staff even though Nevada does not have a huge black population.

Primus said, "Pressure on him was not there, and yet he did it."

Staffers and outside observers say the House Democratic Caucus has not made a serious effort to broaden diversity among members' staffs. They add that blame also lies with the three minority caucuses - the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses.

Together, they make up nearly a third of the Democratic Caucus. And if they pool their resources, observers say, their case would be more persuasive to leadership.

"That's a simple meeting where the three heads of the caucuses go to [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)] or [Caucus Chairman] John Larson [D-Conn.] and say, ‘We're going to hold your feet to the fire," Primus said. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel. The Senate already has the wheel made."

"We've had some dialogue with a number of people, including leadership, and I don't think there's any resistance" to introducing the Senate system in the House, Ellison said. "I hope that it's something we replicate."

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who chairs the Asian Pacific American Caucus, said he and others had met with Reid's office to learn about the Senate system, and that they have requested meetings with Pelosi to talk about the issue.

"We've been working with the entire caucus on the issue of staff diversity,"
Honda told The Hill, adding that he has met informally with House committee chairmen to encourage them to diversify their staffs.

"It'd be nice to speak to the Speaker ... to make sure that we have a centralized, coordinated process," Honda said. "So far, we haven't received any response."

"The Speaker is very concerned about diversity," said Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman. "She makes it a point that this is something that we need to strive for."

Larson meets regularly with the minority caucus leaders and goes out of his way to make sure their concerns are heard at caucus meetings, sources said.
At a recent meeting, these minority leaders brought up the possibility of running a job bank out of the caucus office.

Some African-American advocates for more diversity blame the Black Caucus
(CBC) for not doing enough. They point to the Hispanic Caucus (CHC), which has a better-developed internship process and actively aids those interns in finding a place on Capitol Hill.

Ellison said, "We need to work on it more, and I think we would benefit and the Congress would benefit if we put a lot more effort into it."

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who heads the CBC, did not comment for this article.

"One of the first things we found very helpful in finding good folks to work on the Hill was the CHC's internship program and fellowship program," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a CHC member who said the program had been effective for his office. "There was a farm team out there ready to come in and work full-time as a staff person."

But others said the matter must be taken up by more than just the three minority caucuses.

"I think there's got to be a more aggressive effort to connect promising black staffers to members," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). "It can't just be a CBC effort. It's got to be a caucus-wide effort."

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