Senate Democrats are facing growing pressure to break the white male stranglehold on senior staff positions in their ranks — a push that’s uniting consultants and lobbyists inside the Beltway with Black Lives Matter and other minority leaders who are accusing the party of “soft bigotry.”
The attacks are prompting uncomfortable discussions among Democrats even as they welcome their historic Senate freshman class, which includes the chamber’s first Latina and Indian-American members.
Frustrations over the lack of diversity among the ranks of top Senate Democratic aides began seeping into public view after Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss deprived the party’s donors and lobbyists of a critical opening to build on the Obama administration’s minority-hiring efforts. Now, activists are shaming Senate Democrats, noting that the chamber’s only African-American chief of staff works for Republican Sen. Tim Scott. And civil rights groups are holding a public conference call on Thursday to escalate their campaign for more diverse hiring by newly elected senators.
It’s not just the chief of staff disparity — minorities are under-represented throughout the ranks of Senate staffers. African-Americans and Latinos represent more than a third of self-identified Democrats nationwide but hold less than 3 percent of senior staff positions for Senate Democrats, according to a report last year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) acknowledged that changing the lily-white complexion of the chamber’s staff sparks “an uncomfortable conversation.” But Schatz, who has led long-running efforts to diversify the Senate’s workforce alongside his friend Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), said lawmakers and aides should keep grappling with “frankly, an ugly history in the Capitol” — the storied dome partly built by slaves.
“I don’t think anybody is nefarious” in terms of denying minority candidates a chance at jobs, Schatz told POLITICO. “But we’re just not getting it done, and we need to hold ourselves accountable as an institution.”
More than a dozen lobbyists — some big donors, some smaller donors — have been meeting to discuss how to proceed. The group has focused on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in particular.
“As minority lobbyists, we know we invest in the DSCC directly, financially, and we want them to, in return, invest in us as a community and not just take our money and then — when they make decisions on who to hire as vendors and staff — to look the other way,” said Oscar Ramirez, a lobbyist at the Podesta Group.
The Senate’s retiring minority leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), spearheaded the creation of a Democratic diversity initiative 10 years ago that has generated a bank of hundreds of resumes of ethnically diverse candidates. Reid’s aide Maria Meier, who has been in charge of the diversity effort since 2011, is leaving by the end of the year.
Current and former minority staffers, as well as Schatz, are urging the party to expand and update it amid clear signs that the effort has failed to change hiring practices for senior Democratic positions.
The inability of qualified minorities to get their feet in the door is “something a lot of people have been sounding alarm bells on for years and nothing has changed,” one former Senate Democratic aide said in an interview. Chalking the problem up to a lack of diverse candidates is “bullshit,” the aide added, given the number of senior African-American and Hispanic aides who have risen in the Obama administration.
Incoming Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he’s prepared to do more. “We all need to do a better job making the Senate a diverse place, and that’s a responsibility I take seriously,” Schumer said in a statement.
Some minority-employment advocates, including the bipartisan Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, have coalesced behind legislation creating a chief diversity officer for the Senate that Schumer is still weighing whether to endorse. The SBLSC’s president, Democratic associate counsel Don Bell, said his group wants to tackle diversity as an “institutional issue” rather than a partisan one and has also reached out to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office.
But it’s Democrats, not Republicans, who bear the brunt of the increasingly vocal push for change from both former aides on K Street and civil rights groups. Clinton had enlisted multiple advisers of color in her transition preparations before her Election Day loss, stoking fears that diversity-hiring progress nurtured by Obama could be lost under Trump.
So far, Trump’s team has not announced any similar plans to prioritize diversity as they fill thousands of appointed positions in the executive branch.
“The problem is quite pronounced, and frankly, people need to be called out for it,” another ex-Senate Democratic staffer said, calling it “embarrassing” that only two Latinas, and one African-American, hold senior staff positions. In fact, no statistics are completely up-to-date because offices are not required to report on staff diversity.
Sens.-elect Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), the chamber’s first Latina, and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), will carry high expectations on diversity next year given the ethnic makeup of their states. The U.S. is about 13 percent African-American, but Harris — born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother — will be the Senate’s third black member, alongside Scott and Booker.
“Progress in the Senate has always been slow, but increasing diversity among Senate staff demands urgency and attention — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because more ideas and perspectives at the table change the conversation and lead to better solutions to our nation’s most pressing challenges,” Booker said in a statement.
Hispanics are the largest minority group in the nation, comprising an estimated 17 percent of the population, but Cortez Masto will take Reid’s seat next year as only the fourth in the chamber, alongside Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
And when Cortez Masto tapped two Hispanic men in her initial rollout of seven senior staffers, immigration activist and Bernie Sanders adviser Erika Andiola took notice. “Oh, look at all those Latinas she hired in her senior staff! A grand total of … 0,” Andiola, who now works for Sanders’ Our Revolution group, posted on Facebook.
Rey Benitez, who will be Cortez Masto’s communications director next year, credits Reid’s diversity initiative with helping him navigate the Hill job-searching process and hailed Reid for building a staff that reflects the ethnic diversity of Nevada.
“There is much to be done” to build on what Reid’s office has done to shape a Senate staff more representative of the nation, said Benitez, now Hispanic media adviser to the departing Democratic leader. However, he praised “the progress we’ve made” given that “in the actual governing body, we still don’t have much diversity.”
Benitez said Cortez Masto’s future staffing announcements would include diverse hires.
Harris’ office has yet to announce hires beyond her incoming chief of staff, but signaled her focus on the issue by naming minorities as two of her three Senate transition co-chairs. And Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a disabled veteran raised by a Thai-Chinese mother and American father, will bring her own unique background to the diversity-hiring push when she joins the Senate next year.
“Diversity of background, experience and physical ability among the public servants in Congress is critical to effectively representing the entire nation and addressing the concerns of all Americans,” Duckworth spokesman Ben Garmisa said by email.
Schumer showed his commitment to expanding minority hiring by attending a June retreat of former and current staffers working on the issue. His office has several options on the table, including a proposed Senate Democratic version of the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule” requiring interviews of diverse candidates for senior jobs without an enforced mandate to hire them.
The draft bill creating a chief diversity officer, however, also would require offices to report their hiring statistics — shining a potentially critical light on minorities’ problems breaking into the exclusive and elite Senate. One current Senate Democratic aide working on the diversity effort said Schumer’s office has privately supported the idea that statistics on minority hiring be made available to lawmakers and the public.
A senior aide to one Democratic senator said that “the idea has merit” but questioned the wisdom of pitching the diversity legislation while the party remains in the minority. “We need to get our own house in order,” the chief of staff said. “To turn it into a political football is to debase the bill.”
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