Elana Schor and Anna Palmer, Politico, December 7, 2016
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”