Senate Democrats Pressed on Poor Diversity in Hiring

Elana Schor, Politico, May 9, 2017

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto

Senate Democrats are making headway toward fixing their staff diversity problem — and one of their own is looking to lead by example by publicly reporting the demographics of her payroll.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the chamber’s first Latina, opened her books to Politico as the caucus works to rectify the meager number of minorities in senior staff positions. The Nevada lawmaker is also hosting meetings with aides who are women of color about strategies to ensure Democrats’ offices look more like the diverse base of their party, starting with Latinas, and is planning talks with African-American and Asian-American staffers.

Democrats, Cortez Masto said in an interview, should make diversity a watchword not just in the hiring of senior staff but “in our committee makeup” and “in thinking, when we are bringing folks in to intern, about how to keep that diversity going.”

Minorities hold six of the 16 senior staff positions in the senator’s office, and 20 of 38 staff positions overall, according to her office. Five Asian-American, three African-American and 12 Hispanic aides are part of an overall staff that’s also majority-female, including in the senior ranks.

Critics who had decried the Senate Democrats’ overwhelmingly white payroll as the year began are crediting incoming Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for prioritizing diversity. Schumer in February offered new minority hiring rules that beef up the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative created by his predecessor, former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Discussions also are ongoing about minority hiring reports that could be similar to Cortez Masto’s proactive effort.

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The moves can’t come too soon for the civil rights advocates and K Street consultants who have prodded Senate Democrats to do better — particularly given that two of their GOP counterparts, Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, employ African-American chiefs of staff. Democratic Sens.

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Cortez Masto’s move to release hiring statistics and meet staffers of color is “heartening, for sure,” said Don Bell, director of the Black Talent Initiative at the nonprofit Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “Everything starts at the top, especially in the Senate, so having members be thoughtful and engage people is really significant.”

Scott also lauded Democrats for adopting a modified version of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, designed to give minority applicants a way into the interviewing process for senior openings.

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The Joint Center helped galvanize the Democratic diversity debate in 2015 with a staff demographics report that found racial and ethnic minorities occupied 7 percent of senior Senate staff posts, even as they represent grew to compose a record 31 percent of the U.S. electorate in 2016.

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Senate Democrats have yet to formally agree to publish caucus-wide staff diversity statistics. But diversity-hiring advocates are still working behind the scenes to settle on a framework for that disclosure.

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“Every time I meet a young Latina, I know they’re thinking, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too,’” Cortez Masto said in an interview. “That’s what this is about.”

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