Sara Ganim, CNN, March 27, 2108
Three high-ranking Interior officials from three different divisions said that Zinke has made several comments with a similar theme, saying “diversity isn’t important,” or “I don’t care about diversity,” or “I don’t really think that’s important anymore.”
Each time, Zinke followed with something along the lines of, “what’s important is having the right person for the right job,” or “I care about excellence, and I’m going to get the best people, and you’ll find we have the most diverse group anyone’s ever had,” the sources said.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift vehemently denied that Zinke said anything along those lines of criticizing the need for diversity, saying, “the anonymous claims made against the secretary are untrue.”
But Zinke’s alleged comments were particularly surprising to those who feel the agency has struggled to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.
In a hallway meet-and-greet shortly after Zinke was confirmed, one staffer told CNN that Zinke was asked about diversity at Interior, a department with about 68,000 employees, of which more than 70 percent are white, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
“(Zinke) flat out said, ‘I don’t really think that’s important anymore. We don’t need to focus on that anymore.’ He obviously needed someone to provide him with better talking points,” the staffer said.
A third person, someone who is a minority in a leadership position in the department, said he heard a similar comment during a management meeting.
“That told me everything I needed to know,” the person said. “It’s a hard business as it is, and then not to be respected or appreciated for the diverse perspective that you bring to the situation — and that’s why it’s important in my opinion. It’s the fact that we don’t look at things the same way. When we have conversations about public lands and how they’re used, we cannot afford to have a small percentage of people making those decisions.”
A CNN comparison with senior executive staff levels made available by the Office of Personnel Management show that a disproportionate number of those moved were racial minorities.
Only 28% of the 235 senior leaders at Interior self-report as minorities, but more than 40% of the 33 people who were moved in June without warning were non-white, based on the numbers provided by Atkinson.
The officials who spoke to CNN about Zinke’s comments worry the reassignments may be a sign that what he said wasn’t just a talking point.
“If you look at the actions he’s taken, they are unbalanced in regards to minorities and women,” said the minority manager who was upset by Zinke’s diversity comment. “If you look at the people who were moved and you look at their race or gender, it’s very obvious that this is a person that does not embrace the concept of diversity.”