Race Critics: Capitol Hill Is Too White

Friday, 26 Jun 2009 12:20 PM

By Dave Eberhart

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There’s not enough racial diversity among the congressional staff on Capitol Hill and activists want corrective action.

“Given such poor numbers, let’s acknowledge that there is something broken about the process,” said Citigroup lobbyist Paul Thornell, a former aide to Al Gore and former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. He added that there are “few intentional strategies in place to promote minorities.”

According to a report in The Hill newspaper, there are two Senate chiefs of staff who are minorities. In the House, there are but five white lawmakers who have African-American chiefs of staff. Furthermore, only four African-Americans are staff directors of either House or Senate committees.

“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 rare 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.”

The solution, say critics of the status quo: fully embrace the so-called “Rooney rule,” named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney. The rule requires that NFL teams interview at least one minority prospect when filling head coaching jobs.

How to make Capitol Hill less homogeneous has long been a topic of concern.

“I don’t think that's because there is a lack of African-Americans or people of color wanting to work on Capitol Hill,” Paul Brathwaite, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus told Newsday three years ago.

“That is not in question,” he added. The question is if the leadership in these offices, members of Congress and or their chief of staff will reach beyond their natural network and give qualified individuals the opportunity to perform in these positions.”

At that time, the number of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians employed by members of Congress had crept up to roughly 20 percent, according to a study by the Congressional Management Foundation.

Today, some congressional leaders are indeed reaching beyond their natural network.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has a diversity officer to assist Democratic senators with hiring. In 2007 Reid hired Martina Bradford to compile a database of minority staffers to hand out to Senate offices in the hiring mode.

The eventual goal, Bradford told The Hill, is to establish new hiring practices after the Rooney rule model.

“We have ramped up over this two-year period, gone from dealing with a handful of offices to dealing with virtually all the offices,” Bradford told The Hill. “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.”

With the Senate making such progress, can the House of Representatives be far behind?

“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, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a Congressional Black Caucus member said. “I hope that it’s something we replicate.”

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