Push for Staff Diversity Flies in Senate, Stalls in House

Opening doors: Maria Meier directs the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative.
National Journal
Julia Edwards
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Julia Edwards
Oct. 9, 2012, 4 p.m.

COR­REC­TION: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this story mis­stated the title for Sal­ley Wood. Wood was former deputy staff dir­ect­or for the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity on the Com­mit­tee on House Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Hav­ing served on both sides of the re­volving Hill-to-K-Street door, Paul Brath­waite knew that the lack of di­versity among con­gres­sion­al staffers was leav­ing the hir­ing pool for minor­ity lob­by­ists dry. So in 2006, he teamed up with more than 50 black staffers-turned-lob­by­ists who had de­cided that their path to the Hill as minor­it­ies was still too nar­row, and they should do something to widen it.

“The tal­ent pool you are pulling from is too small,” said Brath­waite, a former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus and now a lob­by­ist at the Podesta Group. “Es­pe­cially when many people of col­or and wo­men don’t get the op­por­tun­ity to be in seni­or po­s­i­tions, in con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship of­fices, or staff dir­ect­ors on the key con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees.”

But six years later, Brath­waite and oth­ers from his group think there are still too few minor­it­ies work­ing in con­gres­sion­al of­fices, es­pe­cially at seni­or po­s­i­tions, and they blame House Demo­crats primar­ily for not do­ing enough. Of the 288 top staffers for House and Sen­ate lead­ers and con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees pro­filed in Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s 2011 Hill People re­port who provided their race when asked, 93 per­cent were white.

Mem­bers of Brath­waite’s group began meet­ing about the is­sue, and about 15 of them de­cided to take the mat­ter to Demo­crat­ic con­gres­sion­al lead­ers to see what could be done. The group held more than a dozen meet­ings throughout 2006 and in­to 2007 with staff mem­bers for Harry Re­id and Nancy Pelosi — who be­came Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er and House speak­er, re­spect­ively, in 2007 — as well as with then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. Mem­bers of Brath­waite’s group first sug­ges­ted that of­fices in­ter­view at least one minor­ity can­did­ate for each open po­s­i­tion, a policy the NFL uses when hir­ing coaches. But that plan was shot down by each group they met with.

Brath­waite’s group re­peatedly heard chiefs of staff ex­plain that there were simply too few minor­it­ies ap­ply­ing for the po­s­i­tions they were seek­ing to fill. They didn’t have time to track down those who didn’t know to ap­ply, and pub­lish­ing open­ings on­line would lead to a de­luge of ap­plic­a­tions. One of the people voicing this com­plaint was Re­id’s deputy chief of staff, Dav­id Mc­Cal­lum.

“In a lot of of­fices, for bet­ter or worse, the ex­ist­ing pipelines were set up in a way that résumés came in through ex­ist­ing staff, former staff, friends, and sup­port­ers in the home state. The ma­jor­ity of those re­sumes that ended up on the desks of people like me didn’t have that much di­versity in them,” Mc­Cal­lum said.

Six months after the talks began, Re­id in 2007 cre­ated a new seni­or po­s­i­tion ded­ic­ated to track­ing down qual­i­fied minor­it­ies in­ter­ested in work­ing on the Hill. The aide was charged with dir­ect­ing a new pro­gram known as the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Di­versity Ini­ti­at­ive and re­cruit­ing qual­i­fied minor­ity ap­plic­ants for po­s­i­tions in Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate of­fices, in­clud­ing not just non­whites, but also wo­men, vet­er­ans, LGBT, dis­abled, or re­li­gious minor­it­ies. The newly cre­ated post was first filled by Mar­tina Brad­ford, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, who handed it off to Maria Mei­er, a Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an, in March of 2011. Today, Mei­er re­cruits ap­plic­ants, works with them on their résumés, and then sends résumés suit­able for open po­s­i­tions to Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic of­fices that re­quest a minor­ity ap­plic­ant to con­sider.  

“The idea is, be­cause of our on­go­ing out­reach and the groups we work with, we are go­ing to have a pool of can­did­ates that of­fices might not or­din­ar­ily see if they are us­ing their ex­ist­ing net­works,” Mei­er told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily.

When Mei­er came on board, Re­id in­tro­duced her to Sen­ate Demo­crats at a caucus lunch and in­struc­ted them to use her as a re­source when hir­ing. Over its five years of ex­ist­ence, the Di­versity Ini­ti­at­ive has re­cruited more than 700 can­did­ates and filled more than 200 jobs in Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic of­fices. Ninety per­cent of all in­di­vidu­al Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors’ of­fices and 60 per­cent of all Sen­ate com­mit­tees have now hired at least one staffer through the ini­ti­at­ive. Mei­er es­tim­ates that about 80 per­cent of the ap­plic­ants she works with come from minor­ity staff as­so­ci­ation re­fer­rals, mean­ing they are ra­cially di­verse, and few­er come from Muslim, LGBT, or wo­men’s staff as­so­ci­ations.

House Demo­crats did not ad­opt the same ap­proach. In April 2010, four years after her staff’s meet­ings with Brath­waite’s group, Pelosi an­nounced the launch of an on­line House minor­ity résumé bank like Re­id’s, only it was to be man­aged by the Com­mit­tee on House Ad­min­is­tra­tion. But in Decem­ber of that year, the site was still not func­tion­ing des­pite pleas from minor­ity staff as­so­ci­ations. Pelosi and then-Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Brady, D-Pa, handed the re­spons­ib­il­ity of the web­site and résumé bank over to Re­pub­lic­ans when the House changed power.

Now, both sides of the com­mit­tee blame the oth­er for drop­ping the ball, while any résumés sub­mit­ted to the site, which was launched without a mon­it­or, re­main un­touched.  

“We hope the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship will see the value of con­tinu­ing the di­versity ini­ti­at­ive and re­vive the site we have left them,” said Greg Ab­bott, spokes­man for the Demo­crat­ic staff of the Com­mit­tee on House Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Sal­ley Wood, former deputy staff dir­ect­or for the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity on the com­mit­tee, said Demo­crats nev­er asked or en­abled her staff to use the site they de­veloped.

“They launched the site and have ex­clus­ive ac­cess and con­trol of it and the résumés sub­mit­ted,” Wood said. “If the site isn’t be­ing used, and only they would know, then it’s be­cause they aren’t pro­mot­ing it or mon­it­or­ing it any­more.”

Pelosi spokes­man Drew Ham­mill said Pelosi should not be held re­spons­ible for the fail­ure of the site. “We were hope­ful that hous­ing [the site] with­in the Com­mit­tee on House Ad­min­is­tra­tion would al­low the web­site to be­come an in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized part of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives. It also made sense to house it with­in the com­mit­tee as the web­site was de­signed to cov­er le­gis­lat­ive branch agen­cies and the of­ficers of the House,” he said. “Un­for­tu­nately, the House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship has made a de­cision not to keep this web­site a pri­or­ity.”

A key mem­ber of Brath­waite’s group said he doesn’t blame one side or the oth­er of the House Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee for the fail­ure to launch a di­versity ini­ti­at­ive in the House. He blames Pelosi.

“They should have done what Re­id’s of­fice did. There might be some dif­fer­ent com­pon­ents between the Sen­ate and House, but noth­ing too hard to over­come,” said a former Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate staffer and Clin­ton White House of­fi­cial who joined Brath­waite in meet­ings with Pelosi’s staff but asked not to be iden­ti­fied for this story. “You can’t tell me that Pelosi could not have done what Re­id did. Re­id and key seni­or play­ers on his staff de­serve a lot of cred­it for mak­ing it hap­pen.”


This is the second story in a series that in­vest­ig­ates the lack of di­versity among staffers on Cap­it­ol Hill.

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