Jury's Still Out on Approach to Increasing Diversity on the Hill

Brandon Andrews (a staffer for Inhofe) (National Journal)

Brandon Andrews, a former legislative correspondent for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., says the fact he is both black and Republican "gives people a little pause" when they first meet him. He can see why, as African-Americans are more likely to vote for — and apply to work for — Democratic politicians. The overwhelming majority of the members of the minority staff associations on the Hill — including African American Men on the Hill, which Andrews leads — work for Democrats.

But to Andrews, who grew up going to church four days a week and earned a track scholarship to college while he was homeless in high school, the Republican platform is more in line with his values. Andrews said he sometimes grew weary of being the only black member of Inhofe's full-time staff from 2008, when he moved up from intern to full-timer, until he left this fall. But he does not think the solution to the lack of diversity in Capitol Hill offices is simply to instruct members to hire more minorities.

"I would never say that being cognizant of racial diversity is something you shouldn't do, but race should not be the first thing you think about when hiring," Andrews said.

African-American tea party Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., took that thinking a step further.

"We should not just try to fill billets just to say, "˜We've got a black guy,' or "˜We've got a Chinese girl.' I think that that is demeaning to people. I think that people want to be known and recognized for their abilities," West said.

Andrews' and West's comments are common among Republicans, who have long stuck by the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" philosophy that does not advocate special accommodations for one group — as evidenced by the conservative arguments against affirmative action in the Supreme Court last week.

Of the 288 top staffers for House and Senate leaders and congressional committees profiled inNational Journal's 2011 Hill People report who provided their race when asked, 93 percent were white. But in recent history, the GOP has not enacted any initiatives to increase diversity hiring in Capitol Hill offices. On the other hand, Democrats have encouraged their offices to hire more minorities, but their words have sometimes fallen short of action.

Drew Hammill, press secretary for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, when asked for comment on her staff-diversity record, said in an e-mail: "Be it gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, as Leader Pelosi says, "˜the beauty is in the mix.' "

As House speaker in 2010, Pelosi announced plans for an online résumé bank designed to hold the applications of minority candidates who might otherwise not hear about job openings on Capitol Hill. But at the end of her term as speaker, the site was not yet functioning, and she let the responsibility of managing the résumé bank fall to the new Republican majority at the Committee on House Administration. Republicans on the committee said that they were neither trained for nor given access to the site.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid successfully launched a résumé bank in 2007 that is still managed by one of his senior aides. Since the launch of the Senate résumé bank, more than 200 jobs in Senate Democratic offices have gone to minorities, most of them racial minorities. But it has failed to make an impact on positions held by senior-level aides — those most likely to be heard during big discussions like the upcoming debate over sequestration. Out of 53 chiefs of staff who attend meetings with the Senate Democrats, only two are racial minorities, according to David McCallum, Reid's deputy chief of staff.

"If you attend chief-of-staff or staff-director meetings and look around the room, it's pretty obvious there is still much to be done on the diversity front," McCallum said. "The lack of diversity at the very senior levels is something we recognize and seem to struggle with, but the commitment is there. We do hope that we are sowing the seeds in the lower- and mid-level positions so that in time some of those folks might rise to the top."

The largest minority districts in the nation have all elected Democrats, creating further incentive for Democrats to hire minorities who mirror their constituencies. And according to Neal Patel, communications director for Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., many of the social and professional networks that propel minorities to the Hill tend to steer them toward Democratic offices.

Brian Rell, chief of staff for Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said he already receives a "fire hydrant" of applications for any one opening and has no reason to add more to the pile of résumés by reaching out to minorities who do not apply.

"That says no one else's life experience matters, but [race] does," Rell said. "If it's your passion, you'll find a way to the Hill."

Andrews believes the picture is not as simple as either party is making it out to be. He wants to see more qualified people with diverse life experiences make their way to the Hill, but he said the barriers holding them back begin far from Washington.

"Diversity issues will not be fixed by hiring more minorities. There are significant economic barriers that prevent people with diverse backgrounds and experience [from coming here],"  he said. "As I see it, the Hill's diversity issue is an effect. The causes are privileged pathways to the Hill, relatively low pay, and the lack of candidates in a personal and professional network."

Having himself gone from homelessness to the Hill, Andrews thinks that until congressional offices diversify their hiring networks and offer more paid internships, the paths from low-income and minority communities will too rarely lead to the Capitol.

This article appeared in the Wednesday, October 17, 2012 edition of National Journal Daily.