Push for Staff Diversity Flies in Senate, Stalls in House

Opening doors: Maria Meier directs the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative. (National Journal)

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 inNational 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 article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily