When it comes to minority representation in the U.S. Senate, November’s election looks to be a zero-sum game: If America gets its first black president, it will also lose its only black senator.
But at the staff level, the Senate appears to be growing slightly more diverse.
No one keeps statistics on the racial makeup of Senate staffers, but aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) say an aggressive program he launched a year ago this month has led to the hiring of “many dozens” of minorities — possibly more than worked in the institution in total before.
Aides in Senate offices other than Reid’s independently confirm that minority hiring is significantly on the rise and that Reid’s office is proactive in pushing minority candidates for open jobs.
Since Reid’s initiative began, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has hired a Latina chief of staff, Amanda Renteria, and an African-American communications director, Sharon McGill. Reid himself brought on Leslie Gross-Davis, an African-American, as general counsel of the Democratic Policy Committee. In October, he hired Nkenge Harmon, also an African-American, as a senior press adviser with a focus on minority communities. Jacques Purvis, another African-American staffer, was promoted from the cloakroom to a higher position under Reid.
Nicole Morse, an African-American, left the office of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) for the higher-level position of office manager for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) recently brought on Luis Navarro, a Latino, as chief of staff. Navarro had run Biden’s presidential campaign.
“We’re sort of at the beginning stages, where you don’t quite see it in masses, but you see it being rewarded,” said Renteria. “I get introduced to senators here and there, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, yes, we’ve heard about the diversity in your office.’ We’re just at the beginning, where we’re starting to have examples to talk about.”
Reid — a Mormon from Searchlight, Nev. — may seem an unlikely figure to have taken up the cause.
“When I went to high school, there were a few blacks — very, very few,” he said. “One of my good friends that I developed a friendship with was a star on the football team.”
Reid said he grew concerned about diversity in the workplace during the 1970s, when he was Nevada’s lieutenant governor and hotel owners were being sued for a lack of diversity.
“You’d walk in, and there were no black faces,” recalled Reid. “We said, ‘We don’t want this litigation to go on. We’re going to agree.’” Nevada negotiated a consent decree, for which Reid takes some credit.
“Under a very complicated formula, blacks had to be hired. We set up a whole procedure,” said Reid.
“You go to Nevada now — tremendous difference, all through the gaming industry. So I don’t think the gaming industry or the resort industry is any different than the United States Senate, and I think that we have an obligation to diversify our work force,” said Reid.
Without a consent decree in his arsenal — and knowing full well that the Senate can be a slow-moving body — Reid created the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative and hired Martina Bradford, a former Senate staffer, to run it for him.
Last June, Reid invited Bradford and David McCallum, a senior aide in Reid’s office, to address a Democratic Caucus policy lunch. The two told Democratic senators that racial diversity in staffing was to become a priority, and that Bradford’s office would be able to provide candidates for any opening.
Senators “didn’t need someone to explain why [building diversity] was important,” McCallum sai. “They all know the value. We just needed help executing.”
Assisted by a full-time mid-level staffer and a revolving squad of interns, Bradford maintains a database of minority candidates and has opened pipelines to historically black colleges as well as to The George Washington and American universities.
Several Senate staffers — including some who were skeptical of the Reid push at first — say they have been surprised to receive from Bradford — unprompted — the résumés of qualified minority candidates.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that actually works,’” said one such staffer.
Reid has also pushed his colleagues to observe a senatorial version of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which mandates that teams interview at least one qualified minority candidate for any top coaching job. Reid’s office wouldn’t provide a list of staffers hired through the program, citing concerns about stigmatizing the minority candidates it has helped. Harmon, Reid’s aide, said a number of minority candidates have been hired outside Reid’s program; Harmon credited Reid’s emphasis on creating an atmosphere conducive to diversity hiring.
Reid’s colleagues have noticed the effort — and the results.
“If you look around the Judiciary Committee, you’ll see a lot of people [of color],” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
The committee’s majority staff has three staff counsels of color, one of them a chief counsel.
Says Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii): “All you have to do is look around. There’s a lot of diversity.”
“A lot” might still be a stretch, staffers say, but it’s all relative. “Certainly there have been a few more faces,” said one top Senate aide who said she has gotten candidates’ résumés from Bradford.
But Bradford acknowledges that it’s a slow process. The Senate, she said, is “such an experience-based place, and most of the jobs require that the candidates have a working knowledge of the institution.”
That makes House staffers attractive to potential Senate employers, Bradford said, noting that the House — with more minority members — is one of her best sources for minority candidates.
To overcome the experience issue, Bradford said she is making a “fairly intense effort” to place minority candidates in entry-level jobs in the Senate, where they can build the institutional familiarity that will prepare them for more senior positions.
“And many of those jobs, those young people have been promoted,” she said.
Darrel Thompson, who’s been working on the diversity issue for Reid for years, credits some of the shift in attitude to a photo taken during the 2006 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Behind the row of senators sits a coterie of staffers — a nearly universal sea of white faces. The photo has been sent around to every Democratic Senate office, and Thompson said he has taken it to Caucus meetings to make a point.
Bradford knows that Thompson keeps the photo behind his desk.
“I think if you took that photo again now, it would look a lot different,” she said.
Not everyone is happy with Reid’s efforts.
One senior GOP aide in the Senate noted that the year is “2008, not 1952,” and said: “It just strikes me as strange that in this country you’d have a database categorizing people by their race. ... People should be hired on the merit of their résumé and the interview and the person’s skills, not what someone does in their personal life or what religion or color they are.”
Harmon countered that the initiative doesn’t give the candidate the job but only opens a door. “We reject the underlying assumptin that people of color, veterans and others that are introduced to the Senate through the Diversity Initiative are not highly qualified. That’s an old smokescreen straight out of the time warp of which [the GOP aide] speaks,” she said.