Wanted: More minority hires on Capitol Hill

During the last 12 years, Republicans kept a close eye on K Street, watching to see that the best jobs went to people who shared their political philosophy and would write campaign checks accordingly.

Now, as Democrats prepare to take over Congress, it is K Street, or at least a small part of it, that is monitoring the hiring practices of Capitol Hill. About 50 minority lobbyists are working as an informal placement agency and aim to address the longstanding dearth of minorities in key Hill jobs.

The group wants to match qualified minority professionals who typically don’t travel in political circles with openings for senior counsels, legislative directors, chiefs of staff or other top positions. For example, a banking lobbyist, with contacts in both the political and traditional business worlds, may know a top banking attorney a member of Congress wouldn’t.

“We’re not talking about people being racist,” says Paul Thornell, a former legislative liaison for Vice President Al Gore’s office who now lobbies for the United Way of America. “I think the hiring system is broken.”

The group has delivered more than 100 resumes to members, including more than 20 to incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office. But participants say they don’t expect a specific number of minorities to be hired as a result of their effort.

Mike Williams, a vice president at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association who along with Thornell and BellSouth lobbyist Broderick Johnson has led the effort, equates it with the National Football League’s hiring policy. When a head coaching position opens, owners must demonstrate that they considered minority candidates in the process. There is no requirement that those candidates be hired, however. 

The group, which doesn’t have a name, began three years ago with roughly a dozen former Clinton administration staffers who set out to try to help create a Congress — as the former president said about his original Cabinet — that “looks like America” at least on the staff level.

“We’re just trying to get people jobs,” Williams said. “We have no other agenda.”

Each member of the group collected resumes from people he or she knew and passed them along to Capitol Hill.

Unlike the Republican K Street Project, however, the lobbyists have little power to effect change or punish by including a change to tax law that would impact the industries, for instance. But the group has reached out to like-minded members of Congress who do wield power to boost minority hiring.

Lobbyists involved in the minority-placement effort discussed strategy during a conference call Nov. 16. That day, the powerful Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) wrote a letter to Pelosi and Democratic Steering and Policy Committee Co-Chairs Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) to say the caucus had been “extremely disappointed” in the number of minorities committees have hired. CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) led the effort to send the letter.

Committee jobs are among the most prestigious on Capitol Hill. With the Democratic takeover, Democrats have increased their numbers on panels and are set to hire many more committee staff members.

The CBC called on Democratic leaders to make a “commitment to hiring and maintaining diverse staffs,” a key criterion when considering members for committee posts.

“The test is going to be whether over the next several weeks and months the senior staff in leadership offices, member personnel offices and on committees look like America,” said an aide to a CBC member. “I don’t think it’s acceptable that some of these leadership offices have one or two people of color; it should be beyond that. I actually think it’s quite embarrassing.”

The letter comes at a time when some tension has flared between Pelosi and the CBC. Pelosi recently passed over prominent black Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) to chair the House Intelligence Committee, disappointing the CBC, which had lobbied heavily for his selection.

Lobbyists point to a June article in DiversityInc that reports that people of color account for only 7.6 percent of the approximately 1,000 senior Senate staff jobs. A separate DiversityInc study of hiring in 50 large corporations found that people of color make up 24 percent of management. The article includes a photograph taken during the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Samuel Alito. Some of the questioning focused on Alito’s position on affirmative action, but the photograph is filled with white faces.

Williams and Thornell, both Democrats, say their efforts are bipartisan. But the Democratic takeover of Congress has created hundreds of openings on the Democratic side of the aisle. A Senate office, for example, employs around 50 people, and there are 10 new members of the Senate all looking to fill staff.

In addition, House Democrats will have two-thirds of the staff on committees versus the one-third they held in the minority.

“For Democrats, there is a very clear opportunity to put a strategy in place to create change and increase the number of people of color in senior positions,” Thornell said.

The lobbyists involved in the project say pre-existing relationships that tend to favor white candidates is one reason for the lack of diversity among key staff.

“Everybody in this town gets hooked up,” said one lobbyist involved in the effort who asked to remain anonymous because she hadn’t been authorized to talk to the media.

“The Hill logic says you hire from within. You start as an intern and you work your way up,” Williams said. But often minority students can’t afford “to come to Washington for the summer and work for free.”

New members who need to get up to speed on the ways of Washington in a matter of weeks often simply turn to familiar faces to fill top slots. The lobbying push is designed to put qualified minority candidates at members’ fingertips. And by increasing the number of minority staffers, the lobbyists also hope to eventually correct another disparity: the lack of minorities on K Street.