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Maria Meier Leads Drive for Staff Diversity

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call
Maria Meier was recently hired by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to lead Senate Democrats’ diversity hiring initiative.

Meier said she especially wants to reach out to communities that haven’t historically been engaged in politics and government, such as first-generation Americans who don’t innately see government work as an option. With community organizations, internship programs and the Tri-Caucus, she said, she will try to bring new faces to the Hill.

“Their commitment is there, the desire is there, they just don’t have the existing networks to even know where to start,” she said.

The initiative’s next step, she said, is strengthening minority retention with brown-bag lunches and career development seminars for existing minority staffers.

“They need some career advice and the networking opportunities so that they get the right sort of skills and understand what it takes to eventually move up and be placed in senior level positions,” Meier said.

The end result, she said, should be more minority staffers in high-ranking positions, where they can make decisions to hire minority employees themselves.

“Who knows?” Meier said. “One of these staff assistants we have walking in the door may be a Senator one day.”

But if there is a pipeline to the top, it’s not evident in the current demographics of the Senate.

The chamber lost its only African-American Member last year with the departure of Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.). In an interview, Burris said the lack of African-Americans in the Senate and among the staff makes it all the more difficult to address the black community’s needs.

“Black Americans are not represented in the most deliberative and the most important body in the country,” Burris said. “And when I left, most of my black staff people, a lot of them have not been able to get jobs with any other Senators.”

The Senate has two Asian Americans, both Hawaii Democrats, and two Hispanic Americans, one of whom is a Republican. There is no comparable diversity program on the GOP side of the aisle, but that Republican, Cuban-born Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), just hired a Hispanic chief of staff. Still, Rubio said he does not specifically seek diversity in the hiring process.

“I think you always hire the best people and you cast as wide a net as possible, and you stay open-minded about who the best candidates are,” he said. “I’ve always felt that’s the best policy that will ultimately lead you to diversity.”

The House has 79 Members that identify as part of minority groups.

House Democrats unveiled a minority résumé bank last year but did so two weeks before ceding the majority to Republicans. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hasn’t addressed the issue as his predecessor did; the website for the résumé bank still has a quote from former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) across the top.

But a spokeswoman for House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren said the Californian Republican’s staff will meet with Democratic staff in the coming weeks to assess the status of the program.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been slightly delayed due to our increasing focus on enhancing security measures and awareness since the tragic shooting in Tucson,” Salley Wood said.

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