The Senate is about to become more diverse with a new crop of senators, but staffers who work behind the scenes are clamoring for more diversity in their own ranks.
For current and former staffers, the start of a new Congress is a unique moment to bring varied perspectives to Senate offices where staffers advise their bosses and play a role in shaping policy.
“This is not a Republican problem, this is not a Democratic problem,” said Don Cravins, a former Senate staffer. “This is a Senate issue.”
Cravins is a former chief of staff for Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, and was the only African-American Democratic chief when he left the Senate in 2015.
Before he left, Cravins told his fellow chiefs, “I just hope that when we come back to this group in years to come, the chiefs of staff looks a lot more like the party that we represent”
But not much has changed. The only African-American chief of staff in the Senate works for South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott. Demographic information on Senate staff is also not available — no office collects the data.
In December 2015, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies issued a report on the racial breakdown of senior staffers. Of those 336 top Senate staffers, the report found 24 staffers of color. Twelve were Asian-American, seven were Latino, three were African-American and two were Native-American.
“I think what’s mind-blowing to me is that it’s 2016 and we’re talking about this,” said one senior Senate staffer. If there isn’t diversity, the staffer said, the result is legislation that doesn’t take certain communities into account.
“It’s not that anybody’s racist,” the staffer said. “It’s just that there’s a lack of experience, there’s a lack of knowledge because you don’t have that set of employees sitting at the senior table.”
Change from Within
Some staffers and senators are working to increase diversity within the Senate. The Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus sent a set of recommendations to each Senate office Tuesday.
Senate Democrats have utilized the Senate Diversity Initiative, which runs a résumé bank and assists applicants with writing and interview skills.
Since Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid started the initiative in 2006, more than 2,000 people have used its services, and more than 400 candidates were hired, according to Maria Meier, the initiative’s director.
“We can really take pride in the work we’ve done. But I think we also recognize the limitations,” Meier said. She said that individual offices hire their own staff, so the decentralized nature makes it difficult to enforce policies.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York plans to continue this initiative and also combine it with an ongoing effort by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
Booker said they will work to expand the résumé bank, bring ideas from hiring professionals, and keep the issue “on the front burner.”
“The Senate has not ever really been a leading body when it comes to diversity,” Booker said. “And there’s a lot of inertia that you have to overcome.”
While they have discussed the effort with GOP colleagues, it will focus on Democratic offices.
“We think it should be [bipartisan],” Schatz said. “We thought it best to get our own house in order but we think eventually that this should be a U.S. Senate priority.”
Scott, the only African-American GOP senator, said he was not aware of a bipartisan effort to diversify staff, but added that his office makes it a priority.
“If you can’t find a talented qualified person that diversifies your office, give me a call, I can help you find those people,” Scott said.
Former Senate staffers who are minorities are also organizing to apply pressure.
According to people involved, a few dozen former staffers have been working on a “2044” initiative, which is the year the population is expected to become majority-minority. They have also worked with Schatz and Booker.
Paul Brathwaite, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, said African-American, Asian-American and Latino donors have formed a group to support diverse candidates, and encourage those candidates to hire diverse campaign and legislative staff.
“On one score, I think the Senate Democrats did outstanding,” Brathwaite said, pointing to new senators of color. “I think, on the staffing, it is left to be seen.”
Despite a range of potential solutions, the senior staffer said diversity needs to first be a priority.
“It starts from the top,” the staffer said. “If the senator does not focus on diversity and if the chief does not focus on diversity, you’re not going to have a diverse office.”
Outside pressure could increase with the release of new data in the coming months from the same group that released the senior staff data last year. According to the Joint Center's president Spencer Overton, the group will publish a report on diversity among top House staffers in the coming months, as well as another report on Senate staff diversity in 2017.
The group is also organizing a press call next week with local civil rights groups from the six states that elected new senators to discuss focusing on diversity as those senators look to hire staffers.
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