Hill Offices Seek Progress in Diversity

Posted February 26, 2010 at 5:36pm

Nkenge Harmon found out about her first job on Capitol Hill the way most staffers do: She knew someone.

But Harmon is in some ways an exception to the networking rule. She’s the only African-American communications director in a Senate that is predominantly white. And she works in the office of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), which reflects far more diversity than most Member offices.

The office’s makeup — which includes an Asian press secretary and a Hispanic chief of staff — was an “organic” phenomenon, Harmon said in a recent interview.

“Diversity begets diversity,” she said. But she added that even she needs to take the time to branch out beyond her immediate contacts. “It’s difficult to find time to read all my clips in the morning, let alone reach beyond my contacts. … But it’s important that we do.”

It’s no secret that Congress has a dismal record when it comes to diversity. A 2009 internal survey found that 87 percent of chiefs of staff in the House were white, an improvement of just 2.5 percent since 2003. The Senate’s statistics are harder to find, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was so disturbed by the white tableau of Senate staffers that he created a diversity office in 2007.

Staffers are now getting more organized in demanding diversity. Absent a formal program in the House, minority staff associations have begun to collect résumés, meet with would-be staffers and organize panel discussions. Last week, the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association held its first “State of Diversity on the Hill Address,” highlighting the low numbers of Hispanics in the House and Senate. Latinos, they found, represented only 1.9 percent of top Senate staffers. In the House, 5.6 percent of all staffers are Latino.

But their tone is optimistic. More minority staffers are making their way to the Hill, and Congressional leaders seem eager to create diversity programs. The problem lies in implementation: House and Senate leaders can’t mandate Members to hire a certain percentage of minorities, and they instead have to convince them to put in the extra legwork.

Cyrus Mehri, the general counsel of Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that promotes minority hiring, believes that forcing minority hires can be detrimental. He helped implement the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires every team to interview at least one minority when hiring coaches and general managers. The result, he said, is that teams choose the best candidate — and many of those choices end up being minorities.

“If you focus too much on the outcome, you’re going to have a backlash,” he told staffers at Thursday’s diversity briefing. The key, he added, is working with candidates on résumés and interviewing skills. “You need to have that informational loop to make it a success.”

Amanda Renteria, Stabenow’s chief of staff, agrees that information is key. The only Hispanic chief of staff in the Senate, she began far from the halls of Congress. The daughter of Mexican-American parents, she grew up in rural California in a household that never discussed politics. Capitol Hill wasn’t even a known possibility.

“You don’t even know these jobs exist, and then you don’t even know how to get there,” Renteria said. “And then you get here and now what do you do?”

Renteria said that she’s seen an increase in the availability of information, where eager staffers can get advice on how to get a job and what education to pursue. Staffer associations, she said, are “building an agenda.”

“I think they’re getting there. For the most part, it’s very much you got to figure it out yourself,” she said. “Now at least there are discussions and panels and places to go to.”

But she said Stabenow’s office is so diverse — in ethnicity, as well as background and views — because of the importance placed on having unique voices. She said she tries to focus on someone’s skills, not on whether she shares common interests or background.

“Some people ask the question, ‘How do they fit?’ and others ask the question, ‘How will they make us grow?'” she said.

Officials in Reid’s diversity office are trying to encourage Member offices to seek such diversity in their pools of applicants, basing their tactics loosely on the NFL’s Rooney Rule. Sinceri Guerrero, Reid’s human resources manager, keeps a database of hundreds of résumés and hands over those of relevant candidates to offices with vacant positions.

“We just wanted them to get accustomed to looking at the résumés of people who are diverse,” she said at the CHSA’s briefing, later adding: “I can say that we’ve opened the door.”

Officials from the CHSA, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, the Congressional Black Associates and the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association all say they want to offer Members options, not forced rules. But they also want Congress to dedicate the resources for organized programs, rather than rely on their volunteer efforts.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced earlier this year that her office was working on a “broad diversity initiative,” but few details have emerged. Minority staff associations say they are talking to the House Administration Committee. Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said last week that he is working “closely” with Congressional leaders, the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) on a staff diversity program.

Honda’s office is a vision of diversity, with staffers representing 16 unique ethnicities and speaking 13 languages. Spokeswoman Gloria Chan, a Chinese-American, said the office strives to reflect the diversity of Honda’s district. Honda, she said, would like the House to have a program that educates Members, not just staffers.

“What he’d like to see is a commitment on involving offices on a Member level, to make sure that there’s leadership in the office and that Members know why diversity is important,” Chan said. “It’s a matter of placement and having a pipeline and having a resource there for Members.”