The much-publicized diversity of the House Democratic Caucus in the 116th Congress goes deeper than the lawmakers; it extends to the staff.
Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, a New Yorker in his fourth term and in his first top leadership post, has assembled an eight-member supporting cast of five women, including three who are black and one who’s Hispanic, and three men, including one who’s black and one who’s Hispanic.
Sandra Alcala is the caucus’ director of member services. Alcala, 39, is a third-generation Mexican American from San Antonio, Texas, who started out as a researcher in neuroscience but switched to policy work in 2010 after eight months as a National Science Foundation fellow sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
“I’m very happy the chairman made this a priority, that we have one of the most diverse caucuses that we’ve ever had and we have a support system and staff that reflects that diversity,” Alcala says. “Being a part of this transformative Congress is really exciting.”
By now the statistics are well known: Among the 239 members of the House Democratic Caucus, there are 91 women, 54 black people, 34 Hispanics, 15 Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, and two Native Americans. (Those numbers include delegates, and some members identify with multiple groups.)
Jeffries celebrated this when he announced the caucus staff this spring. “The diversity of experience and background of our new senior team reflects the gorgeous mosaic of the Democratic Caucus and will deliver the resources and expertise needed for each of our members,” he said.
Leading the team is Gideon Bragin, a former teacher who started as an aide to House Democrats in 2009 after earning a master’s degree in public policy at Johns Hopkins University. He moved to the Senate side in 2011, first as a policy adviser to Democratic leaders and later as an aide to Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown.
Alcala, the member services director, joined the team after two years as policy director for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Before that she spent more than four years as a legislative assistant to Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, who took a chance on hiring a neuroscientist with no previous experience in the legislative arena.
“I was speaking at a conference on STEM fields and he was giving opening remarks,” Alcala says, “and I introduced myself.”
Her path to Capitol Hill was an unusual one. No one in her family had gone to college, let alone pursued a doctoral degree, Alcala says. “I didn’t even know what a PhD was and what it entailed,” she says. But after graduating from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Alcala decided she wanted to research health problems, particularly psychiatric disorders. “As an undergrad I learned the scientists are the ones who develop drugs to treat disease and I wanted to be a part of that process,” she says.
During her six years studying neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, Alcala noticed there weren’t many people of color, “and a lot of the students that were minorities struggled, because they didn’t come from a background that allowed them to become successful.”
The concerns prompted an interest in policymaking and led to her fellowship at the National Science Foundation, sponsored by the Hispanic Caucus Institute. “I saw at NSF that they were already implementing policy that passed in Congress and another way to make a change was to actually come and work in Congress,” Alcala says.
Was it difficult to make the jump from science to policy work?
“In terms of the process of working with members, you have to get things out very quickly,” Alcala says. “And for me that was difficult because I’m very methodical. But I learned that when the congressman was going on TV, you needed to give him talking points very quickly — and concisely.”