“You’d be surprised at how many Deltas work on Capitol Hill today,” says Rep. Marcia L. Fudge.
The sorority has been a through line of the Ohio Democrat’s career. She first came to Washington in 1999, as a favor to her friend and Delta sister Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who had just been elected to Congress.
Now Fudge holds the same seat as her former boss and has served in the House for more than a decade. That wasn’t the plan, but it seemed like the best way to honor Tubbs Jones, who died suddenly in 2008 after suffering a brain aneurysm.
When she looks back to her days as a staffer, Fudge sees a few things that haven’t changed since then. For one, she says, “there are many, many qualified people of color who never get an opportunity outside of offices of people of color.” As for her Delta Sigma Theta network, it is going strong, and now includes six other sitting House members. “We have very, very strong bonds,” she says.
Q: How did you come to work for Tubbs Jones?
A: I actually worked with her before she came to Congress. When she was the [Cuyahoga County] prosecutor, I worked as her finance director.
I was like, “I don’t want to go to Washington,” but because we had been friends for a very long time, I said, “Look, I will come and I’ll help get your office set up.” That turned into being her chief of staff for a year.
Q: How did she convince you to come along, other than the bond of friendship?
A: [Laughs.] That was what she used, the bond of our friendship. It was like, “I got this orientation, someone needs to go with me, will you just go with me?” And I said yes. You know, that’s what friends do.
Q: She was the first African American woman elected to the House from Ohio. What was that like for you as a staffer?
A: She had gone through a fairly rigorous process within our community to be selected as the person we wanted to replace [former Rep.] Lou Stokes, who was a legend in his own right.
I helped her staff the office, found housing, all of the things that you do when you come in for the first time. She was the only Black person in her class — as was I, when I [later got elected].
We knew that there were not large numbers of us, but never thought about it in a staffing way, because we came in and found staff and got up and running very quickly.
I’m certainly not happy as I look at where we are now, knowing that we have such a large representation of people of color in the House — not certainly as many in the Senate as I would like — but with the numbers we have in the House, you would think our overall numbers in the House for hiring of minorities would be better.
Q: Do they reflect the districts they’re representing?
A: Not necessarily. But I don’t know that that’s the standard by which we should be judging who you hire. Certainly you want people from your district, people who are comfortable with your district. But so many people of color never even get an opportunity to interview in offices that are not minority-run offices.
Q: How do we improve those opportunities?
A: This term, we now have an Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the House. [There’s] a list of people of color who have particular skill sets, kind of like an employment bank. We put it in place, but to me, it still seems to be business as usual. I don’t know that it’s been very effective.
Q: What’s some advice you hear Hill staffers get that’s actually not very helpful?
A: I don’t give any unhelpful advice. [Laughs.]
Let me say two things that I very much pride myself on. I’m a tough boss. Especially as I take young, inexperienced people, and even some who are mid-range, I try to prepare them for their next job. I try to make them stronger at what they do. I try to give them a well-rounded experience, because I always want somebody to say, “Where did you come from? Who trained you?” I take great pride in that.
When I know my staff is at a point where they want to go someplace else, I help them. You see, it’s much easier for me to call another member and say, “I’ve got a person who is applying for your job,” than it is for them to do it themselves. And I don’t hesitate to do it, to call my colleagues and say, “Give them a shot.” I do it quite often, actually, even for people who are not on my staff.
Q: Sometimes you hear the clichés of “Oh, you just gotta work hard,” or “You just gotta network.”
A: I think that everybody on Capitol Hill, especially people of color, they need an advocate. They need a mentor, because in our environment, it is very difficult to get into arenas where you don’t know anyone. Oftentimes, in these offices that have no minority employees, you don’t know anyone in that office. So you never get an opportunity to get your foot in the door.
I always say to them, “You need an advocate or a mentor, but you also need a network.” You need to work with other staffers when you get the opportunity. But you know the Hill as well as I do. It’s a very cliquish, very closed environment.
Q. When you worked for Tubbs Jones, what was something you made a habit of doing each day?
A: Neither of us had ever been in Washington. So I made it a point to know every single person that I possibly could, whether it was the person who cleaned my office or the person who I needed to talk to about legislation. One of the first people I met was Judy Schneider, who just retired recently [from the Congressional Research Service]. I went there and said, “How does this work? Explain this to me.”
She was just outstanding. She became a mentor for me. And when I came back as a member, 10 years later, the first person I called was Judy.
Q: When the congresswoman died, how did you decide to come back to Washington?
A: First off, it just caught us so off guard, because it was so sudden. Within a week or two after her death, people were coming to me, asking me to run. I came to the conclusion that if there was someone she would have wanted to take her place, it would have been me. I wanted to be sure I could preserve her legacy.
Q: You joined a sorority in college, Delta Sigma Theta. Does that still help you build community in Congress?
A: Oh, it’s been a tremendous help. I mean, that’s how Stephanie and I met, actually, was through the sorority.
When we first came to Congress, so many people welcomed me who were members of the organization. At the time, [then-Rep.] Carrie Meek was there, but there were people all over the Hill. Alexis Herman’s a Delta. We’re headquartered in D.C., and we’re very active civically and involved in social justice, so there was always a network for us in Washington.
Now there are seven Delta members in Congress — you got myself, Joyce Beatty, Stacey Plaskett, Brenda Lawrence, Val Demings, Lucy McBath, Yvette Clarke.
Q: Staffers too?
A: Yes, absolutely. You’d be surprised at how many Deltas work on Capitol Hill today. The clerk of the House, Cheryl Johnson, is a Delta. And I can just go on and on.
In black sororities and fraternities, they have lifetime commitments that we make, so we continue long after our collegiate days are over with acts of involvement. We have very, very strong bonds. You never go anyplace where you can’t meet a Delta.
I don’t care where I go in this country, I’m going to meet a Delta, or I can call and say, “Look, I’m going to be there, I need y’all to come out and help.” And they do.
If you remember when President Obama had nominated Loretta Lynch [for attorney general], they were getting ready to do the hearing. They had held her out for so long. That day, we flooded the entire Senate hearing room with ladies in red, basically in every seat. That was Delta Sigma Theta. We wanted them to know what kind of support she had.
When Lynch walked in the room, I’m sure she was as surprised as anyone else. And the senators were like, “Who are these people?”
We work diligently to bring young people into the system, especially young women — because we had an opportunity, and we want to make sure we give them an opportunity too.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.