By Lauren Victoria Burke
(NNPA) – Don Cravins, the National Urban League’s senior vice president for policy, challenged members of the U.S. Senate, particularly the Senate’s 46 Democrats, on the lack of minority hiring in their senior staff positions at a two-hour forum on Capitol Hill.
“Out of 300 senior-level positions in the Senate, only three are occupied by African Americans. What’s most insulting to me is that only one of them works for a Democrat member — a party that goes out every election and relies on Black voters to elect them,” said Cravins, a former Louisiana state senator; Cravins served as Chief of Staff for former-Senator Mary Landrieu for two years. “I’m not happy, today. I’m frustrated and embarrassed and I’ve had enough.”
Cravins added: “The time for lip service is over, we won’t stop pressing this issue.”
About 250 people showed up for the open discussion on congressional hiring, specifically focused on the low numbers of Black and Latino staff in the U.S. Senate.
“We are making it abundantly clear, the time is now,” said Don Bell, who added that Senator Schumer, who became the new Democratic Leader in the Senate when Sen. Harry Reid (D-Ariz.) retired, only has Black staff at non-senior staff levels.
The senior staff positions on Capitol Hill are Chief of Staff, Legislative Director and Communications Director.
“There are nearly 40 general counsels of color standing at the helm of Fortune 500 companies in America. Forty. And yet you’d be hard pressed to find one Black one in the Hart Senate Office Building,” Cravins told the audience of staff, advocates and press. “It’s an embarrassment. It’s a travesty. Something has got to be done.”
Will Searcy, the director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, said that Senate staff dictates that the Senate’s legislative agenda controls the $3.8 trillion dollar federal budget and provides oversight over federal employees — collectively 4.1 million people.
Republican Senator Tim Scott’s Chief of Staff Jennifer DeCasper, the only Black Chief of Staff currently serving in the U.S. Senate, participated in the discussion. The only Black Legislative Director in the Senate, Clint Odom, who was recently hired by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), was in the audience.
The National Urban League and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies have been specific to focus on Black and Latino hiring to senior staff positions in the Senate; Chief of Staff, Legislative Director and Communications Director. The reasons are obvious to Capitol Hill insiders; Senior staffers hire junior staff, control the office budget and handle the most important issues in the office from policy priorities to communications.
The lack of minority hiring and promotion is particularly bad for Senate Democrats, many of whom owe their election victories to Black voters. No Senate Democrat from a state with over 20 percent African American population has an African American in any of the three senior staff positions.
New Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), currently have no Black senior staff members. Additionally, Sen. Van Hollen became the Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in November 2016 and hired no Black senior staff, even though the electorate is becoming increasingly Black and Brown.
“The numbers are worst than they have ever been,” Cravins railed. “We’ve been talking about this issue for decades.”
The issue of Senate staff diversity has been raised several times before in the press and in reports issued by the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association in 2010. Their 2010 report “Unrepresented: A Blueprint for Solving the Diversity Crisis on Capitol Hill,” received media attention, but no measurable hiring changes. The Joint Center’s recent study, “Racial Diversity Among Top Senate Staff,” was released in December.
Ten years ago, in 2007, Politico reported that, when it came to senior staff positions, “the number approached zero” regarding African Americans. Blacks account for roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 0.7 percent of the senior staff members in the U.S. Senate — three people of 300 senior staff jobs. Currently Latinos are 17 percent of the U.S. population, but only 2.3 percent of top staff.
“I find it ironic that many of these politicians didn’t have a problem outreaching to Black and Latino people during the election, but now they need a director to do it, but okay,” Cravins said when speaking on a recently considered diversity position to deal with the hiring issue.
One reason that there has been no change in the numbers over decades is that members of Congress are exempt from labor laws that would prompt a lawsuit in any other sector.
Congress is not required to adhere to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Act of 1972. There’s no legal requirement for Senators to answer to anyone on hiring issues and no requirement to post job vacancies in Congress. Since Congress is also exempt from freedom of information requests, there’s also no requirement to report data on hiring.
Ironically, federal officials that must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate must adhere to such guidelines.