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Politics Mondays: Black Congressional Staffers Are A Minority by Jonathan E. Kaplan


When Tennessee planned last year to eliminate 500,000 people from its Medicaid rolls, the Democratic staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee called Aranthan Jones for advice on how to respond.

Jones, a senior health-policy adviser to Del. Donna Christensen (D-V.I.), has a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University, where his specialty was international health policy.

But there are no black Democratic staffers on the panel, so they called him. Jones is black, and the call apparently was to get the “African-American angle,” Jones said.

“There’s no African-American staffer [on the Energy and Commerce Committee] who could talk about Medicaid and Tennessee,” Jones said. “I appreciate [the call], but at the same time it’s kind of sad.”

Getting a job on the Hill can be as tough as gaining admission to an elite university. But at exclusive colleges, admission is the hardest part. In an age of grade inflation, failing is a challenge.

But on Capitol Hill, black staffers confront additional challenges, starting with disarming co-workers’ assumptions that a black aide speaks for the entire black community.

“Whether on the Hill or in a government agency, the private sector, nonprofits, you’re likely one of a very few, and you have to deal with that,” said Bandele McQueen, a former prosecutor who now works for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

According to Census Bureau data, 12.3 percent of the U.S. population of 281 million is black.

On the Hill, the lack of diversity is more noticeable on the Senate side than on the House side. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is the only African-American senator, while there are 42 black House members.

According to the Congressional Management Foundation, the percentage of Senate staffers who are black rose from 1.5 in 1991 to 3.1 in 2001. It is estimated that today blacks hold fewer than 5 percent of the policy jobs on the Senate side. The foundation’s 2004 report showed that 6.8 percent of D.C.-based House staffers were black.

The states with the highest proportion of blacks are Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland (36, 32, 30, 29 and 28 percent, respectively). In most of those states, Republicans dominate the political establishment. All but Maryland voted for President Bush, only Maryland and Louisiana currently are represented by Senate Democrats (two and one, respectively) and Republicans hold the majority of House seats except in Mississippi and Maryland.

Republicans, like Democrats, hire their supporters from within their party apparatus. If blacks tend to support Democrats — and 88 percent cast ballots for Sen. John Kerry last year — they tend not to move in Republican circles.

Moreover, the heavy concentration of blacks within congressional districts exacerbates the hiring problem.

In Mississippi, for example, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson’s congressional district is 63.5 percent black. In contrast, GOP Rep. Roger Wicker’s district is 21 percent black, GOP Rep. Chip Pickering’s is 33 percent black and Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor’s district is 22 percent black.

In their D.C. offices, Thompson employs six black staffers, Pickering two, Taylor just one and Wicker none.

In 1989, then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, held a hearing about the state of black staffers. Jackie Parker, the informal dean of black staffers on the Hill and legislative director for Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), testified then that blacks held just 64 of the 2,700 policy jobs in the Senate. Her testimony was widely covered in the media, and afterwards black hiring increased dramatically.

Still, black staffers on Capitol Hill can seem invisible on the chamber floors, on C-SPAN during committee hearings or in the hallways. Several black staffers said that when a black tourist sees them in an office or walking the halls, they turn their head in surprise.

LaRochelle Young, a legislative assistant to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), said there few black staffers because politics is perceived as an elite profession.

But “Capitol Hill is not some mythical place,” she said.

Moreover, because politicians hire within their circles of support, people outside the circles have a hard time breaking in.

Parker said in her testimony that “hiring depends largely on an informal network of contacts, [which] can have the same devastating effects as an explicitly discriminatory system since blacks are disproportionately out of the loop.”

Minority hiring can become a potent political issue for lawmakers with presidential aspirations. Former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) and Kerry were criticized for not having black aides in their inner circles.

Parker added in an interview that one way to diversify offices is to ensure a diverse pool of applicants. Diversifying the applicant pool is what takes effort, she said.

She and other staffers said that internships guaranteed future diversity.

“It is critically important to have an internship,” said Darrel Thompson, 33, a senior adviser to Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who started in college as an intern in the Maryland Legislature.

Thompson added that internships provide the “base, core training to become” a legislative assistant or press secretary.

The lack of access to entry-level policy jobs creates its own vicious circle: If blacks can’t start as legislative assistants or press secretaries, they can’t become chiefs of staff. The best lobbyists in town have been chiefs of staff. Without strong ties to K Street, black lawmakers have a harder time raising money to run for office.

But once in the door, other challenges present themselves. Black staffers, more than others, are expected to speak for the black community, which is more diverse than portrayed in pop culture and the media.

“The expectation if you’re African-American is that you are expected to know African-American issues,” Jones said. “You get pigeonholed.”

And more than white staffers, black staffers can face subtle forms of prejudice, such as a lobbyist who might stress a fact about black Americans with a black aide and another set of facts with a white aide.

Danielle Turnipseed, a health-policy adviser to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), said, “Sometimes I wonder if they’re saying that to me or are they sharing that all around?”

Despite the challenges, like everyone else, black staffers just want to do their jobs well.

“We succeed as others do, and fail no more than others,” said Parker.

When he started raising money for a New Mexico special election at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Thompson said Kimberly Parker, now chief of staff to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), said: “‘You have got to raise money for [this congressional] race. Everything else is secondary.”

“‘If you do it, nobody will question you again. If not, everything else you do will be second-guessed,’” she added. Thompson’s fundraising surpassed the original spending goals.

Turnipseed agreed: “I just want to be good at what I do. … Just basically get up and do my job and do it well.”


Johnathan E. Kaplan is a staff reporter for The Hill. He can be contacted at jkaplan@thehill.com. This article was published in The Hill


Jonathan E. Kaplan

Monday, March 21, 2005

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