By Jonathan Allen
As Barack Obama, the most plausible African-American presidential contender in American history, was ramping up his successful Iowa campaign last month, about 20 well-established black lobbyists gathered in Citigroup’s Washington offices to take stock of the complexion of Capitol Hill offices and K Street lobbying shops.
They were there for the quarterly meeting of “The Working Group,” as the network is informally known. While the Democratic takeover of Congress after the 2006 election increased opportunities for minorities in senior-level staff positions on Capitol Hill and at big-player lobbying firms, there’s still not enough progress, according to meeting members.
“The fact is the ranks aren’t nearly where they should be. Part of the problem on both ends is that it’s a very idiosyncratic process that gets people into positions on the Hill and then downtown. It’s pretty closed circles,” said Paul Thornell, a vice president at Citigroup and a central figure in the network. “The challenge is creating a process by which you open those often closed circles and you create a greater universe of people who are candidates for those positions.”
Statistics on minority hiring are hard to come by in institutions with a keen sense of politics, and neither the Senate nor the House has a central repository for demographic information on congressional staff, according to aides in both parties and in both chambers.
In the House, where there are 70 black, Hispanic or Asian American members, as well as many white members who represent large minority constituencies, it is not uncommon for minorities to find jobs within a member’s personal office. But there’s a caveat: what kinds of jobs are they?
Nicole E. Barcliff, the former president of the Congressional Black Associates, an organization of African-American staffers, said the group saw an increase in membership when Democrats came to power last year. But that change was mostly at the entry or lower levels of personal offices.
“They’re not people who are going into chief of staff positions or high-level committee staff,” said Barcliff, who is legislative director for white Pennsylvania Democrat Robert A. Brady. “They’re people who are trying to get a foot in the door.”
Moreover, the ranks of minority aides on committee and leadership office staffs, the levels at which major policy decisions are made, are thinner, members of “The Working Group” and others involved in Capitol Hill diversity initiatives said.
In the Senate, minorities seldom make it to the top rung.
That in turn affects policy outcomes, the pool from which K Street taps talent, and, as a result, which lawmakers get the campaign contributions and other support they need to advance into party leadership positions and hire more aides, according to a member of The Working Group who asked not to be identified so as not to hurt his business prospects.
“Our goal is to look around leadership and look around committees and not just have to go to one African-American, one Hispanic or one Asian American (on a committee staff),” he said.
The efforts are starting to pay off.
One success story is Lorraine Miller, who became the first African-American to serve as clerk of the House when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., named her to that post last year.
Dean Aguillen, who left his job as head of member services for Speaker Pelosi to become a senior vice president at Ogilvy Government Relations, said there are informal networks of minorities all over Capitol Hill.
“A lot of the senior minorities are cognizant of it and they are always trying to influence the ability of other minorities to at least get a foot in the door,” he said.
Aguillen, who is Hispanic, said Podesta Group Principal Paul Brathwaite, a Working Group member and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, was helpful as he made the transition to K Street.
Capitol Hill diversity efforts have not been limited to external pressure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., hired Martina Bradford, a former lobbyist at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, and longtime congressional staffer, as a senior adviser for human resources.
After a little more than six months on the job, Bradford, who is African-American, is something of an internal clearinghouse for job openings and potential hires. While offices are under no obligation to work with her, many already have a good handle on how to find qualified minority candidates on their own.
“The climate now is good (for interest in hiring minorities),” she said.
Like “The Working Group,” and an unnamed African-American women’s network run by Glover Park Group lobbyist Joyce Brayboy – both of which she uses as resources – Bradford wants to bridge the gulf between employers and the pool of minority talent.
“The quality of the debate is enriched when you have diverse points of view,” she said. “It results in better legislation.”
Bradford recently matched up a dozen Native American students with Senate offices as they work on a semester-in-Washington program through George Washington University.
The Working Group, which then numbered a dozen or fewer, first met in Nike’s downtown office about two years ago, according to Orson Porter, deputy director of governmental affairs for the shoe and apparel company.
Participants say they have seen signs of progress since that time and a willingness among employers on Capitol Hill to hire minorities. But they still see institutional barriers for minorities looking to move up to the top jobs on the Hill or K Street.
“This isn’t necessarily about discrimination,” Thornell said. “This is about a broken process.”