On Jan. 2, Dana Gresham, the former assistant secretary for government affairs at the Department of Transportation, became the only Black chief-of-staff for a Senate Democrat on the Hill. Gresham’s appointment by Sen.-elect Doug Jones (D-Ala.), while widely celebrated, highlighted a generations-old lack of Black hires in key legislative positions. And while those cavernous voids in Black talent thrived unchecked for decades, Gresham’s appointment comes as organizations, such as the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, began documenting congressional staffing issues – including a lack of diversity.
The Joint Center’s 2015 report, “Racial Diversity among Top Senate Staff,” found that African Americans account for 23 percent of Democratic voters, yet represent a mere 1.2 percent of Democratic top staff. Additionally, more than 64 percent of people of color in the U.S. live in just ten states, of which key staff positions in Senate personal offices are held by just five staffers. And within the personal offices of the two states with the most residents of color (California and Texas) there are no staffers of color in top staff positions.
Dana Gresham becomes the only Black chief-of-staff for a Democrat in U.S. Senate. (Courtesy photo)
“Many Senate offices from states with high numbers of racial minorities lack a top staffer of color. Data show that the dearth of senior staff of color is not solely a Republican or Democratic issue, but represents an institutional challenge,” James R. Jones, author of the Joint Center report concluded. “While the task of diversifying the top Senate staff may appear daunting, U.S. Senators can take concrete steps to change this situation. Senators should increase transparency about who works in the Senate, use the Rooney Rule in all hiring decisions, and create senior-level fellowships with a third-party leadership organization.”
Jones also recommended Senate offices recruit fellows and interns from APAICS, CBCF, CHCI, and the GW Native American Political Leadership Program, provide a central office for diversity resources, develop diversity plans for each personal office and committee office, and require implicit bias training for staff.
The Rooney Rule was devised as an organizational structure modeled after the National Football League (NFL) wherein the individually-owned teams decide their head coaching, management, and senior football operations hires. To address the lack of racial diversity among coaches and other management officials, the NFL established the Rooney Rule that required each team to interview a candidate of color along with any other contenders for vacant positions. The Rooney Rule allows each team – or in this instance, each Senate office – to maintain final approval over hiring decisions and ensure that candidates of color are considered. The rule is named after Dan Rooney, the former chairman of the league’s diversity committee (and former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers), who introduced the affirmative action measure in 2002.
The Joint Centers mounted a sizeable campaign in 2017 to push for more diversity among Senate hires, which included enlisting the help of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who called for an institution of Rooney Rules in March 2017.
“We must ensure the Senate be more reflective of our country’s diverse population. Expanding the diversity initiative, following the Rooney rule and dedicating ourselves to increasing diversity are important steps we can take to help achieve that goal and better serve our country,” Schumer said in a March statement.
Two Republican Senators have Black chiefs of staff: Tim Scott (S.C.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.).
Jones secured a sweeping victory over Republican Roy Moore to gain the Alabama Senate seat — due i large part to the increased participation of Blacks, whose exit poll tallies registered in the 90th-percentile for his leadership.
Gresham released no immediate statement. The Joint Center, however, did celebrate Gresham’s appointment as a move toward better representation.
“The Joint Center commends Senator-elect Jones for his leadership and commitment to diversity. This is an important moment in the movement to make the Senate truly representative of all Americans. The Joint Center looks forward to continuing to work with Senator-elect Jones as he makes diversity a priority in building the rest of his staff,” said Don Bell, the Director of the Black Talent Initiative.