USA First Look

Schumer wants to boost Senate staff diversity by taking a page from NFL

Democrats have long painted themselves as the champions of minority issues, but recent criticism has drawn attention to a marked lack of diversity on Democratic senators' staffs – including the Senate minority leader's.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan (r.) meets with reporters on Capitol Hill before President Trump's speech to the nation, in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer asked his fellow Democrats to adopt a new, comprehensive set of rules created to promote staff diversity within the Democratic party. The Democrats, which often present themselves as the champions of minorities in the United States, have come under fire in recent months for their disproportionally white staffs in the Senate.

One of the key policies laid out by Mr. Schumer on Tuesday was a version of the "Rooney Rule," a hiring policy adopted by the National Football League to increase diversity in coaching jobs and general manager positions. Similar to the football version of the rule, Schumer's policy would require that Senate offices must interview at least one minority applicant for future senior staff openings. The original rule, named after Dan Rooney, a member of the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, was implemented in 2003 following the public backlash after African-American head coaches Tony Dungy, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Dennis Green, of the Minnesota Vikings, were suddenly fired.

"We must ensure the Senate be more reflective of our country's diverse population," Schumer said in a statement, as reported by Politico. "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."

Several independent studies have highlighted the lack of diversity among Democratic Senate staff. A December 2015 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, for instance, noted that while African-Americans provide 22 percent of the Democratic Party's votes, only one top staffer – representing just 0.7 percent of top Democratic Senate staff – was black.

"Across all Democratic personal Senate offices in Washington, DC, there are no African-American chiefs of staff, legislative directors, or communications directors," reads the report. "Similarly, Latinos accounted for 13 percent of those who self-identify as Democrats nationwide, but Latinos account for only 2.0 percent of top Democratic Senate staff."

For many in the Democratic party, this imbalance is unacceptable.

"They are all so phony," a black staffer told the New York Daily News in November. "Every time I hear any of the Democratic senators, including my own boss, talk about diversity, I cringe, because it's all one big lie. That they've been allowed to enjoy this reputation as a party that values diversity, while doing next to nothing of substance to align their actions with their words, is expert-level deception."

And for a party that prides itself on its minority-friendly policies, that's an issue.

"The Senate is a better place when we have more people of different backgrounds and perspectives offering their voices and ideas," Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz said in a statement. "That's why these new rules Leader Schumer has put in place are encouraging."

In addition to the Senate's version of the Rooney Rule, Schumer has also backed the establishment of a nonpartisan, permanent office focused on boosting staff aide diversity on both sides of the aisle. If implemented, the office would be responsible for collecting data on diversity for greater accountability. Currently, congressional offices are not required to publicly report staffer demographics.

"By institutionalizing our efforts, we can start to address the structural obstacles that have made it harder to diversify the Senate workforce," says Mr. Schatz. "While there is still more work to do, [the new rules are] a positive step toward making sure the Senate — members and staff — looks more like America."