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Pelosi Touts House Caucus’ Diversity Amid Grumbling Over Staff Hires

Pelosi touts female ranking member on Appropriations Committee, says diversity helps people feel like they have a voice at table

Since Election Day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and top Democrats have been touting the diversity of the incoming Democratic Caucus, going so far as to declare it the most diverse political party caucus “in the history of civilized government.”

However, close observers say the party has more work to do at the staff level, and some feel that Pelosi’s praise of the incoming caucus has, at times, gone overboard.

Democrats say their inclusive conference provides a powerful symbol to voters, and the party believes a relatively large increase in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus will be particularly significant for the next Congress.

The number of women and minorities in the Democratic ranks is particularly pronounced in comparison with the upper echelons of the House Republican Conference, a point Pelosi sought to hammer home at a news conference Wednesday, with the new batch of Democratic ranking members assembled behind her.

Pelosi highlighted New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey, the first woman to lead Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, a clubby panel known for its male-dominated culture.

In contrast, House Republicans had no female committee chairmen until Speaker John A. Boehner appointed Michigan Rep. Candice S. Miller to head the House Administration Committee last week. Miller had made an unsuccessful bid to helm the Homeland Security Committee.

“It produces something that is really very important for our country,” Pelosi told Roll Call about the diversity of the Democrats in the 113th Congress. “One of the messages it sends, if you’re a woman, if you’re gay or if you’re a minority, you can have the comfort of saying: ‘Somebody like me has a seat at the table. Somebody who understands my aspirations, my hopes and dreams.’”

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland established a résumé bank this fall to assist newly elected Democrats in hiring staff. The application process asks for optional demographic information, including, in an expansion from last week, whether applicants are members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“Mr. Hoyer is proud that the House Democratic Caucus will be the most diverse Caucus in our history in the 113th Congress, and one of the primary goals of the résumé bank our office has established is to strengthen diversity in House Democratic offices,” said Mariel Saez, a Hoyer spokeswoman, in an email.

Paul Brathwaite, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus and now a principal at the Podesta Group, called the résumé bank a “very good first step” but said, “a lot more work needs to be done, I think, to build a top-notch program.”

Brathwaite said a leadership staffer dedicated to recruiting minority staffers would help improve the process. “It really needs to be someone’s job to wake up every day and figure out the best strategies to connect qualified minority candidates to open positions,” he said.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada hired a staffer, Maria Meyer, to fill that role.

Already, 15 of 48 newly elected Democrats have hired minorities as chiefs of staff, according to a list provided by Pelosi’s office. The list includes one Asian, five Latinos, two African-Americans, nine women and two gay men. The gender numbers overlap with the racial categories. Most other offices haven’t yet hired chiefs of staff.

“Now that the election is over and we will have more than two dozen new Democratic Members, our leadership will continue efforts to assist Members to find the most qualified, experienced and diverse staff to work in their offices,” Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, said in an email. Hammill added that Pelosi was pleased by Hoyer’s institution of the résumé bank and its goals.

Weldon Rougeau, a retired attorney, said that when he began working in the Senate in the 1970s, there were only five other black aides. He said it sounds as if the newly elected members are making progress, but he encouraged hiring of minority staff outside of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Rougeau said greater diversity provides members with a broader range of opinions on the political issues they vote on.

While the significant increases in diversity are an obvious point of pride for Democrats, some critics say Pelosi and other top leaders have gone overboard in claiming the caucus is the most diverse in the “history of civilized government.”

Although women make up the majority of political parties in Sweden and other countries, in some places, political parties of ethnic minorities have dominated nations, sometimes in pernicious ways.

“Of course, the word ‘diversity’ is up for grabs. If you define it as what the Democratic Party has treated it as in its most recent convention, then I suppose you would look in vain around the world to find another civilization, state, [or] city that has exactly the kinds of diversity that the contemporary United States lays claim to,” said Peter Wood, an anthropologist and author of “Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.”

“The claim, taken in a more thoughtful way, is just ludicrous. There are many places and times in human history where the mixing of peoples was a much greater extent than we see now in the organs of the U.S. government,” Wood said.

Hammill said the Democratic Caucus’ multiple types of diversity, including racial, gender and sexual orientation, make it the most diverse.

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