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‘Where am I?’: Black staffers describe hurdles of working on Capitol Hill

From sticker shock to bias, a lot can keep them away

Staffers of color remain underrepresented in top positions in congressional offices, according to the most recent counts by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Staffers of color remain underrepresented in top positions in congressional offices, according to the most recent counts by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Before she studied congressional staffers, LaShonda Brenson considered becoming one of them.

In college, she interned for a member of the Congressional Black Caucus but quickly realized the career wasn’t for her. 

“Quite honestly, I observed the lack of people that look like me, I observed people being underpaid and I think, for me — just from my background — it wasn’t something I could afford to do,” said Brenson, who got a Ph.D. in political science instead. 

Now Brenson works at the nonprofit Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, seeking to measure what she once saw for herself on Capitol Hill. She’s been tracking the diversity — or lack thereof — among top congressional staff in recent years. Only 14 percent of high-ranking positions in House members’ offices were held by people of color in 2018, when the center last counted chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors. Last year, just 11 percent of those positions in the Senate were.  

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As low as those figures are, they’re an improvement, and Brenson says the trends are reason to hope. This year’s crop of new lawmakers, who are mostly Republicans, have so far filled 23 percent of their top staff positions with people of color, Brenson said. (Some positions remain unfilled.)

“But it’s still underrepresented,” she added. “If you think about people of color making up 40 percent in the nation, it still has a ways to go.”

Current and former congressional staffers of color credited the Joint Center with spotlighting the representation gap. What gets measured matters, they said, and quantifying staff diversity has spurred Congress into acting. The House created a bipartisan Office of Diversity and Inclusion last term, and Senate Democrats have their own initiative that tracks staff demographics.

The problem of legislative staff looking not a lot like the nation goes beyond diversity for diversity’s sake, Brenson said.

“Hiring people of color is not an act of charity,” she said. “Congress literally cannot effectively create public policy that benefits all Americans if people that are making the decisions do not look like America. That’s just the bottom line.”

While no one CQ Roll Call interviewed for this story would disagree with that, the diversity gap hit each in a personal way, from the moment they came to Capitol Hill as interns or junior staffers to the moment they decided to leave. 

Family money

While there’s no one factor to blame, money definitely plays a role in how long staffers stay on the Hill, or whether they can get there at all.

Michael Hardaway was no stranger to wealth when he came to Washington to work as a staff assistant in Sen. Richard J. Durbin’s office. A middle-class kid, he worked at a private club in Chicago while studying at Roosevelt University. It was there he met a young, long-shot candidate running for Senate, Barack Obama, which set his own career in motion. But he was still shocked to see how some of his co-workers could afford to live.

When the bill came on a date with a white woman from another office, she offered to pay. “She pulls out a black Amex card in her name — as an unpaid intern — and I remember thinking at the time, ‘Where am I?’”

It’s no secret that the staff salaries on the Hill aren’t very high. While wages vary from office to office, intro-level spots can start around $30,000. Salaries for positions that require a few years’ experience, like a legislative assistant, may pay $50,000. That’s a struggle in a city where studio apartments miles from downtown can go for well above $1,500 a month.

Hardaway, who recently left the Hill to start his own company, described the shock of going back to another junior staffer’s apartment after a happy hour years ago. He lived with four other staffers in a “horrific place that should’ve been condemned,” but she had her own apartment in a building with a doorman and a view.

“It didn’t compute to me — as a guy who wasn’t from that, didn’t have parents who could pay my rent, didn’t have that level of wealth — that someone who was a colleague, same age as me, would live in a place like that,” he said. “And many of my Black colleagues were in the same boat. We’d have lunch meetings and talk about our plight, and it was all the same: struggling to get by.”

D.C. rent is steep no matter what, but it’s worse when you don’t have family money. That’s where the racial wealth gap comes into play: White families, on average, have eight times the wealth of Black families, with a median wealth of $188,200 compared to $24,100, according to a 2019 Federal Reserve study. Other groups fare better than Blacks but still significantly trail white households.

The wealth divide gets compounded by student debt. Black students are more likely to take out loans to pay for college and take out more when they do: A 2016 Brookings Institution study found that Black graduates averaged $53,000 in debt four years after graduation, compared to $28,000 for white graduates.

While Hardaway said he grew up comfortably, the white interns he knew took it to another level. “I had no family money or connections,” he said. “Most of the kids I interned with had both. Many of their dads knew the senator.”

If anything, the money flows the other way, said Hardaway. “I probably know 150, 200 Black staffers in D.C.,” he said. “I can count on one hand the number who don’t send money back home.”

‘Typical D.C.’

Headhunters can come calling after just a couple of years on the Hill, promising big pay increases and better hours in consulting or lobbying. For staffers that come from more modest means, the siren call can be hard to resist.

But the paltry pay alone can’t explain the diversity gap. Staffers leave offices all the time to make more money in consulting or lobbying without burning their bridges — quite the opposite.

Charlyn Stanberry describes her career path as “typical D.C.” She went from an internship with the Congressional Black Caucus to the nonprofit world and then a consulting gig before returning to Congress to work for Rep. Yvette D. Clarke as a legislative aide. Retirements allowed Stanberry to advance through the ranks, and two years later, she was chief of staff.

“Just like a lot of Black staffers, if it wasn’t for the Congressional Black Caucus … I don’t know where the start would have been, to be honest,” she said.

Paul Thornell, a lobbyist who got his start on the Hill in Tom Daschle’s office soon after he became Senate minority leader, pointed to the difficulty in overcoming the inertia caused by network effects.

When there’s an opening in an office, most members don’t look very far, he said. “In the Senate, they don’t use search firms,” he said. “It’s word of mouth.”

It takes extra effort to find candidates of color, Thornell said, more so if the office is starting from scratch.

Thornell pointed to two common hiring habits in particular that make it harder to break the cycle: Promoting from within an office and limiting hires to the member’s state or district.

“If you don’t have any Black or Brown people in the office, and you’re going to promote from within, guess what?” Thornell said.

Thornell understands the impulse to prefer candidates who have lived among constituents, but that’s a subjective criterion that should be balanced against the benefits of diversity, he said. Plus, you don’t need to have lived in a state to know a thing or two about it.

“People learn this s—, you can learn it,” Thornell said. “If you can learn about derivatives legislation, you can learn about the economy of southwestern Connecticut, you know what I mean?”

To address those hiring biases, Thornell said offices should adopt a “Rooney Rule 2.0.” The Rooney Rule comes from the NFL — teams looking for a new coach need to interview at least one minority candidate. On top of that, Thornell would like to see offices ensure that the hiring panels themselves have people of color on them.

For offices that don’t have diverse staff yet, outside advisers could fill in, Thornell said. “Sending a signal to diverse candidates that there’s somebody that looks like me in his orbit or her orbit, that’s important,” he said.

Network effects work both ways — if you’re on the outside, the inside can be a mystery. Stanberry went to law school with little more than an inchoate desire to do something in public policy. She thought she’d end up a hospital administrator, not a power broker on the Hill.

A mentor pointed her toward Washington, and friends from the National Black Law Students Association told her about the internships they did on the Hill before law school. With a little inheritance money from her grandmother, she moved to D.C. and landed that CBC internship that set her career into motion.  

“If you would have told me that I was going to become a chief of staff, I would have laughed at you 10 years ago,” Stanberry said. “It was never in my mind because I had never been exposed to all the opportunities on the Hill.”

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