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Minnesota lawmakers struggle to hire people of color for top staff jobs

All of Minnesota’s members of the House filled their top D.C. office jobs with white staffers, exclusively.

U.S. House of Representatives
Just 18% the top staff for members of the U.S. House of Representatives are members of a minority group, according to data compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
REUTERS/Jon Cherry

WASHINGTON — While voters ushered in the most diverse Congress in history, with nearly a quarter of House members identifying as a racial or ethnic minority, top staffers – including those who work for Minnesota lawmakers – fail to reflect the diversity in their districts.

Just 18% of the top staff for members of the U.S. House – and 11% of the top staffers in the U.S. Senate – are members of a minority group, according to data compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a non-profit that calls itself America’s Black Think Tank.

Meanwhile, racial and ethnic minorities account for about 40% of all Americans. The center, which tracks the top hires in the House and Senate, also determined that the top jobs in the offices of House members from Minnesota fail to reflect their district’s diversity.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies diversity tracker, last updated on May 11, collects data on the top three positions in a lawmaker’s office, the chief of staff, legislative director and communications director. The center found that all of Minnesota’s members of the House filled their top D.C. office jobs with white staffers, exclusively.

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Lawmakers like to hire staff from their state or district and the districts represented by Minnesota’s lawmakers vary when it comes to diversity.

The center said that 40% of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Twin Cities-based 5th District were members of an ethnic or racial minority, as were 38% of fellow Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum’s 4th District, and 29% of Rep. Dean Phillip’s 3rd District. In Rep. Angie Craig’s 2nd District, 25% of the residents were members of racial or ethnic minorities, the center said.

Minnesota’s Republican House members represent districts that are less diverse, according to the center’s data. In Rep. Brad Finstad’s 1st District, 18% are members of a racial or ethnic minority, 16% of the residents in Rep. Tom Emmer’s 6th District are minorities, 13% in Rep. Pete Stauber’s 8th District and 12% in Rep. Michelle Fischbach’s 7th District.

Minnesota is less diverse than the nation, although that is slowly changing.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from last summer, 7.4% of the state’s residents are Black, 1.4% are Native American, 5.4% are Asian and 5.8% are Latino.

And Minnesota’s lawmakers are not unique when it comes to hiring staffers of color – more than half, 270 out of 435, of the members of the House failed to fill top jobs with a member of an ethnic or racial minority.

While diversity is not found when it comes to the top jobs in their offices, Minnesota lawmakers have hired minorities to fill mid-level and lower-level jobs in their offices.

“As the first and only woman of color to ever be elected to Congress from Minnesota, I am proud to lead a team that reflects the diversity of the district I represent,” said Omar. “The overwhelming majority of my staff are either women or people of color.”

Omar also said she was working to increase socioeconomic diversity on Capitol Hill by leading the first congressional office to pay interns $15 an hour, which could attract applicants from less wealthy backgrounds.

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Craig, meanwhile, recently said she will buck Capitol Hill tradition and hire office staffers who do not have college degrees, something that could promote diversity. Candidates for jobs in Craig’s office would be evaluated on work experience and training instead.

“Nobody’s career trajectory should be predetermined by a piece of paper – it should be determined by their work ethic, experience and ability to do the job in front of them,” said Craig in a statement.

Each congressional office is given a “member representational allowance,” or budget, to hire staff, and pay for travel, mail, office equipment, district office rental, office supplies and other official expenses. Each member of Minnesota’s delegation to the House received a little more than $1.8 million this year to run his or her office.

Most congressional offices hire 15-20 staffers for their personal offices and receive more money to hire additional staff if they are members of their party’s leadership or hold committee gavels.

LaShonda Brenson
LaShonda Brenson
LaShonda Brenson, senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the center focused only on the top three jobs in a lawmaker’s office because those are the ones that have the most clout, responsible for hiring, shaping the lawmaker’s message and crafting legislation.

“Even if there is more diversity in these lower-level positions, they don’t necessarily have the same influence,” Brenson said.

She also said “diversity on Capitol Hill has always been a challenge,” for several reasons.

One is the “low compensation” many staffers receive to work in Congress, as opposed to similar jobs in the private sector, Brenson said. That makes it hard for many Capitol Hill staffers to make ends meet in a high cost-of- living place like Washington, D.C.

Then there’s the “culture” of Capitol Hill, where Ivy League graduates are overrepresented. A report by the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, established by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in 2019, found that more than 42% of all staffer childhood caregivers held graduate degrees, an indication of high socioeconomic status. Another 34% of the caregivers had associate or bachelor’s degrees.

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The Office of Diversity and Inclusion also determined that, in 2021, more than 69% of House staffers were white.

Brenson said “there has been some improvement” as far as diversity on Capitol Hill, “but there is still work to be done.”

She recommends that lawmakers develop hiring plans with diversity as a goal and establish new pipelines for recruitment instead of relying solely on recommendations from staffers in the office.

Even less diversity among Senate staff

The top staffers in Senate offices are even less diverse than those in the House, the Joint Center determined. Only 14.3% identified as members of an ethnic or racial minority.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., received high marks from the center because her legislative director identifies as Asian American/Pacific Islander.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., did not fill any of her top office jobs with people of color. But both Smith and Klobuchar have hired people of color for other positions.

Unlike the House that does not have a full breakdown of staffers available to the public, Senate Democrats have broken down the demographic of their staffers for several years.

In their latest report, released in 2022, 49% of Klobuchar’s staff identified as “non-Caucasian,” as did 31% of Smith’s staff.

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“Senator Smith believes it is important for her staff to represent the rich diversity of America.,” said Smith spokeswoman Shea Necheles. “Our office’s hiring practices include an intentional effort to recruit and hire from a diverse and highly qualified pool of applicants, and we’re proud that our entire office staff and broader senior leadership team, both in D.C. and Minnesota, reflect that.”