I have to admit that when I first arrived on Capitol Hill as a young staffer who was newly minted as a college graduate with my degree from Cheyney University, I was shocked by the lack of diversity on the staffs of Republican members of Congress. Of course, I knew that the Republican Party was not a typical home for African Americans, but I just assumed —naively perhaps — that Capitol Hill — which historically has attracted the best and the brightest, would at least have some African Americans at the senior level.
To be fair, Democrat members of Congress do not have this problem. When you walk into a Democrat office, there is a good chance that the staff will be diverse with a healthy dose of younger people milling about. Seeing this disparity and after becoming, the highest ranking African American Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, not only did I think I had an opportunity to help make Republican offices more diverse, I felt then — and still to this day believe that I have a responsibility to do so.
This is why I was very pleased to learn of former Congressman J.C. Watts’ efforts to start a new program to attract and retain quality staff both at the member level but also at the staff level. The program, appropriately named Insight America already boasts an impressive roster of lawmakers that have pledged support including Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Rob Portman of Ohio, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Republican Reps. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, Jack Kingston and Tom Price of Georgia, Jon Runyan of New Jersey, J. Randy Forbes and Scott Rigell of Virginia, and James Lankford of Oklahoma. This is a significant step in the right direction that will hopefully encourage not only other Republican members to sign on; but will inspire African American’s regardless of their political background to think about working on Capitol Hill. Brandon Andrews, spokesman for Insight America and a former staffer to Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said that while the organization is being run by a former Republican and the opening event was held at a conservative think tank, it seeks to improve diversity in a bipartisan manner on Capitol Hill. In other words, there is room for improvement on both sides of the aisle as it relates to diversity. “Because of who the founder and chairman is, we are definitely going to be working more on the right side [of Capitol Hill], and that’s where we will have more influence,” Andrews said. “But we will be here to support all the staff associations in whatever way that we can, because we want to see diversity improved on the Hill more generally.”
I’ve always believed that building a farm team today will reap benefits tomorrow and by finding and hiring qualified African Americans to political jobs will do nothing but guarantee upward mobility and even more diversity in years to come. To be clear, diversity is not just skin color and cultural background. That’s deeply and vitally important, but having a diversity of thought which also may come from a different background is equally important.
It’s true that Republicans have to work harder to erase, or at least to mitigate, deep mistrust and sometimes even anger that is felt with the Republican Party — but try as Republicans we must to listen and to learn not only from the mistakes of the past, but to remain relevant in the lives of all Americans regardless of background or financial status. It should also ring true that African Americans moving forward should take another look at the Republican Party — always with a critical eye but with an open mind about what plans it has for the community as a whole and for your specifically. As a member of Congress, having a diverse staff is only one part of the equation to tackling some of our most pressing issues — but it’s a start and I comment the members on the Hill who are at least trying.
Robert Trynham invites you to follow him @roberttraynham.