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Under pressure, Schumer wants Democrats to focus on minority hiring — by using an NFL tool

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) talks to reporters after a weekly Senate Democrats’ luncheon on Capitol Hill on June 7, 2016. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The new Congress is the most diverse in history, with more minority lawmakers than ever before and a record 21 women in the U.S. Senate.

But check the staff listings for members of the House and Senate and the payroll remains overwhelmingly white, according to years of private studies.

Under pressure from party members and some of their own employees, top Senate Democratic leaders are turning to the National Football League’s personnel playbook, adopting a controversial hiring tool to seek out and employ more minorities in top positions.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is planning to urge his fellow Democrats to adopt the “Rooney Rule,” an NFL policy that requires teams to interview minorities for any head coaching or senior football operations positions. Use of the does not necessarily result in hiring, but it compels the league to seek out, promote and retain minority talent.

In the Senate, Schumer wants his colleagues to ensure that at least one minority applicant is considered for any open position. As Democratic leader, there is no mechanism for him to force his colleagues to do so, but he plans to discuss it with the caucus in the coming days, aides said.

“The more diverse the Senate is, the better it can serve the American people,” Schumer said in a statement announcing his plans. “Expanding the diversity initiative, following the Rooney rule, and dedicating ourselves to increasing diversity will be good for the Senate and for the country.”

Schumer also announced plans to continue the Senate Diversity Initiative, a project launched by former Senate minority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) in response to similar complaints in the past. The project was created as a clearinghouse of sorts for interested and qualified minority applicants and for senators seeking recruits.

Aides and senators confirmed plans to adopt new personnel practices.

“We’ve been working on that. We’re always looking at ways to increase diversity,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said Thursday.

The move follows months of sharp criticism expressed by Democrats via social media and in closed-door meetings in the wake of elections that saw the party suffer big losses and thus a loss of potential jobs for the party faithful. Concerned staffers and party activists are especially upset that leaders of a party that earns overwhelming support from minority voters seem to do very little to demonstrate personal commitments to diversity.

Congressional offices are not required to publicly report the demographics of staffers, but groups such as the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association and the Congressional Black Associates have tried in past years to compile reports on the disparities. In a 2010 report, Latinos represented just 6 percent of the congressional workforce. The numbers haven’t improved much since then.

Francisco Bencosme, a staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who also leads the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, thanked Schumer for adopting the Rooney Rule. His group met with Schumer and his top aides before Christmas to explain their concerns, and they said Schumer was receptive to their ideas.

“The next step will be implementation, and CHSA will continue working to advance and recommend diverse, well-qualified candidates for positions in Congress,” Bencosme said in a statement. “We are also pleased to see the continuation of the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative, as it has helped members of our community get hired in the past. Looking forward, we hope to see our recommendations instituted on a bipartisan, bicameral basis.”

But Oscar Ramirez, a lobbyist with the Podesta Group and a former senior House aide who used to sharply criticize Capitol Hill hiring practices as head of the Hispanic staff group, warned that “you won’t see a lot of progress until you have accountability.”

“The only way that happens is if members publicly report their numbers,” he said. “If there’s a group scoring diversity efforts, I think that’s where you’d see increased diversity by the offices and members be motivated to have more diversity.”

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan research think tank devoted to exploring how federal policy affects minorities, is working on a report that seeks to determine the demographics of staffers in the Republican-controlled House, according to people familiar with the research.

(This reporter is also working on his own review of congressional staffing. If you have stats about your office, or thoughts on the issue, email me.)

In the Senate, Republicans have no formal policy requiring the recruitment or hiring of minorities, according to aides. Same in the House, where Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) recently promoted longtime aide Jonathan Burks to be his chief of staff — making him the first African American to hold the key position.

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Given the “seen and not heard” nature of congressional staff work, those concerned about the issue tend to keep their worries among themselves and refuse to speak on the record about it with reporters.

In the Senate, Democratic staffers say they’re especially upset that the only black chief of staff works for a Republican senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is also black. A New York Daily News op-ed in late November captured much of their concern.

“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,” one black staffer told the newspaper. “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.”

On Thursday, a former black Democratic Senate aide who remains close with current staffers echoed those thoughts, calling minority hiring among Senate Democrats “awful.”

The former aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his professional relationships on Capitol Hill, praised Schumer for adopting the Rooney Rule but faulted him for waiting until after the start of the new Congress to announce the change.

“A lot of these offices have already named their chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors. The election was two months ago. For the new members, they’ve already hired people,” the former aide said.

Many Hispanic aides and activists were encouraged by victories by Latino candidates in California, Florida and Nevada, hopeful they would stack their offices with employees representative of their districts and states. But their hiring of minorities has been a mixed bag, according to multiple staffers and activists who are privately tracking the personnel moves.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), who replaced Reid, earned special scrutiny because she is the first Latina to serve in the upper chamber. But she faced attacks on social media after announcing her top seven hires because just two are Hispanic.

Asked about her hiring practices this week, Cortez Masto said: “It’s important. It’s always been a priority for me. I’ve always felt that ever since I was state attorney general, the office that I built and hired should mirror the people that we represent in our communities. I’m a big proponent of diversity and inclusiveness.”

The “Rooney Rule” was first proposed by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney in 2002 after two African American head coaches were fired, sparking a public outcry.

Whether all Democratic senators will adopt the practice is unclear. If they do, Schumer is ensuring that the diversity initiative is ready to help them. Three new staffers running the program are already working on revamping a database designed to help senators review the résumés of potential hires, a leadership aide said.

David Weigel contributed to this report.