By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The nation's dean of elected black Republicans had this message Monday for incoming Republican leaders in Congress: Hire more minorities.
Kenneth Blackwell, re-elected in November as Ohio's secretary of state, said that if the Republican Party wants to win African-American support, it needs to have blacks helping make policy.
"You have to start with the staff," Mr. Blackwell said in an interview. "That's how it works on the Hill. Bringing about some institutional change is what's on my mind."
The Senate begins its 2003 session today with a new majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee. GOP colleagues elected him after their former leader, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, suggested the country would have been better off had it elected a segregationist president in 1948.
Since then, the Republican Party has worked to mend its image among blacks. A series of meetings between top Republican officials and black conservatives is scheduled to begin Monday.
Spokeswoman Pamela Mantis of the Republican National Committee said the party itself had no control over Hill staffing, which individual House members and senators determine.
Congress has 535 elected members, but much of the real work is done by the 22,000 staffers.
Blacks constitute 8.5 percent of the Senate's staff but only 3.9 percent of the top positions involved in shaping legislation, according to the most recent study of minority staffing from the Congressional Management Foundation in 2001. The numbers aren't broken down by party.
A 2000 study by the same group found blacks made up 7.6 percent of House staff but only 4.5 percent of the high-level jobs. Census 2000 shows that blacks make up more than 12 percent of the nation's population. Ohio's percentage of blacks is about the same; Cincinnati is 43 percent black.
In phone calls with White House strategist Karl Rove, Mr. Blackwell and other prominent black conservatives have said they know plenty of highly experienced and bright minorities available.
"It's not about setting any quotas," he said. "It's the smart thing to do politically."
Mr. Blackwell, a former Cincinnati mayor, was first elected statewide in 1994. He is planning to run for governor in 2006.
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