By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Blacks make up one in eight residents of the Cincinnati metro area. But in the offices of the four House members who represent the bulk of the area, blacks are virtually nonexistent - not just in policy-shaping positions but at any level.
Republican Rep. John Boehner, who represents most of Butler County, has none. Nor does Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas of Northern Kentucky.
Stacy Palmer-Barton serves as chief of staff for Rep. Mike Turner. He represents northern Warren County and the Dayton area.
(Gannett News Service/Bill Perry photo)
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Even Reps. Steve Chabot and Rob Portman, the two Republicans who share the city of Cincinnati, have only one black staffer between them. She started Wednesday in Chabot's office in an entry-level job.
"It's a disrespect to this community and insensitive to this community not to have representation at that level," said Calvert Smith, president of the 4,000-member Cincinnati chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The city is 43 percent black.
"It is impossible to adequately represent a minority view when in fact that view is not represented among the people who are making the decisions," he said.
Chabot's chief of staff, Gary Lindgren, said the office hires based on qualifications, not race, and that it strives to serve the entire community. Portman said he has tried hard to recruit black staffers, but the pool of conservative blacks willing to work for the GOP is pretty small.
"We'd like to attract more qualified African-American candidates as we have openings. Maybe this story will result in more interest. We hope so," Portman said.
Only Rep. Mike Turner, the Republican who represents Clinton, Highland, Montgomery and northern Warren counties, has a relatively sizable minority contingent: 3 of 14. The former Dayton mayor, in office just a month, has a black chief of staff, the top position in a congressional office.
Turner said that while diversity was important to him, the three blacks he hired were the best qualified. His chief of staff, Stacy Palmer-Barton, was Dayton's Washington lobbyist when he was mayor.
Palmer-Barton - an independent, not a Republican - said she shared Turner's anti-abortion and pro-family views, and liked that he was interested in boosting Dayton's urban core.
"The more opinion and advice a member of Congress can have from different perspectives, the more informed the decision-making will be," she said. "I think there's a wealth of talent among young African-Americans."
Trying to fix image
After Senate Republican leader Trent Lott lost his post for praising a one-time segregationist presidential candidate, Republicans have been furiously trying to repair their image with blacks.
The dean of the nation's elected black Republicans, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, has declared the best remedy is hiring more blacks on Capitol Hill.
Late last month he met with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who agreed to try to hire 200 more blacks on Republican staffs. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay left the meeting with 20 resumes of potential conservative black staffers. Hastert also agreed to try to place blacks in key positions on major committees.
"My objective is not to micromanage. It's not to establish quotas," said Blackwell, a former Cincinnati mayor. "I believe diversity is a strength. I believe it is the smart thing to do politically. It helps you to develop richer policies, more effective policies when those policies impact a diverse constituency."
Congress has 535 elected members - 39 are black - but 22,000 staffers do much of the real work. That's more employees than in the Departments of Housing and Urban Development or Labor, according to the American Enterprise Institute's statistics on Congress.
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 from the same group found blacks made up 7.6 percent of House staff but only 4.5 percent of the high-level jobs like chief of staff, legislative director or district director.
Census 2000 shows blacks are more than 12 percent of the nation's population.
Politically, blacks tend to support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by at least a 7-to-1 margin, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's premier think tank on minority politics. A 2002 national poll showed blacks sided with Democrats in their approach to Social Security, race relations, fighting terrorism, health care and immigration.
A police officer's fatal shooting of a black youth triggered three nights of rioting in April 2001. A boycott of Cincinnati that some black leaders called for has lasted 18 months, with mixed results. A census study last year found Cincinnati to be the sixth most segregated metropolitan area in the country.
"I think it matters. I think it matters a great deal," the NAACP's Smith said. "Believe it or not, we live in a society in which there really is a difference based upon race. That difference is reflected in every decision, every avenue, every activity that takes place in this country."
Simply hiring blacks to be low-level staffers won't solve the problem, he said.
"It doesn't matter who answers the telephone. The difference is when there are major pieces of legislation being considered. That legislation is going to affect the lives of everybody in the city. The fact that it does not reflect the concerns, the perspectives of African-Americans means automatically that African-Americans will not be reflected in the legislation."
The members of Congress insisted that the lack of blacks was not from discrimination, race was not a factor in who they hired, and the lack of blacks doesn't affect policy.
"We don't think in colors. We think about what kind of team members they are," said Steve Forde, Boehner's spokesman.
"When we hire people in our office, we hire them on their merits," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.
"We don't base any hiring decision on race. We do it on qualifications," said Chabot's chief of staff, Lindgren.
Chabot's district is 28 percent black, more than any other Ohio district except for Democrat Stephanie Tubbs Jones' Cleveland district.
In the eight years Chabot has been in office, he has had three full-time black employees. His staff of 12 now has one, a staff assistant who started Wednesday. Her job is to answer phones, sort mail and clip news articles.
Lindgren said Chabot spends much of his time in Cincinnati's black communities, visiting dozens of schools to read "House Mouse, Senate Mouse" to grade-schoolers and discuss national issues with older students. And, he pointed out, Chabot taught for two years at predominantly black St. Joseph Elementary School in Cincinnati's West End.
"The bottom line is that Congressman Chabot believes he was elected to serve the entire community. And our staff ... is committed to serving the entire community as well," he said.
Portman is the House's leading booster of the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center rising on Cincinnati's riverfront.
"That's been one of my top priorities since I was elected - the need to heal wounds and work cooperatively across racial lines," he said.
Not all blacks agree the racial composition of the staff matters.
The Rev. Ken Price, minister at Corinthian Baptist Church in Avondale, said Chabot helped nudge the federal bureaucracy to approve some vital paperwork, paving the way for a $500,000 grant for the church's nonprofit arm, Ekklesia Development Corp.
What matters are "resources coming into the community." If the congressman can deliver the money, it doesn't matter what color he is or his staff is, Price said.
"That's what government does. It gets money, and it spends money," he said. Whether or not Chabot or DeWine or Voinovich hires African-Americans is really of no consequence to us. I wouldn't get too hung up on that issue."
A goal for diversity
Blackwell attended the State of the Union speech as Hastert's guest. The next day he met for two hours with Hastert, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and the other top House Republicans.
While nothing was noted in writing, Blackwell said House leaders agreed to hire 200 blacks in House Republican offices this year, including placing them in policy-making positions on key committees, like Ways and Means, which writes tax laws, and Appropriation, which controls spending.
Hastert spokesman John Feehery described the 200 as a "goal."
"It wasn't a negotiation. It was a number thrown out there," he said. "The whole idea is to get more diversity. It's trying to get people to be more sensitive about who they're hiring. It's not a quota."
Blackwell said he would track the number of blacks hired.
While the party would face no fines if Hastert should fail, failure would have penalties: "You start to lose elections," Blackwell said.
In a nation split essentially 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, every group becomes critical to electoral victory.
If Republicans can cut into Democratic hold on the black vote, raising the GOP margin from 9 percent or 10 percent to 15 percent or 18 percent, that could be crucial in future elections, he said.
One way to do that is increase minorities working for Capitol Hill Republicans.
More minority staff might nudge school vouchers toward becoming a reality
"Liberating those kids from those dysfunctional schools, that resonates," he said.
Blackwell was first elected statewide in 1994 as treasurer. He was elected secretary of state in 1998 and re-elected in 2002, getting 50 percent of the black vote, he said. He is planning to run for governor in 2006.
The other three black Republicans elected to statewide office across the country are Michael Williams, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry; Lt. Govs. Michael Steele of Maryland and Jennette B. Bradley of Ohio, both just elected in November.
Congress last year lost its only black Republican, Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, who decided not to seek a fifth term.
Blackwell refused to criticize Chabot, Boehner or Portman for having almost no black staffers. But he did praise Turner.
"Turner came out of a community that has a substantial African-American population. He knows that you can diversify staff without sacrificing quality or commitment to the principles he stands for.
"He's a very strong personal example for how you get it done."
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