Think about this. A Democratic senator from one of the deepest of red states elected with the help of black voters has named an African-American — a veteran of former President Barack Obama’s administration — as his top aide.
That is what Doug Jones, Alabama’s newly elected senator, did when he named Dana Gresham, a former assistant secretary for governmental affairs in the Department of Transportation under Obama, as his chief of staff.
The appointment is significant because Gresham becomes the only African-American chief of staff for a Democrat in the U.S. Senate.
In a 2015 report, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that there were no black chiefs of staff, legislative or communication directors working for Democrats in the Senate. Nothing would indicate that that paradigm has changed, despite the continued reminder on the Hill by diversity advocates.
Jones’ move reflects not only his understanding and respect for the diverse constituency that propelled him to the Senate, but also demonstrates his willingness to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
On the night of his victory, Jones ended his speech with a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,” underscoring the symbolism of his historic election in a state where blood was shed for blacks to have freedom.
With the appointment of Gresham, who is also from Alabama, Jones has helped bend history’s moral arc toward justice.
It is both troubling and ironic that in 2018, Democrats have to look to Alabama, once the epicenter of the segregation battles of the 1950s and 1960s, to lead the way when it comes to crucial political diversity hiring.
Democrats have been preaching diversity and inclusion for ages, especially during election seasons when blacks get an earful from officials and candidates about why they are the party of the big tent. These officials descend on black churches like vultures trying to reach those captive Sunday morning audiences. Many use these opportunities to quote every known civil rights activist of the last century in an effort to woo black voters.
But often, when these Democrats are examined against their own record of commitment toward diversity, the result is very thin.
It is plausible to say that a significant number of Democrats in the Senate would not have been elected without the crucial backing of blacks. Yet when it comes to those Senate offices, blacks are not among those holding major staff positions.
Now Jones has become an unlikely teacher, showing his new Senate colleagues what diversity ought to look like. That is a political seismic shift and now many blacks across the nation will be following Jones to see what he does next.
At this point every Democratic senator should be asking: How is it possible that a senator from a deep red state can select a black chief of staff — who worked for Obama — but we don’t have any?
Say whatever you want about Jones and how you believe he will leverage his position in the Senate. But for now give him credit for boldly going where his colleagues have not gone.
Jones has made a game-changing appointment that is bound to have a tremendous impact regarding the direction of his office and his legislative initiatives. Because a chief of staff not only presides over personnel decisions, but also wields great influence in the policy positions the senator will ultimately take.
Hopefully, Democrats will be inspired by Jones and move to make inclusion not just a talking point to their constituencies, but actually a doing word.
However, Democrats are quick to point the finger at their Republican counterparts on issues of diversity and inclusion. The glaring paradox remains that despite the legitimacy of such criticisms against the GOP, Democrats also are guilty of some of the same or similar inaction. They can’t claim clean hands.
Time for action.
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