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Diversity Isn't a Leadership Quality Among Democrats

Congress: Scarcity of women and minorities running for party's top posts is a source of discomfort.

November 13, 1998|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Women and minorities have handsomely rewarded Democrats at the ballot box for promoting issues that they find appealing. But when it comes to elevating women and minorities to congressional leadership positions, Democrats have developed something of a glass ceiling.

While public attention has riveted on House Republicans and their internecine battles for leadership posts in the wake of Speaker Newt Gingrich's resignation, Democrats also are preparing to elect their leaders in the House and Senate. And precious few women and minorities are in the running.

That dearth troubles some Democrats on Capitol Hill--in part because they fear that they will suffer by comparison if House Republicans next week name one or more women--as well as their one black congressman--to top leadership positions.

"It's a major concern. It's certainly weighing on people's minds," a senior House Democratic aide acknowledged Thursday. "If Republicans elect a diverse leadership, compared to a Democratic leadership of, say, four white men, that would be uncomfortable."

Ellen Malcolm, head of EMILY's List, a nonpartisan fund-raising organization whose support generally goes to Democratic women, said, "It's very important for Democrats to have diversity in their leadership."

Congressional leadership contests rarely attract much attention beyond Washington's Beltway. But with minority voting blocs playing increasingly important roles in many parts of the country, both parties are assiduously courting women, blacks, Latinos and Asians--groups that might tip the balance in future struggles for control of Congress.

In the face of such emphasis, some activists are questioning the lack of diversity at the top of both parties in Congress.

"When it comes to formal roles at the very top, both parties are lacking--not only in the Hispanic community but also the African American and Asian American communities," Anita Perez Ferguson, head of the National Women's Political Caucus, said Thursday.

Among Republicans, several congresswomen and the GOP's black congressman are seeking House leadership posts. Some Republicans, noting the GOP's past failures to attract a majority of female voters or a respectable share of the black vote, argued that these candidates give the party a chance to diversify the face it presents to the public.

Gephardt, Bonior Run Unopposed

The GOP's 223 House members choose their leaders for the next Congress on Wednesday.

The 211 House Democrats meet Monday to select their leaders, and neither Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri nor Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan faces a challenge.

Contending for the third spot as chair of the party's caucus are Reps. Martin Frost of Texas and Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut. The winner would succeed Vic Fazio of West Sacramento, who is retiring. Frost, the head of the party committee that raises money for Democratic House candidates, is viewed as the favorite.

The battle for the No. 4 spot as caucus vice chair is the one race in which a minority may emerge the winner. Running for the post are Reps. Calvin M. Dooley of Visalia, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is Latino, and Albert Russell Wynn of Maryland, who is black.

One top aide to a House leader argued that, even if all four jobs are won by white men, Democrats can still point to their overall membership as far more reflective of America than the House Republican conference.

The newly elected House includes:

* 39 blacks--all Democrats except Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, a candidate to head the House Republican conference, the No. 4 leadership job.

* 20 Latinos--17 Democrats and 3 Republicans.

* 58 women--41 Democrats and 17 Republicans.

Still, some said that the greater diversity among Democratic House members makes it all the more important for the leadership posts to reflect the demographic mix.

"You want people to look at the Democratic leadership and say, 'Yeah, that's us,' " said one top aide to a senior House Democrat.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that he would like to see greater diversity at the top of his party. But regardless of the outcome of the leadership races, he said, he will find solace that those chosen "will be very good on diversity issues," as reflected by their records.

Becerra noted, as have others, that leadership races rarely turn on diversity concerns but on such questions as "who will best serve the needs of our caucus."

On the Republican side, Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana faces no opposition for the speaker's job. But Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas is being challenged by Reps. Jennifer Dunn of Washington and Steve Largent of Oklahoma.

Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas has no opposition in his bid to remain the GOP party whip. But in the contest for the No. 4 slot, Watts is challenging John A. Boehner of Ohio to chair the GOP conference, to which all Republican House members belong.

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