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The Face of Politics

The Warner administration is wooing minorities into being part of government.


And it's not the only board that does. A lot of government board and commission seats need filling — 4,000 by the time Gov. Mark Warner's term is up. His team is on a mission to make the state's boards and commissions reflect the cultural diversity that is found across the state. Right now, the boards are 82 percent white male, even though white men only represent about 35 percent of the total state population, according to 2000 Census Bureau statistics.

Why does it matter? The Warner administration says it's about getting ideas from all the stakeholders.

"We're trying to put more people at the table and take the commonwealth forward," explains Anita Rimler, secretary of the commonwealth. "Good ideas come from a diverse crowd."

Of course, how you achieve a diverse crowd is a matter of taste. And, of course, depending on who you ask, it brings you to the radioactive topic of quotas.

Dave Johnson, interim director of the Republican Party of Virginia, was appointed to the Small Business Advisory Board in 2000 by then-Gov. Jim Gilmore. He says the Gilmore administration sought talent first and made hundreds of appointments of women and other minorities. He's all for a diverse representation, he says, but is cautious as to the approach.

"One way is the quota method — the Bill Clinton method," Thompson says. "The other is looking for excellence. They're different starting points."

He's dubious, he says, of people who come in and talk about it as though diversity is a primary focus. "Can't we just get past this and just look for excellent people who are out there?" he asks. "In a state like Virginia there's a huge pool."

But where to find them?

By the end of the month, the governor's office will have to fill 600 seats of the state's boards and commissions. (It's usually between 700 and 1,000 each month). That will mean everything from seats on the big heavy hitters like the parole board, the Board of Medicine, and a variety of economic-development boards to more specialized boards like the Plant Pollination Board and the Advisory Board for Athletic Training.

"I'm almost always the only minority on the board," says Bill Grace of Newport News, who has just been appointed to the Port Authority Board. A former senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and owner of a facilities-maintenance contracting company, Grace has served on the board of visitors for Christopher Newport University, the Hampton Roads Sports Facility Board and the board of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

"I think it's something like less than 5 percent [minority participation]," he says, "especially on high-level boards — economic, medical, what I call nonsocial-type boards. If it has to do with social issues, you find more minorities. But the critical ones — finance policy, arts — I tend to be the minority."

For Grace, the work is time-consuming (typically boards meet quarterly), but well worth it.

"These boards are sacrifices," he says. "It's time and that's valuable in business. And I give my time at zero cost to the public. The reward is the long-range improvement in Virginia. If you see a problem, you can' t sit on the outside. You have to get involved. Your presence does have an impact. The thing to consider is that [minority] presence can be a change agent. Without your presence, there can be no change and no wide perspective."

Basically, board members serve terms of up to four years. Depending on the board, members will do one of three things: serve as a liaison between government and public concerns, establish policy, or supervise agency directors and budgets. For some, the requirements are hefty — law degrees, experience in investment financing. But surprisingly, many boards have citizen seats — which basically means room for the ideas of people who have an interest in a particular subject (horses, transportation, arts and culture) — not necessarily someone with inside pull or a 10-foot resume.

"It really depends on the board," explains Lou Arnatt, director of gubernatorial appointments. "Sometimes we need a specific trait or a technical experience. But other times we really just want someone who's willing to serve and who lives in the right area of the state. We look for people interested in serving — Republican and Democrat."

Arnatt is one of four people, led by Secretary Rimler, who are shaking the bushes for new faces. The team, including Rimler, is made up of two African-Americans, one Asian and four women. Three — including Arnatt, a Virginia Commonwealth University journalism/political science graduate — are under 35. What that means is that the team meeting with citizen groups and sifting through resumes represents the age, ethnic and racial lines the administration wants to involve.

Of course, outreach into new populations is tough. Both women and African-Americans already have political organizations and leadership in place. Hispanics — the state's largest growing ethnic group — and Asians present another story.

Their new presence creates a challenge, Arnatt says.

"The hardest part of outreach with new groups is that it's difficult to get the word out," she says. We have to infiltrate and work with smaller groups and go into little pockets of the state. I think most people have never thought, 'Gee, I want to be on the Corn Board.' And really, I didn't even know about all the boards until I took this job. But the main thing is helping people recognize that they might be qualified. And that's especially true for women who select themselves out of the process. They think they couldn't possibly be qualified."

To fight that mindset, the appointment team spends time at ethnic celebrations, meetings of tiny nonprofits and political groups — anywhere that could lead to a legitimate link to the most visible minority leaders in the area. When a list of names is gathered, the team sends out invitations to a meeting at the Capitol where they disseminate information on how to get involved. Often, as was the case last month at a meeting with Hispanic leaders (this writer included), the governor himself shows up to pump the cause.

With all the effort, though, Secretary Rimler admits the process is going slower than she'd hoped.

"Nobody ever gets all [board and commission appointments] done. I laid out some goals at the beginning. But I see it takes more time when you're being this thorough. It's better to do our job right than to do it quickly."

She calls the process fun and exciting, a little bit like making a mosaic. "We are opening new doors. But we've always done it anyhow. When we started with Mark Warner's race for the Senate, no one thought he'd get to first base. And here we are. I think what motivates us is that those of us who are working on this project know we can make a difference — and without very much money. We can do it with people. We can change the face of Virginia through the boards and commissions, and that will change the path Virginia follows." S

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