Anxious to stand out amidst an onslaught of White House job seekers, Democratic interest groups are transforming a system once based on word-of-mouth and paper résumés into a high-tech pursuit of plum jobs for their preferred candidates.
Some groups are taking it further, weeding out all but the strongest candidates so the ones they pitch to Barack Obama’s team have the best chance to make the cut.
Twenty women’s organizations developed a private Web site where they are posting résumés, ranking applicants and recommending top picks. Black, Hispanic and gay rights organizations have been gathering names in online databases for as long as a year. And progressive California activists with close ties to the transition are running one of the more methodical appointment efforts, known as the Talent Bank Project.
There’s no guarantee it will work. Obama already has bucked key interest groups with some Cabinet choices – but the groups believe the full-court press ups their odds of getting their voices heard.
It also reflects a daunting reality for the 320,000 people vying for only a few thousand spots in the new administration: The job search is really a campaign.
"All the lobby groups want to have a say-so with who serves in the administration because they care about their issues being represented,” said Clare C. Giesen, executive director of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “You are going to have to put together a campaign to get into the administration. You have to be shameless, really, to get onto the administration. You have to put yourself in front of people time and time again to get noticed.”
The savviest applicants aren’t just submitting résumés through the transition’s website, Change.gov. They’re going searching for endorsements from a broad network of interest groups that can offer their imprimatur and a potential leg up with transition staff.
It’s a far cry from 1992, when interest groups sifted through piles of résumés and the Plum Book, the massive inventory of government jobs, trying to match names with openings. In 2000, the big innovation was submitting an application online.
Advances in technology since then are democratizing the process, even as more groups rush to lobby the incoming administration on behalf of their candidates.
The groups say they are casting a far wider net than in the past, using email membership lists to solicit names from beyond the Beltway. But the overall flood of 320,000 résumés – eight times the number submitted in 2000 (and 20,000 more than three weeks ago) – means applicants need to work their networks more than ever before.
“In the past, they were done in notebooks and with large numbers of paper, and in numerous meetings,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, which organized 20 major women’s organizations for the Feminist Appointment Project. “This time, we decided we were going modern. It is so much more efficient than word of mouth and people on the phone.”
The Feminist Majority created a clearinghouse in the form of a private Wiki site. Whenever one organization posts a résumé, e-mail notifications go out to everyone else. At that point, the applicant goes up for debate as women throughout the organizations post comments. The top choices get passed on to the transition.
It remains unclear how much weight the Obama team will give to the interest group recommendations. He has already disappointed women’s organizations by appointing mostly men to the Cabinet, gay organizations by not naming the first openly gay Cabinet secretary and progressives by filling the ranks with political centrists.
“Our top priority is putting together the best team possible so that we can begin to address the enormous challenges this country faces,” Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
But Obama aides have shown willingness to hear out the groups.
The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda arranged a conference call in November with 26 member organizations and transition officials, including Michael Strautmanis, director of public liaison and intergovernmental affairs.
Since then, the Hispanic Leadership Agenda has sent lists of names weekly to the transition, identifying candidates by name, position sought and endorsements received, said John Trasvina, chairman of the group and president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Gay leaders met earlier this month with transition co-chairman John Podesta, personnel director Jim Messina and three other top transition officials, and told the aides that they “expect” representation from their community in the administration’s top tiers, said Denis Dison, vice president for external affairs at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
The group began logging résumés in a database a year ago “so that we do have a deep talent pool to present in an organized and vetted fashion, and to signal that this is something that our community expects,” Dison said.
The Earl Warren Institute for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at the University of California at Berkeley has assembled one of the more methodical appointment efforts to bring minorities and women into the administration.
The Talent Bank Project has close ties to the transition, although it describes itself as nonpartisan. Maria Echaveste, a fellow at the Warren Institute and Obama immigration adviser, is running the project. The Institute’s executive director, Maria Blanco, advised Obama during the California primary and works on the transition’s Education Department review team.
Echaveste’s husband, Christopher Edley, sits on the transition’s 12-member advisory board.
The Talent Bank Project is reportedly received funding from PowerPac, a California political action committee that got its start opposing Proposition 54, which was described as a first step towards a “colorblind society” by barring the state from collecting racial data.
A spokesman for the Talent Bank Project could not be reached for comment.
"All these groups are counting people as they go along," said James Pfiffner, a public policy professor at George Mason University who has studied every presidential transition since 1976. "From the presidential personnel perspective, it is very useful ... as opposed to a whole group of people from different interest groups throwing résumés at them."