By Anita Debro
For The Birmingham Times
Birmingham native Dana Gresham, the newly hired chief of staff for Alabama Senator Doug Jones, clearly knows the value of hard work — something he learned from his mother.
Gresham, 47, was raised by a single mother, who sometimes struggled to make ends meet. He has credited his mother with teaching him the value of hard work and instilling “a sense of quiet determination.”
“From her example, I learned the lessons that I now occasionally have the chance to pass on: Work hard, don’t fear sacrifice, act with integrity, pursue bold dreams, strive for excellence, and the rest will take care of itself,” he wrote in an article that highlighted the contributions of black public servants under the Obama administration.
Jones was sworn-in January 3 as the Junior Senator from Alabama.
Gresham, a 1989 graduate of A.H. Parker High School, steadily worked his way up Washington D.C.’s legislative ranks to a top spot in President Barak Obama’s administration where served as an assistant secretary of governmental affairs for the Department of Public Transportation.
Gresham was working as a consultant in the private sector for City Council Federal in 2017 before he answered the call to return to public service and lead Jones’ office.
The Right Man
Now Gresham will be one of only three blacks in the US Senate to hold such as position. Supporters say the Capitol Hill veteran is the right man for the job.
“I know that Birmingham’s own Dana Gresham is a strong choice to lead Senator Jones’ team as chief of staff,” said Congresswoman Terri Sewell. “Gresham ably served the people of the 7th Congressional District as Chief of Staff for five years, and I look forward to working with him in his new role with Sen. Jones.”
Gresham’s first top role in a congressional office was as chief of staff for former Alabama Representative Artur Davis. He spent five years heading Davis’ office before being appointed to the Barack Obama administration.
From Birmingham to DC
Gresham was raised in Birmingham and after graduating from Parker High School he headed to Washington D.C. where he solidified his decision for a life in public service. There he attended Georgetown University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in International Politics in 1994. From there he joined the staff of North Carolina U.S. Representative Eva Clayton, one of the first blacks to hold that office.
Gresham started as a staff assistant for Clayton. One year later he was promoted to legislative assistant charged with researching and drafting legislation. From there he served as legislative assistant to former U.S. Representative Bud Cramer, who served the 5th Congressional District.
He worked his way to a senior position on Cramer’s staff and eventually and was invited to join the Obama-Biden transition team on the Congressional Relations staff. Gresham, who grew up in still segregated neighborhoods in Birmingham, marveled at being able to vote for and then work for a black president.
“I‘m from Birmingham, Alabama, a city that found itself at the center of America’s Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s,” he said. “Although I grew up a decade after the movement’s triumphs – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 – my elementary and high schools remained segregated – not by law, but rather by custom and geography,” he wrote in the 2011 article he wrote in an article that highlighted the contributions of black public servants under the Obama administration. “I never imagined the day I would have the chance to vote for an African-American president, let alone work for one. It’s a thrill beyond measure, a reminder of how far we’ve come, and a cause for great optimism about the direction in which our country is headed.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Gresham’s hiring made headlines this month not just because of his stellar credentials but because he is now the only black chief of staff to serve a Democratic senator— a fact that the many advocacy groups find unacceptable. Two Republican senators—Tim Scott of South Carolina and Jerry Moran of Kansas— currently have black chiefs of staff.
According to a 2015 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, of the 336 top Senate staffers, only 24 were people of color. The Joint Center’s report noted that “although African Americans account for 22% of Democratic voters, they account for less than 1% of Democratic top staff.” And before Gresham’s hiring, there were not only no black chiefs of staff, but also no black communication directors or staff directors among the Democratic Senate offices.
The Joint Center applauded the selection of Jones, who was not available for this article, saying it “commends Senator-elect Jones for his leadership and commitment to diversity. This is an important moment in the movement to make the Senate truly representative of all Americans. The Joint Center looks forward to continuing to work with Senator-elect Jones as he makes diversity a priority in building the rest of his staff.”
A report released last year by Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York revealed that Senate staffers are overwhelmingly white.
There had been pressure for Jones to hire a more diverse staff since blacks played a significant role in his victory last month over Republican Roy Moore. A coalition of more than 16 minority advocacy groups wrote an open letter to Jones, asking him to carefully consider diverse candidates.
“The lack of diversity among top Senate staff is not caused by a complete absence of strong candidates of color. … hiring at least one person of color to your senior staff in Washington would speak loudly, and we ask that you do so among the qualified applicants that you will receive,” the letter read.
Those advocates praised Jones for being the first Democrat to address the need for more diversity. Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, who now heads the National Urban League, tweeted:
“Congrats to DANA GRESHAM who will serve as CHIEF OF STAFF TO DOUG JONES who strikes a blow for long overdue Senate senior staff diversity. Will others follow??@NatUrbanLeague will be watching.”