‘We need some help:’ Governor’s office will hire first chief equity officer

Gov. Ralph Northam. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia will look for its first chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer to guide Gov. Ralph Northam through his remaining time in office.

Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer told the Virginia Asian Advisory Board Thursday that the administration intends to post a listing for the job soon. It will be one of a handful of similar state-level positions in the country.

The job’s description — sent to members of the General Assembly on Friday — includes the responsibility to “develop a sustainable framework for the continued promotion of inclusive practices across Virginia state government (and) to develop a measurable, strategic plan to identify and address systemic inequities in formal and informal policies and practices within Virginia government.”

One of the jobs of the future senior-level staff member in the governor’s office will be to help Northam determine the best ways to tackle racial inequity — an area he has a renewed focus on since a photo with blackface and a Ku Klux Klan costume was found on his medical school yearbook page. (Northam denied being in that photo but admitted to another instance of wearing blackface).

“Obviously February was a difficult month for the governor and his family, his administration, all the folks that serve his administration on boards and Virginians in general,” Mercer told the Asian Advisory Board. “It was also quite an eye-opener for the governor in terms of stepping back and listening and learning. The governor has a lot of listening and learning to do.”

The new position is fully funded through the end of Northam’s term with money already allocated to the governor’s office, Mercer said. For it to become a permanent position that outlasts Northam, the General Assembly would need to codify it with legislation defining the position and then funding it through the budget.

Mercer said the future official will have a role in ensuring the state has diverse hiring and retention practices and help facilitate conversations between state agencies and departments to address inequities.

“If we’re going to be out talking about the importance of diversity and inclusion, we need to practice that in our business practices,” Mercer said.

He said the governor, a Democrat, has worked on issues of inequity for a long time, but efforts have usually been “thwarted by the majority.”

Recently, the administration has prioritized looking at procurement practices around small, women and minority-owned businesses. Northam suggested budget amendments during the reconvened General Assembly session to make sure more of those businesses got state contracts. Republican lawmakers preferred to wait until an audit of the state department that handles those contracts was completed.

Maternal mortality rates among women of color specifically has also become a focus for Northam, Mercer said.

The General Assembly passed a bill from Republican Del. Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield charging the Department of Health with reviewing the rate of pregnancy-related deaths in Virginia.

Otherwise, Mercer said on Thursday, the new diversity officer would help the administration identify other areas that need attention.

“We don’t have all the answers and we need some help,” he said.