Dems’ 2020 problem: Too many candidates, too few minority staffers

Potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in the early stages of assembling campaign staffs are running into an uncomfortable truth: Among the already small pool of capable operatives, there’s an even smaller pool of nonwhite campaign managers and senior advisers.

The shortage could have serious repercussions given the large number of expected candidates and the diverse makeup of the Democratic electorate.The party’s base is increasingly young and diverse, and candidates, especially older ones, need staffers who understand how to stitch together coalitions across racial and economic lines.

But interviews with more than a dozen Democratic operatives — including aides to several likely 2020 contenders and veterans of past presidential campaigns — produced a consensus that there simply aren’t enough minority operatives to staff what’s expected to be a sprawling field of candidates.

Veterans of past Democratic campaigns say that a campaign that doesn’t have African-Americans or other minorities in its top leadership is going to hit a wall very quickly.

“Here’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t have any people of color on your national team or if you don’t have them in those early states … you’re going to be hamstrung,” said Jamal Simmons, who has served as an adviser for multiple Democratic presidential campaigns. A candidate campaigning in a largely white state like New Hampshire is likely to be asked about issues that voters in minority-rich states like South Carolina care about, Simmons said, and will have trouble responding if their team isn’t prepared.

One need only consider Bernie Sanders’ experience in 2016 to appreciate the problem. Early in the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton boasted a highly diverse campaign staff, while Sanders’ team was overwhelmingly white. Sanders paid the price.

“The Clinton team did a masterful job of banging the shit out of us on these issues,” said one former Sanders campaign adviser. While the criticism was often overblown, in the view of the former aide, it was “occasionally right.”

The shortage of minority political talent, one veteran Democratic campaign manager said, stems from the fact that Democratic campaigns and congressional offices have only recently started to make a push to diversify their staffs. Some congressional offices and state parties have worked to build an informal farm system by prioritizing minorities for mid-level positions that will lead to campaign managing jobs or chief of staff roles. But for now, the lists to pick from are small.

“There aren’t a lot of names,” said the veteran Democratic campaign strategist.

Brandon Hall, a veteran Democratic consultant, said it’s in the best interest of 2020 campaigns to staff up early, especially since the primary field could grow to two dozen candidates. Otherwise, they risk losing out on qualified minority staffers.

“If 20 candidates run, there isn’t enough staff, period,” Hall said. “Smart candidates should make diversity a priority early. Those that do will be able to fill out a diverse senior staff.”

Ask almost any Democratic strategist for a short list of top African-American talent and many of the same names come up. Addisu Demissie, who recently ran California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s campaign, is regularly mentioned as one of the most capable operatives. He’s expected to serve a top-level position if Sen. Cory Booker decides to run for president.

Other minority operatives regularly bandied about include Emmy Ruiz, who served as the Colorado state director for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and Karen Finney, another former Clinton aide who most recently helped advise Democrat Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial race in Georgia. Democrats also point to Brandon Davis, who served as a chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee before running Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s unsuccessful general election campaign for governor of Florida.

Still others include Simone Ward, another Clinton alumna; Symone Sanders, who was the press secretary for Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016; and Jessica Byrd, a top aide for Abrams’ campaign.

The relative dearth of names stems from the failure of Democratic lawmakers and office seekers to diversify their staffs at the senior level. There have been only a few a statewide and presidential campaign managers, and it’s been less than two decades since Donna Brazile became the first African-American woman to direct a major presidential campaign — Al Gore’s in 2000.

Sometimes campaigns have brought on top African-American operatives only after being directly confronted about the homogeneous makeup of their staffs. In 2016, a few weeks after Black Lives Matter protesters stormed the stage at a Netroots Nation forum featuring Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sanders hired Symone Sanders as press secretary and began to fill out his platform positions on gun control.

In the Senate, there are only three black chiefs of staff: Dana Gresham for Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Jennifer DeCasper for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Brennan Britton for Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

According to the Senate Democrats’ Diversity Initiative, an effort to encourage more diversity among congressional staffs, the percentage of nonwhite staffers for the 10 Democratic senators who have shown interest in running for president varies wildly. Sanders’ staff is 18 percent minority and only 9 percent black. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Booker’s staff is 63 percent nonwhite and 33 percent African-American.

Over the years, Warren’s political and congressional teams have placed African-Americans in key positions. Chris Huntley is a speechwriter, and Tracey Lewis, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was Warren’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.

The composition of the Democratic Party has become increasingly diverse over the past two decades. According to Pew Research, in 1997, three-quarters of registered voters who identified as Democrats or “lean Democratic” were white. By 2017, that figure had shrunk to 59 percent. Meanwhile, African-Americans made up 17 percent of registered Democratic voters in 1997. By 2017, that number had grownslightly, to 19 percent, while the percentage for Hispanics had grown from 5 percent to 12 percent over the same period of time.

The skeletal operations of some of would-be candidates are already factoring in diversity as they game out hiring plans, according to multiple Democrats connected to their campaigns. Booker, for instance, wants his senior campaign staff to mirror the diversity of his Senate staff, according to multiple Democrats with knowledge of those plans.

Minyon Moore, a former top adviser for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said every 2020 Democratic candidate will need a diverse staff to be competitive. Effective Democratic campaigns have to assemble diverse coalitions of supporters, and a multiracial senior staff is imperative to accomplish that, Moore said.

“It’s just a fact,” Moore said. “And if they have a team or a campaign manager that doesn’t reflect their values, it will show up.”

Democratic donors and activists have been demanding for years that Democratic candidates and lawmakers hire more minorities, to little avail. In 2016, Susan Sandler, a major Democratic donor, urged other donors to pressure the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to hire a person of color as the committee’s next executive director. Some of the potential names Sandler offered were familiar: Demissie, Ruiz and Brynn Craig, another Clinton campaign veteran. Instead, a white woman, Mindy Myers, who served as a former campaign manager for Warren and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, got the job.

Steve Phillips, a Democratic donor who founded Democracy in Color, a political organization focused on multiculturalism in politics, said his group has a database of minority operatives that campaigns can draw from. Most of the likely presidential campaigns haven’t asked to use it, he said, though it’s still early.

“I think because the campaigns are not formalized yet it’s makes it a little harder for the person reaching out,” Phillips said, “but we’re just weeks or hours away from” that.

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