POLITICS
09/02/2018 07:19 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2018

Democrats Are Pushing More Diverse Candidates. Behind The Scenes, Not So Much.

Diversity typically ends "where the money begins,” says a Latino consulting firm founder.
People for the American Way interns prepare information packets on July 6, 2005, at the organization's "action center" in Was
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images
People for the American Way interns prepare information packets on July 6, 2005, at the organization's "action center" in Washington, D.C.

For the past year, Carol McDonald has been trying out a new way of introducing herself when she speaks in public. “Hi,” she’ll say. “My name is Carol McDonald, and I’m the only black woman making television ads for the Democrats.”

McDonald is not sure what she’s saying is true, but she says it anyway, in front of large crowds, hoping that one day, someone will tell her she’s wrong — that she’s not the only one.

So far, no one has.

Democrats may be fielding a more racially diverse slate of candidates than ever before, and they acknowledge they are more dependent on nonwhite voters to deliver their victories. But in 2018, the party still relies in the extreme on white political consultants and campaign professionals — with potentially disastrous results.

Sometimes that means they push a message that rings false with constituents; Democrats air so many mistranslated Spanish ads, said Chuck Rocha, the founder of the Latino-owned consulting firm Solidarity Strategies, that he barely notices anymore.

Other times, a lack of diversity comes with critical blind spots. McDonald, who is part of the media consulting firm 76 Words, recently worked for a black candidate whose other consultants were all white. Facing a crowded primary field, they brainstormed ways to differentiate the candidate from the rest of the field.

We talked and talked about everything except for the fact that this candidate was black and would be the first black person to represent that constituency,” McDonald said. “If you have a team that can’t even have that conversation, you’re potentially missing something.”

What keeps politics so white? 

The answer has to do with the pipeline, with seasoned operatives tapping their own networks, and with privilege.

Campaign workers may live as if they’re broke — crashing on couches, working 80-hour weeks and subsisting on takeout — but in actuality, that lifestyle requires a lot of money.

“You need to be able bring your own car, or move across the country, not have family or child care obligations, have someplace to stay, be able to work twice the normal work week, be able to pay for your own cell phone, pay for your own insurance or be on your parents’ plan,” said Ihaab Syed, the secretary for the Campaign Workers Guild, a newly formed union for campaign staff.  

Many people would find it impossible to support this lifestyle on campaign wages alone. The median monthly salary for a staffer working on a Democratic congressional race this year is $2,632, according to a HuffPost analysis of more than 1,000 staffers’ salaries. That’s a little over $15 an hour for 40 hours a week, although the typical campaign staffer probably works twice as many hours. And paid campaign roles are often bookended by long spells without a paycheck at all.

It’s not unusual to earn a paid campaign position based on weeks of volunteer work and to remain unemployed for months after it’s over, said Eric Lundy, the program director of Inclusv, a group that helps people of color build careers in politics.

For nonwhite people, who are less likely to come from a wealthy background, that may be a nonstarter. Irene Lin, who now works as a campaign manager, recalls struggling to include minorities on a team of unpaid interns doing opposition research in a 2006 Senate race. One of her favorite candidates was an African-American man who turned down her offer to take a paying job at a local grocery store.

“I ended up taking the white privileged kid from the prep school who could afford to work for free,” Lin said. “It’s a really shitty system … That’s why the Hill, and ultimately, the people that make our laws, don’t reflect America.”

It doesn’t help that most campaigns fill critical positions in a matter of days.

The hiring process is quick, ad hoc, and word-of-mouth — the kind of process in which people with pre-existing ties to power have an advantage.

Even when Democratic campaigns take a more formal approach, the party has not exactly positioned itself to promote diverse hires. Campaigns frequently rely on two major organizations, EMILY’s List and the DCCC, to suggest job candidates for key campaign roles. The DCCC is making a specific effort to include more people of color in its resume bank, but it’s only just begun. (Since 2017, the group has banked 500 “diverse resumes” of potential campaign workers, a spokesman said.)

EMILY’s List is even further behind. The group has a database of more than 4,000 resumes, and whenever someone new uploads their resume, they have the option of identifying their race. But although EMILY’s List could, in theory, use that information to track the diversity of its database — and therefore, of the people it’s referring for hundreds of campaign jobs — it isn’t doing that. The database just isn’t set up to track that information, a spokeswoman said.

Candidates do make a difference. A remarkable proportion of Democratic candidates for office this year are people of color, who often place a great emphasis on hiring a diverse staff, political professionals said.  

And opportunities are changing with the electorate.

Voter persuasion teams, for example, used to focus solely on hiring white suburbanites; people of color were rarely considered for the job ― “Even though I’ve been persuading white people since I was 5 years old,” one professional joked. As nonwhite voters make up a larger share of the Democratic base, campaigns are offering more opportunities to people of color in outreach.

But outreach sometimes seems like the only opportunity for POCs.

Numerous people who spoke to HuffPost say they’ve spent their careers resisting the pressure to work in minority organizing.

“I can’t tell you how many times people tried to push me toward raising ‘Asian money,’ saying, ‘You’d be a natural,’” said Raghu Devaguptapu, a partner at Left Hook, a Democratic strategy firm. 

Minorities interested in working on campaigns sometimes fear being siloed and passed over for positions in the campaign world where the real power lies: as pollsters, media consultants and finance directors.

The more consequential the job, the more likely that person is to be white, Devaguptapu said, so that by the time campaign staffers make the transition to working full-time for a strategy firm, there are almost no people of color left.

Rocha wagered that political consultancy is the “whitest industry in America.”

“That’s where diversity typically ends,” Rocha said. “Where the money begins.”

Then there’s the out-and-out racism.

Lundy recalls hearing the N-word more often while volunteering for Barack Obama in New Hampshire than he ever did growing up in North Carolina.

On one occasion, he called to invite a voter to a rally. The voter got excited. What the campaign should do, the voter said, was get Oprah to come to the rally. And all the other n****rs. And then burn down the building. 

In a daze, Lundy hung up the phone and told a co-worker what had just happened. “The general attitude was, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. Make your next phone call,’” he said. “The problem was not that individual person. But if you feel like your concerns are not being heard, is $9 an hour really enough to put up with that?”

“Because of the nature of our politics right now, you can’t get into the field without in some way making yourself a lightning rod for a lot of racial stress,” said Shaun Scott, who worked as a field organizer for Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s re-election in Seattle. One of his interns, who wears a hijab, felt afraid to canvass in all-white neighborhoods by herself.

“Then there’s the dreaded ‘racial confessional,’” Scott said. “You knock on the door, and maybe it’s a white person who feels really, really badly about having voted for Reagan or something like that. They see you as an opportunity to go into what it is they think they did wrong, and I’m like, I’m just here to tell you about the upcoming primary!”

“As much as there are those material boundaries, there are also these psychological ones that are a real price of entry for participating in politics, for poor folks and for people of color.”

White political operatives often don’t know what they don’t know.

Communications strategist Tonia Bui was working for a candidate in Washington state when the staffer in charge of outreach said the campaign didn’t need to invest in Asian-American outreach, because “they all speak English, they’re all assimilated.”

In fact, there were plenty of people in the area who didn’t speak English — or who did speak English but weren’t going to respond to ads and messaging created for white people. Bui was stunned.

No group is publicly tracking the diversity of campaign staff, and it’s not as though most campaigns have an HR department that treats diversity as part of its mission.

“I’m not aware of a single campaign that has implemented the Rooney rule,” Lundy said, referring to the National Football League’s practice of interviewing at least one minority candidate for senior job openings. “In general, anything that’s not getting the campaign from A to B, anything that’s not seen as helping you win, is seen as getting in the way.” 

The last major analysis, in 2013, found that African-Americans were twice as well represented on Democratic campaigns than in the general workforce. Staffers of Asian and Hispanic backgrounds, however, were underrepresented. And African-American and Hispanic staffers made 70 cents for every dollar earned by white staffers. (Republican campaigns, in most respects, were even less diverse.)

There are finally some bright spots for Democrats, however. The DCCC just last year charged a new department with recruiting minority-owned media and strategy firms. It also finally has a permanent operation to train campaign professionals, which should reduce campaigns’ reliance on the word-of-mouth method to find key staff.

“The heart of this issue is, in 2018, for Democrats, diversity is how you win,” Lundy said.

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