When President Barack Obama introduced Sonia Sotomayor as his first Supreme Court nominee in late May, observers were caught up in the historic nature of the moment. The nation’s first black president had nominated a woman who could be the high court’s first Hispanic justice. “This is the new face of America,” proclaimed CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
Beneath the diversity at the highest levels of the new administration, however, some in the political consulting business—particularly a swath of African-American Democratic consultants—say their industry hasn’t done enough to focus attention on the lack of diversity that still exists in its own ranks. To listen to some tell it, the upper echelon of Washington power may be growing more diverse, particularly in the Democratic Party, but the ranks of those who get them elected isn’t. The political consulting industry still looks a lot like the old face of power in America—one that is overwhelmingly male and almost exclusively white.
“The talent is there,” says pollster Silas Lee, who heads one of the few African-American-owned consulting firms. “But it’s not utilized effectively or consistently. And I don’t think you can expect that to just change on its own.” Despite a handful of firsts for African-American consultants over the past two decades—Minyon Moore’s post as political director of the DNC during the 1996 cycle, Donna Brazile’s elevation to campaign manager for Al Gore in 1999, Howard Dean’s naming of Cornell Belcher to the DNC’s top polling post in 2005—several of the black political consultants and operatives interviewed by Politics say they still often feel like a suspect class in the eyes of many major campaigns and by some in the party committees. Absent new efforts from within the Democratic Party and from within the black political community itself, they don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
“I like to think I have a pretty good resume,” says one African-American consultant who would only speak anonymously about difficulties with the party hierarchy. “I’ve managed campaigns, I’ve worked presidential campaigns and at the DNC. Yet I can’t get the DSCC to take me seriously. It’s highly frustrating.”
The core complaints haven’t changed much over the past few cycles,
and while there have been efforts to diversify, many minority consultants say those efforts have often been too decentralized and haven’t lasted. Black consultants are often relegated to ethnic targeting and media buying, or to working for black and Hispanic candidates in minority-majority districts. And many say that House and Senate campaigns, as well as the major party committees, have yet to break the pattern of using the same small group of consultants cycle after cycle, leaving few opportunities for new consultants to break in.
“My party must do better,” says Cornell Belcher, perhaps the most prominent of the new generation of black consultants. Belcher served as one of President Obama’s pollsters during the 2008 campaign. “Really, it’s a strategic imperative. If you look at African-Americans as a central part of the coalition—that is not at all reflected in the consultants and vendors the party relies on.”
A 2007 analysis by Politico and the Center for Responsive Politics showed that a relatively small size of the Democratic campaign consulting pie went to black consultants. It found that less than 1 percent of the $1.3 billion spent by the national party and individual Democratic candidates in the ’06 cycle went to black consultants or to firms that had black senior partners. The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee disputed the conclusions, noting that the party had spent some $10 million to employ black political consultants.
Donna Brazile told Politico that after the 2000 campaign she was surprised to find that the wealth of business opportunity she anticipated did not come her way—even after managing a presidential race. Post-Obama, Cornell Belcher says he knows the feeling. “I can make that same argument today,” he says, although he wouldn’t elaborate.
When it comes to working at the highest levels of federal or national campaigns, black consultants like Belcher and Brazile are very much the exception. The truth is that it’s still exceedingly rare to find an African-American consultant among what Democratic political strategist Jamal Simmons terms “The Indispensible 5”—the consultants who call the shots in most campaigns. From media adviser to research director, finance director, pollster and campaign manager, white men tend to rule the roost. “Despite the necessity of African-American support for Democratic victories,” Simmons wrote in The American Prospect in 2005, “almost none of these senior decision makers are ever black.” Four years later, Simmons says the landscape isn’t all that different.
“If you went around to most Democratic consulting shops, I would challenge you to find a senior-level African-American in any one,” Simmons says. “The problem is that there’s no pressure point. If the committee isn’t pressuring candidates to diversify their consultants, then the candidates themselves need to be demanding it. Neither one of those is really happening.”
But the reality for many black consultants, says Belcher, is that they can’t speak out against people they want to work for. Too much criticism of the party establishment and the consulting industry carries risks, especially for younger operatives hoping to build a name and a career. “There’s a fine line between wanting to push for these things,” he says, “and also having to do business with these organizations and candidates.”
When Rev. Jesse Jackson embarked on his first presidential run in 1984, he brought along many of the black advisers who would form the initial crop of African-American consultants to rise to the heights of the political business. People like Donna Brazile, Alexis Herman and Minyon Moore. Brazile went on to become the first African-American to serve as campaign manager for a major party presidential nominee in 2000; Herman made history as President Clinton’s secretary of labor; and Moore went on to the Clinton White House and then to the Democratic National Committee as national political director for the 1996 cycle, later becoming its chief operating officer.
“That campaign laid the groundwork for so many of us,” Moore says. After serving as an adviser to the Jackson campaign in 1984, Moore was the candidate’s national deputy field director in 1988. “I look at some parts of the Obama campaign and I relive the Jackson campaign,” she says. “They were both so grassroots-driven and they emboldened so many people.”
A new generation of African-American operatives has graduated from the Obama campaign. As they work their way into the elite levels of government and politics, many see a golden opportunity to diversify the top tier of the political industry.
“In the twenty years that I’ve been working in politics, I haven’t seen a time where we’ve had such a deep bench of African-American operatives who can work in politics,” says Steve Hildebrand, who is white and was Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2008.
The question is whether the party committees, candidates and campaigns are doing enough to pave the way.
“I don’t think there has been a sustained effort to diversify the field,” says Maurice Daniel, an African-American who runs the Democratic direct mail firm Eye2Eye Communications. Daniel worked on the Obama campaign. As a model, he cites the effort undertaken by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to diversify the pool of Senate staffers. Two years ago, Reid instituted the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative and hired a full-time staffer to run it. The program searches out and recruits talented minority candidates, then offers their resumes to Senate offices with staff openings. Daniel, a former chief of staff to Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, says the program works, helping provide a wealth of qualified minority candidates to an institution that up until a couple years ago was staffed almost entirely by whites.
“It removed the excuse that ‘Oh, we can’t find any qualified black or Hispanic candidates,’” says Daniel. “The problem is that there’s nothing like this on the political side.”
Eureka Gilkey points to the effort she ran during the 2006 cycle for EMILY’s List as another model program. At the time, Barack Obama’s Senate campaign was gearing up and having trouble finding minorities for the campaign staff. So the campaign contacted EMILY’s List, a group that helps recruit and train volunteers for progressive candidates across the country. Working with Obama’s Senate campaign, Gilkey spearheaded a training and recruitment program aimed at young minority activists. “We didn’t have an easy time just finding people of color to attend the trainings,” she says. After her work during the ’06 cycle, Gilkey was the first political staffer hired on Obama’s presidential campaign and went on to serve as the Northeast regional political director. “There are groups out there like EMILY’S List and Democratic Gain that do some training,” Gilkey notes. “But we don’t have a Leadership Institute like the GOP does.”
That lack of development programs is one of the reasons why a host of consultants and younger operatives want to see a more concerted and centralized effort to grow minority representation inside the political consulting trade. “We’re in this position where we have a lot of talent out there,” says Marlon Marshall, now the national field director at the DCCC. “But I don’t think we can just sit back and expect this to happen by itself.” During last year’s primary Marshall ran field operations for the Clinton campaign in Nevada, Ohio and Indiana; in the general election he was Obama’s Missouri field director. In March, The Root named Marshall among its ten young African-American politicos to watch. “Washington’s New Black Pack,” it termed the group.
Also on the list are operatives like Jason Green, who after serving as Obama’s national get-out-the-vote director is now working in the White House counsel’s office, and Alexander Lofton, a regional director at Organizing for America, President Obama’s grassroots operation that has been folded into the DNC.
Along with the crop of new black campaign operatives, there are young African-American consultants like Julie Green. In 2008, Green ran the AFL-CIO’s $15 million national direct mail program. But when she started her career seven years ago at the direct mail firm MSHC Partners, she says, “The diversity was me and the secretary.” While Greene says her former firm has made strides since then, actively seeking to diversify its ranks, the industry as a whole needs to do more. “Diversity is definitely part of the active discussion,” she says. “But it needs to start being acted on in and around this town and in this business.”
So what sort of effort is taking place at the highest levels of both parties? None that anyone is interested in talking about. All but one party committee declined to address Politics’ requests for comment on the issue of ethnic diversity among the consultants they employ. Politics posed the following question to each of the six party committees: Does the committee have any active efforts to diversify the pool of political consultants it employs or recommends to campaigns? Four requests to the DNC went unreturned, while the DSCC wouldn’t comment on the record. Four requests to the RNC went unreturned, while the NRCC and NRSC both declined our request for comment.
Only the DCCC would offer an on-the-record comment. “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee makes a strong effort to ensure that the committee reflects the diversity of our party and country,” says spokesman Ryan Rudominer. “We are proud as Democrats to represent a diverse group of Americans and realize the importance of benefiting from a variety of voices.”
The lack of diversity and access that stretches across most of the political consulting industry comes with some important caveats.
First, few are suggesting that black political consultants and operatives can’t make a living in the business. There are many consultants on the state and local level flush with business from local candidates and campaigns. And some on the national level, like pollster Silas Lee and St. Louis-based FUSE Media, supplement their political business with private-sector clients. One area where African-Americans are well represented is in GOTV and base work—not always a good thing according to several consultants who warn young black operatives not to get tracked into the specialty.
Also, the inability to break into the cadre of consultants used by the major party committees and many federal campaigns is not only a problem for minority consultants—it’s a problem for just about anyone who isn’t already in that inner circle. That includes the vast majority of white consultants, as well.
Right now, the pool of black political consultants is still quite small, and many younger operatives, including several who worked on the Obama effort, have chosen government over the consulting world—at least for now. “This is a new generation of political operatives,” says Hildebrand. “They’re younger and they’re not political consultants yet. firmly believe that there will be significant opportunity in the consulting world for them down the road, but most of them aren’t going to be political consultants after one stint on a presidential campaign.”
In the long term, say others, diversifying the political industry isn’t just up to the party committees or the national parties themselves. Those who make up the current core of minority operatives will need to continue to build on their successes. “You can’t just rely on mainstream political institutions to do this,” says Charles Ellison, director at the Center for New Politics and Policy. A former congressional speechwriter, Ellison says there has to be more of an effort from within the black political community to groom young African-Americans for politics. He also points the finger at black media, which he says doesn’t focus enough on the business side of the industry. “It’s incumbent upon us to start discussing politics in the context of the business—what goes on behind the scenes.”
Some consultants also raised the idea of working partnerships between minority- and white-owned political consulting firms that would allow black consultants to gain new exposure to high-level campaigns and allow candidates and decision makers inside the party and party committees to build trust with unknown consultants.
“You need to have some way of convincing white candidates that these consultants can run a campaign,” says Ron Walters, who heads the African American Leadership Center. Walters worked on both of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns, serving as deputy campaign manager for issues in the 1984 race. “We need more training programs to bring [African-Americans] into the process. Those are things that could be coming from inside the consulting profession.”
Most agree that diversity inside the consulting industry is slowly increasing. Along with the new generation of black operatives, Hispanic and Asian-American consultants are more numerous than in the past. But for black consultants, many say their biggest danger is basking in the success of the Obama operation—a historically diverse campaign and administration that includes African-Americans like Valerie Jarrett and Patrick Gaspard at its highest levels—while glossing over the fact that the overwhelming majority of faces plotting the next campaign are white.
“It’s always good to evaluate how far you’ve come and where you’re going,” says Minyon Moore. “But what I want to know is when does the conversation normalize itself? When does [diversity] become something that we don’t have to celebrate and just something that exists? I know we aren’t there yet.”
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Shane D’Aprile is senior editor at Politics magazine.