A push for diversity at the top of the Democratic campaign ranks made an impact heading into the 2016 cycle, but the leaders of the effort say too many consultant and committee-vendor relationships still aren’t evolving with the changing electorate.
“The entire progressive industry needs to change,” said Alida M. Garcia, founder of Inclusv, an organization that aims to connect operatives of color with industry employers and campaigns.
With 2016 set to see the most diverse electorate in history, Garcia said too many campaigns and organizations on the left lack representative numbers of the people of color they advocate for. Groups like Inclusv, Democratic Gain and Power PAC+ are working harder than ever to remedy that.
The thinking was that the campaign staffer could develop into, say, a committee staffer and then a consultant contracting with the party committees.
“Unless we start developing more talent on the campaigns, we’re going to be asking ourselves the same questions cycle after cycle,” said Garcia. “What we’ve found with consultants and the staff dynamic [at the committees], is that they all started on campaigns.”
Steve Phillips heads Power PAC+ and is part of the Democracy in Color Campaign, which in June released a set of report cards grading how top-level Democratic Senate candidates were doing “engaging, investing, and turning out voters of color.” The report cards were also sent to a group of top Democratic donors to increase pressure on campaigns to change tactics.
In addition to pushing campaigns and committees to invest more in reaching minority voters, the report cards also singled out some campaigns as models. Phillips pointed to Nevada Democratic Senate nominee Catherine Cortez Masto as a notable example of a candidate using effective tactics to target voters of color. “We were pretty pleased with what we found in Nevada’s race,” he said. “They’ve got Spanish language polling, they’ve got consultants doing Spanish-language media — that’s an example of what could and should be done.”
The primary concern for Phillips is that consultants will consider it an afterthought to target minority voters.
“They’ll do a little black radio, a little Spanish-language radio and call it a day. That’s not sufficient,” he said. “There remains a grossly disproportionate emphasis on running TV ads to target swing voters.”
Kouri C. Marshall, who heads Democratic GAIN, the job placement and training organization, said having a staff position is just the start. “It’s great to be a staffer, but it’s another thing to run a company and be contracted with the committees that belong to the party,” he said.
As a result of pressure from Inclusv and other groups, some Democratic committees have been more responsive when it comes to releasing figures on their hiring practices. Marshall said the numbers have shown an improvement, but there remains a long way to go.
In May, the Democratic National Convention Committee highlighted its hire of AgencyEA as the official design firm for the 2016 DNC credential badges. “AgencyEA, a Latina-owned business, is an experienced marketing firm that specializes in digital and traditional design,” the DNCC said in a release.
For critics, it’s incremental improvement—real change, they say, will be when media firms owned and operated by minorities manage to find their way into the realm of those multi-million-dollar committee contracts. “I think folks are waiting for the people in authority to push those buttons and bring about change,” said Marshall.
“We remain worried,” said Phillips. “A lot of the consulting conventional wisdom is to moderate your politics to appeal the swing voter rather than investing in mobilizing voters of color.”
Moreover, Democratic consultants risk taking voters of color for granted with Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. Rhetoric from the New York’s businessman has inflamed key Democratic voting groups, but Phillips said that energy could go unharnessed if campaigns aren’t diligent in their outreach.
“Trump is doing a lot to alienate voters of color, so voter preference will be pretty strongly Democratic. The issue will be voter turnout,” he said. “Much more effort needs to be put into polling and understanding and developing programs to mobilize and turn out voters of color.”