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Friday’s dispatch: People of color are “treated as an afterthought”
On Wednesday, former Vice President Joe Biden pumped up Democrats in Congress with a simple message: “We’re gonna win back the House.” But leaders of multiple organizations focused on electing and turning out minorities across the United States this year have a different message for the party: You are doing too little to connect with voters of color, and it is jeopardizing your chance of winning in 2018.
Nearly a dozen organizers and operatives who work day to day with communities of color told Mic that investments over the past year from the Democratic establishment into minority communities have not kept pace with what has been promised. If 2018 is to be different than the past two midterm elections, they say Democrats must begin spending millions of dollars — now — to help black, Latino and Asian voters and other voters of color understand why they should turn out to vote for the Democratic Party.
While the Democratic National Committee and other groups talk a big game, they’ve yet to invest heavily in selling minority voters on the Democratic Party. And concerns remain that staffers at Democratic-aligned super PACs, like the massive Priorities USA, and party committees, like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, don’t reflect the voters they plan to target.
“Black voters, voters of color, are often treated as an afterthought. Persuasion that their vote matters ... is not an October conversation,” Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a group working to register and engage minority voters in Georgia, said in an interview. “I am doing everything I can to make sure people acknowledge the opportunity and rise to the occasion. This is a real moment; let us not squander it.”
It’s not that establishment Democratic groups will not invest heavily in 2018; outside groups alone are planning historic spending on midterm elections. But it’s widely felt that the Democrats’ mentality of focusing on winning elections rather than building movements, like when the DNC pumped millions of dollars into rebuilding state parties in 2005 and 2006, is leaving black, Latino and Asian voters in search of a reason to vote for the party after a year of anti-immigrant and anti-minority policies and rhetoric from the right. Organizers worry that reason to vote Democratic will come in the form of a door knock or digital ad in October, far too late to convince voters of color they matter to the party.
The 2016 presidential election was a jarring reminder voters of color will not simply show up for Democrats. Hillary Clinton won black and Latino voters by significantly smaller margins than Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. And in Pennsylvania, for example, while Clinton won black voters by a margin similar to Obama’s in 2012, black voters in 2016 made up a smaller percentage of the electorate. That helped Donald Trump win the state by less than 70,00 votes or about 1 percentage point, the first time a Republican had won Pennsylvania since 1988.
“I’ve seen a lot of lip service to date by progressives, by donors and by the Democratic Party,” Varun Nikore, president of the Asian-American Pacific Islander Victory Fund, said in an interview. “If you look at the amount of rhetoric to the amount of money spent on communities of color compared to the total amount spent ... we’re talking about tiny, tiny fractions.”
The traditional Democratic infrastructure seems to lack the funds to expand party outreach. The DNC raised $65.9 million in 2017, less than half of the $132.5 million raised by the Republican National Committee, and it has a fraction of the cash on hand the RNC does — about $300,000 as of December, after factoring in $6.2 million in debt. A senior Democratic operative, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about colleagues, looked to recent elections to pinpoint problems with the DNC.
“They played the smallest role of any organization on the ground in Alabama, or for that matter Virginia. ... We have to be realistic about what role they’re going to play in 2018, and I think it’s relatively limited,” the operative said in an interview.
Xochitl Hinojosa, the DNC’s communications director, told Mic this appraisal of the national party’s role in Alabama and Virginia is unfair. She said the DNC invested or helped raise more than a million dollars in each of those two states last year.
“For far too long, the DNC did not meaningfully invest in our state parties and communities of color,” Hinojosa said. “That has changed under [DNC Chairman] Tom Perez.”
The party has staffed itself at presidential election levels to focus on turning out minority voters, a DNC spokeswoman said, but she did not detail how many of those staffers are people of color. The committee has made highly visible, if controversial, moves to put a more diverse leadership structure in place. Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, said in an interview that his PAC’s “first priority” will be focusing on turning out what Cecil calls the “Democratic base” — people of color — as it spends $70 million in 2018 entirely on digital advertising, organizing and voter engagement.
Cecil acknowledged there has traditionally been an underinvestment in communities of color by Democratic groups, particularly ahead of midterm elections. But he does point to the $1 million Priorities spent on digital ads targeting black voters in the Alabama special Senate election in December, as well as cash given to black-led groups in that state, like Woke Vote and Righteous Vote. The super PAC supported Florida State Sen. Annette Taddeo’s bid in 2017 with local, Latino-focused ad buys. Taddeo thanked Priorities for their support. Priorities also worked with Color of Change, a racial justice group, to research how Democrats can register and turn out millennial black voters in 2018.
Those moves are early signs, Cecil said, that the largest Democratic super PAC understands what the left must do to win in 2018.
Criticism of these organizations is not uniform. Some leaders place more blame on Democratic Party groups, while others focus on what they see as a weak role by outside PACs. But the message is clear among minority group leaders that Democratic gains in 2018 will be lessened without a large investment soon in minority voter engagement.
“If you’re asking me which organizations have been doing long-term voter engagement work, I would say none of them,” DeJuana Thompson said. A black political strategist, Thompson coordinated more than $2 million in December’s Alabama Senate special election to boost black voter turnout — funded in part by Priorities, which she called a “partner” that listened to her. The Democratic Party and its major donors have largely failed to invest in the political infrastructure that consistently wins elections, she said in an interview.
“I need to see a long-term strategy that doesn’t anchor itself around just an election cycle,” she said. “I need to see that, not just with words, but with a dedicated funding source and a dedicated training model.”
The DNC has invested nearly $1 million of a promised $10 million in state party innovation grants. This money is meant to help state parties build lasting political infrastructure, with a primary focus on voters of color, along with younger and rural voters, a DNC spokesperson said.
“This has never happened before, but it’s critical to invest in these communities if we want to win in 2018 and beyond,” Hinojosa said.
This week, the spokesperson said “conversations are ongoing” to determine how much the DNC will spend targeting minority voters in 2018.
That’s a drop in the bucket of what’s needed, says Aimee Allison, president of Democracy in Color, which pushes Democrats to invest more in minority communities. She wants to see $100 million spent on turning out black voters in 2018, and Democracy in Color has called for a $1 billion investment through 2020 in 17 states, like Florida, Georgia and Texas, where the “progressive vote potential” could sweep Republicans from power. Given Democratic-aligned groups spent $1.7 billion in the 2014 midterm elections alone, Allison argues a $1 billion commitment through 2020 is doable.
“We haven’t seen the Democratic Party do much more than thank us right now,” Allison, a black woman, said in an interview. “Stop thanking us and start electing us. Other than a few tweets, what are they doing? And what are they waiting for?”
There’s also concern about how well Democrats will connect with Latinos — this in a year when they broadly disapprove of the incumbent president. Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund, aims to spend $5 million on electing candidates and mobilizing voters who are Latino in 2018.
“We were alarmed in 2017 when large scale efforts to mobilize Latino voters were moved through organizations with no Latino staff,” Alex said in an interview. A supporter of DNC chairman Tom Perez, the party’s first Latino leader, Alex said attacking the party is “not a very sophisticated understanding of what’s really happening. It’s more the giant super PACs of the world planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars without understanding or reflecting the communities they need to turn out.”
Multiple Latino organizers, granted anonymity to speak candidly about Priorities USA, said they do not know of any Latino staff who work at the leading Democratic super PAC.
A Priorities USA spokesman said in an email 42% of the super PAC’s staff and 30% of its leadership are people of color. He did not answer a request seeking to clarify what percentage of Priorities’ staff are Latino.
Symone Sanders, a black woman who worked as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary in 2016, now works with Priorities. She says the top conduit for outside Democratic spending stresses diversity in its hiring and its work.
“In 2018, we will build a digital program that aims to persuade and turnout voters in key battlegrounds like Florida, Nevada, and Arizona and will do it with a diverse staff, based on research efforts that we began last year (and plan to continue in 2018) led by diverse researchers,” she said in a statement.
In Arizona, where Latinos represent a growing and largely Democratic share of the electorate, organizers are concerned Democrats have so far failed to target Latinos effectively. Montserrat Arredondo runs One Arizona, a group of 19 organizations focused on engaging communities of color. So far, she says the Democratic Party has done too little to motivate Latinos in the state.
“I’m anxious that there won’t be a big enough wave,” Arredondo said. “I think Latinos will come out. My anxiety is about whether enough will come out and where we’ll miss opportunities with people of color candidates to bring [voters] out.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for example, has to defend 26 Democratic senators, but focus on opportunities to pick up Republican Senate seats in Latino-heavy Arizona and Nevada.
Multiple Latino organizers, granted anonymity to discuss a top Democratic group, expressed concern about a lack of Latinos on staff at the DSCC. One organizer criticized the DSCC for having no national voter engagement effort focused on Latinos.
“This kind of specific outreach is not run out of D.C. — the DSCC works with individual Senate campaigns to design, build and execute programs, tailored to each race, to ensure that campaigns are engaging with these constituency groups and voters on the ground in their states,” DSCC communications director Lauren Passalacqua said in a statement.
A DSCC official did not provide a breakdown of its staff by race or answer how many Latinos are on staff. The official pointed to African-Americans holding top leadership positions, including Tracey Lewis, a black woman who is deputy executive director and chief operating officer, and Catherine Algeri, a Latina who is director of integrated marketing and digital.
Passalacqua said the DSCC has been at the forefront of minority voter outreach over the past year, with Lewis in Alabama during the special Senate election, for example, to “provide strategic guidance” on targeting black voters.
Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of Emgage Action, believes 2018 should be the perfect year for his Muslim-American-focused organization to convince the rapidly growing population of Muslim-Americans to support Democrats. The Republican president has advanced anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies, Alzayat said, giving Democrats the opportunity to convince 2.1 million Muslim adults in the U.S. that Democrats should be their party.
Yet no Democratic Party officials or outside groups have contacted Emgage Action, one of the largest organizations working to elect and engage Muslim-Americans in 2018, Alzayat said.
“There are real dangers [for 2018],” Alzayat said. “The Democrats will not win without minority community support. They will not win.”
New American Leaders was founded by Sayu Bhojwani to train immigrants and people of color to run for elected office. She said, despite their promises, that Democrats still fundamentally fail to understand how to engage voters of color.
Bhojwani pointed to how Democrats handled the response to Trump’s State of the Union as a prime example. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) provided the main response, including a Spanish appeal to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, while Del. Elizabeth Guzman, a newly elected Latina member of the Virginia House of Delegates, delivered the Spanish-language reponse.
“That’s the kind of tone-deaf crap we’re used to all the time,” Bhojwani said in an interview. “We’re going to get the Latina to speak in Spanish and the white guy to speak in Spanish to ‘Dreamers’ [DACA recipients] when we’re trying to make the case we’re all Americans. The party is concerned about engaging communities of color. It just does not seem to know how to do it in a way that is meaningful and authentic rather than a way that is just pandering.”
Today’s question: Are Democrats doing enough to connect with voters of color?
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
Friday in Trump’s America:
The shortest shutdown: Hours before the midnight deadline to fund the government, with an agreement on the table, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) took the floor — and held it past the deadline. By 3 a.m., the Senate was able to vote and send a bill to the House, where a coalition of Republicans and Democrats passed legislation that adds $300 billion to federal spending over the next two years.
Paul and conservatives were angry the GOP happily agreed to such an increase in the federal debt. A majority of Democrats in the House voted against the bill because it did not protect DACA recipients.
The federal government is now open.
Don McGahn: The top White House lawyer is under fire after the Washington Post reported he was made aware on four occasions of alleged spousal abuse by a top administration official. Rob Porter, the recently resigned staff secretary who was at Trump’s side nearly daily, faced multiple allegations of abuse by his ex-wives. McGahn apparently buried those allegations four times in 2017.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was told several weeks ago Porter would be among the aides denied a security clearance because of a protective order Porter’s ex-wife filed against him in 2010. Kelly reportedly planned to fire staffers who had been denied clearance — but never acted on removing Porter.
More texts: In an attempt to smear Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democratic investigating alleged Trump-Russia ties, Fox News hyped texts between Warner and a Russian lobbyist in 2017 to arrange a meeting with Trump dossier author Christopher Steele. Warner ultimately did not meet Steele, and had disclosed the texts to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said they had no impact on Warner’s leadership — though Trump still smeared Warner on Twitter.
Immigration: Now that Congress has funded the government — through March 23 — and passed a budget, Republican leaders say February will be focused on a DACA fix. But Democrats and Republicans are no closer to a deal, and the president still wants to dramatically change who comes to America and who can come with them.
On that front, the Trump administration may scrutinize those trying to immigrate to the U.S. based on whether they are likely to use taxpayer-funded public benefit programs, like food aid or public pre-schools.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” the quote at the base of the Statue of Liberty states.
Watch this: The Senate is likely to confirm several Trump nominees for financial regulatory boards who will continue the administration’s push to roll back Obama-era banking regulations. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms came in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Trudeau in America: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the North American Free Trade Agreement on the first stop of his four-day tour through the U.S. Trump continues to threaten to pull out of the 25-year-old trade deal.
The House: New projections place the House squarely in play for Democrats in the fall, with losses by Republican in close races alone enough to imperil GOP control of the chamber. Democrats are now targeting 101 Republican seats.
When white fans destroy property after a #SuperBowl win, it’s a “celebration.” But when black people take to the streets in protest, it’s a “riot.”
Correction: Feb. 9, 2018
An earlier version of this article incorrectly named a Muslim-American-focused organization. It is called Emgage Action.