The 2018 midterm elections brought a wave of women and people of color into Congress, building a House Democratic majority that looks more like America—so much so that, for the first time in history, white men are not the majority in the Democratic Caucus.
But while Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are patting themselves on the back for greater diversity, they are cutting off opportunities for female and minority political consultants—often leaving key decisions about messaging and voter outreach in the hands of white men.
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Earlier this spring, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of House Democrats, announced a new policy: Any consultants who work against Democratic incumbents will be barred from working with the DCCC and will not be recommended to its preferred candidates in 2020 and future election cycles.
The DCCC’s purpose is to protect Democratic incumbents and, in turn, the House’s Democratic majority. But, in practice, this policy protects the old boy’s network that dominates the culture of the DCCC and the outside firms it pushes Democratic candidates to hire for polling, direct mail, television ad-making and more.
In short, the committee is blacklisting people like me.
I have worked in Democratic politics for the past 30 years—for former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, for the DCCC and for various political media firms, including the one I started six years ago. In this time, I have seen many Democratic challengers beat incumbent Democrats in primary fights—Sheila Jackson Lee, Seth Moulton, Ro Khanna, Donna Edwards, Denise Majette, and, of course, two of the party’s newest superstars, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. (It’s worth noting that all of these cases involved safe Democratic seats that had no chance of going Republican because of primary challenges.)
Not surprisingly, many candidates who challenge congressional incumbents are women and people of color; it’s often hard for them to make the leap into politics, and sometimes their only option is to run against the system. The DCCC’s rule will clearly hurt these kinds of candidates. But what people outside the Beltway might not realize is that many times these primary races are also the only opportunities afforded to female consultants and consultants of color.
Last cycle, I worked for Marie Newman, who took on Dan Lipinski, a Democratic congressman from Illinois who is anti-abortion and who fought for many years against marriage equality. Marie got within 2 points of knocking off Lipinski and now is running again. I’m signed up to work for her because I share her progressive values. Several weeks ago, two other consultants on Marie’s team decided to quit her race because of the DCCC blacklist policy. But I’m standing my ground, even though it means I will be exiled by the DCCC.
The political consultant world resembles Hollywood, where the top jobs—director, cinematographer, writer—go to white men. In our ranks, the top job on a campaign (and the most lucrative job) is usually the media consultant, the person who is responsible for the messaging and ad-making on a campaign. And the person in that job is usually a man. In 2018, according to information I received, the DCCC hired eight media firms to handle independent-expenditure campaigns—that is, efforts to spend money on advertising to help Democratic challengers, independent of the campaigns themselves. (I confirmed on OpenSecrets that these eight firms were listed as vendors of the DCCC.) Of the almost 20 principals from these eight firms, only three were women and only one was a person of color.
Diversity in the consultant ranks is not a trivial matter. When the backbone of the Democratic Party is women and nonwhite voters, it’s clear that having more women and people of color in consulting roles would enhance political messaging to our most loyal constituencies. From my own experience, I’ve seen how much it matters to women candidates and candidates of color to have consultants that look like them on their teams, and how our work is better because we’re more aware of sensitivities, tone, and even how best to film and light these candidates.
My own firm prides itself on its diversity, both in our own ranks and among the clients we work for. Last cycle, six of the eight people at our firm were African Americans, including two of our principals and all of our editors and directors of photography, and we worked for more than 20 candidates of color.
When the DCCC hires consultant firms, it always asks about diversity within the staff and leadership, but the firms have yet to be held accountable. Drop in on any campaign conference call (we have a lot of them), and you’ll hear a lot of mansplaining, often of tone-deaf strategies about how best to reach women and minorities. Or talk to any female consultant, and you’ll hear countless stories about unfair treatment from these Democratic committees.
At a time when the Democratic presidential field includes four women in the top tier and several candidates of color, it’s hard to believe the Democratic Party still has so few women and people of color in leadership positions at its own consulting firms. The new DCCC chief, Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, is perpetuating this problem with the committee’s new policy. A better approach would be to stop punishing consultants who work for candidates they believe in and start hiring more firms that actually look like the people that make up the Democratic Party.
Until that happens, I won’t be bowing to the DCCC’s new demands.