Identity Politics Roil Most Diverse House Democratic Caucus Ever

by Julie Hirschfeld Davis, NY Times

The longer-term fallout of the shake-up at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee may be for Representative Cheri Bustos, the chairwoman of the campaign arm.CreditCreditErin Schaff for The New York Times.

Weeks after Democrats assumed control of the House with the most diverse class ever, the leaders of their campaign arm invited more than a dozen top political consultants to lead a discussion on the message for their fragile majority. Every one of the strategists was white.

Five months later, House Democrats are reckoning with the same identity politics and hunger for diversity that helped deliver them control of the chamber in November. Concerns about a lack of people of color in critical roles at the campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, prompted a huge shake-up this week and an intense scramble to include more minority staff members at the top echelons of the organization.

But that shake-up comes at a cost: The first casualty of the committee’s purge was its executive director, Allison Jaslow, a gay white woman and Iraq war veteran who was a compelling face for swing-district Democrats just starting their first re-election campaigns. The longer-term fallout may be for Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, the campaign committee’s chairwoman from Trump country, viewed as a rising Democratic star who had cracked the code on appealing to white working-class voters.

The turmoil reflects an incongruous reality for a party whose backbone of support comes from minority voters in solidly Democratic areas all over the country, but whose House majority rests on a few dozen largely white districts that voted for President Trump in 2016. Even as the Democratic caucus’s liberal brand has been defined by progressive young stars representing diverse constituencies, its path to a lasting majority relies on the success of a new crop of moderates.

But for much of the caucus, the imperative is diversity. The top ranks of the party’s infrastructure, including senior campaign officials and the consultants and strategists who work with them, remain overwhelmingly white. And as the president eagerly stokes racial animus for political advantage, many Democrats believe it is past time to confront their own party’s issues with race.

“At the end of the day, we know how Democrats took back the House, and it was because of black and brown voters throughout the country and female voters,” said Bakari Sellers, a Democratic political strategist. “And there is a very real concern that our recruiting and leadership and all of those things have to be equally as diverse.”

“For the Democratic Party to lack diversity in any way in the year 2019 is unacceptable,” he added, “and I’d rather fix it now than have to deal with it later.”

That “fix it now” imperative rocked the House Democratic campaign arm this week after complaints from black and Hispanic lawmakers led to a wholesale purge of its leadership. Politico ran a series of articles detailing the infighting, and Ms. Bustos rushed back to Washington from her Springfield, Ill., district to contain the fallout. Within 24 hours of Ms. Jaslow’s resignation, another five senior officials were gone.

Now, Ms. Bustos is engaged in a rescue mission, with the Democratic majority at stake.

“To my colleagues, who I have the upmost respect for, I hear your concerns, and we can and must do better,” Ms. Bustos said in a statement this week, after tearful meetings with staff and intense calls with angry lawmakers.

“I will work tirelessly to ensure that our staff is truly inclusive,” she added.

Mr. Trump’s overt stoking of racial prejudice has only heightened the sensitivities and sense of grievance among some lawmakers and aides of color, intensifying their concern that their party is not doing enough to call out racism in its own institutions.

“The challenge is intensified by the race-baiting strategies of Donald Trump, which has created a much more polarized environment and an understandable sense by many members that diversity has to be accentuated,” said Steve Israel, a former representative of New York, who led the campaign committee from 2011 to 2015 and was criticized by some black lawmakers who said he did not value them or foster a diverse enough operation.

Tensions between chiefs of the campaign arm and lawmakers of color are longstanding and somewhat inevitable, given that the committee is devoted to defending competitive districts, and most dues-paying black and Hispanic members of Congress represent safe Democratic areas. But this year’s episode has pointed up a broader generational and cultural challenge.

“Democrats feel particularly sensitive around issues of racism and diversity because Trump is president, and you have an old guard of people in power in the party who don’t fully recognize or get it,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the insurgent liberal group Justice Democrats, which is backing primary challenges to entrenched Democrats.

The dysfunction comes at an otherwise heady time for the campaign committee, with its most vulnerable incumbents flush with cash to wage their re-election races. Under Ms. Bustos’s leadership, the organization is shattering fund-raising records. Last month, it raised more than it ever has in July of a nonelection year, breaking its 2017 record of $6.2 million; reached more than $19.7 million in online donations — more than its digital haul in all of 2015; and reported its best-ever second-quarter fund-raising for an off year, $29.2 million.

Republicans, by contrast, appear to be racing for the exits as they take stock of a political environment dominated by Mr. Trump and what public polls indicate are substantial headwinds to their efforts to recapturing the House; a half-dozen of the party’s lawmakers have announced their retirements in the past two weeks alone, including the only black Republican in the House, Will Hurd of Texas, whose seat is now favored to turn Democratic.

The recent troubles for the Democratic campaign arm began almost immediately after the midterm elections, according to several officials familiar with the situation who discussed internal dynamics only on the condition of anonymity. Several high-ranking aides of color who had been brought to the committee by Representative Ben Ray Lujàn, Democrat of New Mexico, who led it during the last Congress, saw their roles diminished as Ms. Bustos added staff of her own.

Some read the changes as an early sign that Ms. Bustos was unwilling to cultivate and elevate critical minority voices at the committee, the officials said, and weeks later, Jalisa Washington-Price, who had been in charge of diversity initiatives, quit. She was the highest-ranking African-American in the building.

Shortly after, some senior black Democratic officials exchanged eye rolls during the messaging meeting with an all-white stable of consultants, according to one person present. The situation worsened in March, after the committee announced a new policy — codifying an unwritten practice of the past — that it would not do business with consultants or other vendors who worked for candidates mounting primary challenges to other Democrats.

Justice Democrats, which helped propel Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to victory last year in a primary against the 20-year incumbent Joe Crowley, took the move as a direct affront. Representative Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, who defeated another 20-year veteran Democrat, Michael Capuano, in a primary, said the policy risked “undermining an entire universe of potential candidates and vendors — especially women and people of color — whose ideas, energy, and innovation need a place in our party.”

Ms. Bustos seemed to fuel the resentment by repeatedly mentioning to other lawmakers that her husband is Mexican and that one of her sons is engaged to a black woman, a comment some interpreted as an attempt to deflect any potential questions about her commitment to issues of race. She came under intense criticism last month for promoting an African-American aide, Tayhlor Coleman, who had sent offensive tweets appearing to disparage gay people and Mexicans.

This week’s purge appears to have stemmed the damage for now. Ms Bustos has named an interim executive director, Jacqueline Newman, who is Cuban-American, and a task force to search for a permanent replacement. She also brought in Doug Thornell, a veteran Democratic strategist who is African-American, to help right the ship. She will participate this month in a series of diversity and inclusion workshops, along with her staff.

“I’m black and I’m from the South, and I know what it’s like to have organizations and people not invest in the most important voting blocs in the country,” said Antjuan Seawright, a senior adviser to the committee since May who has made it a mission to bring in more diverse staff and consultants. “The D.C.C.C. is definitely making progress.”

But, he added, “when there is a feeling that you have been on the menu and not at the table, there is a greater urgency to make more progress faster.”

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