The Democrats are coming apart at the seams and their campaign committee is the latest victim.
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Black, Latino Dems torch DCCC for lack of diversity
Jake Sherman, Laura Barron-Lopez, Heather Caygle
The House Democrats’ campaign arm is locked in a long-simmering battle with prominent black and Hispanic lawmakers who believe the party committee and its chair have short-changed minorities.
Senior Hispanic and black members of Congress have privately clashed with Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) over her personnel decisions, what they say are tone-deaf comments on race and whether she’s lived up to the promises she made during the campaign to win the chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“There is not one person of color — black or brown, that I’m aware of — at any position of authority or decision making in the DCCC,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “It is shocking, it is shocking, and something needs to be done about it.”
Bustos sought a meeting with Fudge, and Fudge said no.
“Until they show me they are serious about diversity, there’s no reason for me to meet with them,” Fudge said.
And Fudge isn’t alone. Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic lawmakers, aides and strategists detailed months of frustration and unanswered questions about Bustos’ efforts to retain minority staffers in top positions, boost Latino voter outreach and hire firms run by people of color. They charged Bustos of being tactless when challenged by lawmakers of color.
“The overall plan for Latino outreach seems to be some 1980s playbook, which doesn’t work anymore,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said.
The DCCC declined to make Bustos available for an interview but said that the “DCCC has continued to increase diversity amongst our staff.”
“Anyone seeking to divide our party and stoke infighting between Democrats at a time when Donald Trump is in the White House is undermining our ability to protect the majority,” said Jared Smith, communications director for the campaign arm.
A DCCC aide also said that “nearly 50 percent of the senior staff identifies as racially diverse” but they declined to name a senior staffer who is a person of color on the record. In addition, they said 42 percent of their entire staff identifies as racially diverse, and 55 percent of the staff is women. And the DCCC said that 13 out of 27 senior staffers identify as African American, Asian or Pacific Islander, or Latino.
The DCCC and the National Republican Congressional Committee, its GOP counterpart, demand hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues from sitting lawmakers, which makes them an easy target for ire.
But the depth of discontent with the DCCC, and some of the problems it has faced in the early days of this Democratic majority are out of the ordinary, raising concerns in the party ahead of a tough fight to hold on to the House.
The latest sign of DCCC dysfunction: an exodus of key aides.
Bustos’ then chief of staff, Jalisa Washington — an African American woman — left the committee after just two months for a job with the Kamala Harris campaign. Sonia Kim, the party’s director of mail, left for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Just last week, Nancy Zdunkewicz, the party’s polling director, left the committee.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said concerns about diversity among the senior ranks of the DCCC was one of “the biggest issues” he tried to deal with as CBC chair nearly a decade ago and remains a problem.
“My hope is that the CBC will be as concerned about the Latino deficit in the staff at the DCCC as we would about an African-American [deficit],” Cleaver said.
The complaints from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are, by far, the loudest and most significant. Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) has met with Bustos multiple times, including this week, to relay ongoing CHC concerns about staff diversity at the campaign arm. Aguilar declined to comment for this story.
CHC members were inflamed in late June when the Washington Free Beacon published a story revealing that DCCC aide Tayhlor Coleman sent a series of derogatory tweets roughly a decade ago, including one that portrayed as her being afraid of Mexicans. (Coleman publicly apologized for the tweets late last month.)
The day after the story ran, Bustos announced in a caucus meeting at the party headquarters that Coleman was getting a promotion to run the Cycle of Engagement, a minority outreach program. Some lawmakers — well aware of the spate of controversial tweets — turned to look at each other in shock, according to multiple sources present.
Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a second-term Texas Democrat shocked by the tweets, said he asked Bustos the next day if they were “fake.” Bustos texted Gonzalez back, saying “I want you to know I listened, I acted. She is no longer in the job.” Coleman is, however, still working at the DCCC.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in an interview that he asked Bustos to keep Coleman on staff.
“I asked for her not to be terminated but to please be given different duties and responsibilities, but don’t terminate a young African American woman for something she may have done on social media when she was 19 years old,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn added that it was his “understanding” that Coleman was removed from her position as director of the Cycle of Engagement and moved to a different post internally.
Similarly, Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) didn’t call for Coleman to be fired but wanted her moved elsewhere. The DCCC told Cardenas that Coleman would no longer be working on the minority engagement project or on any issues concerning minorities at all.
But Coleman was scheduling meetings regarding minority outreach strategy as recently as last week, according to messages seen by POLITICO. A DCCC aide said the committee does not discuss staffing issues.
“Wow, it was my understanding that that individual was no longer in the title that she’d recently been promoted to and that she was in a different position,” Cardenas said. “And also not in the diversity team.”
Cardenas said Bustos has made herself available for meetings with BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Hispanic Caucus which he chairs. “I want to see progress. Ben Ray really took it to another level in a good way but we can’t rest on our laurels and we can’t assume it’s going to stay that way,” he said.
Better representation for minorities has long been a central part of Bustos’ campaign. During the three-way race for DCCC chair, Bustos promised to boost Hispanic representation at the top of the DCCC.
After POLITICO began asking questions about the CHC and CBC’s relationship with the DCCC, the campaign arm sent emissaries to praise Bustos’ tenure as chair — and argued she’d done more to diversify the DCCC than Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), the former chair who won back the majority just last year. Lujan, himself, is Hispanic, and Dan Sena, his executive director, was the first Hispanic person to serve as the committee’s top staffer.
“The representation within the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is higher now than during the previous chair,” Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) said.
“I’ve got to work with four different chairs and I’m very happy with the work that [Bustos is] doing,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). “I think she’s doing a great job.”
A Luján aide declined to comment but pointed to a May 2018 news release announcing that 52 percent of the senior staff at the DCCC then identified as a minority. Bustos, though her spokesman, said she is trying to build upon the diversity Luján accomplished during his four-year tenure as DCCC chair.
“This simply would not have been possible without the foundation laid by Chairman Luján who made increasing the number of diverse staff a priority in his time leading the DCCC,” Smith, DCCC’s spokesman, said.
When lawmakers have questioned Bustos’ treatment of minorities, she offers this rejoinder: her husband is of Mexican descent, her children are half Mexican and her son is marrying an African American woman.
“Anyone who has ever met Cheri knows how proud she is of her family and how often she talks about how her family has defined her life’s experience,” said DCCC’s Smith. “It’s offensive, it’s petty and it reeks of political desperation that anyone would try to spin her words about her family into some kind of cheap political attack.”
In interviews, several Democrats expressed shock at the comments, noting they didn’t think the remarks were malicious but were tone-deaf nonetheless.
“Cheri is a very good person — made a very dumb statement,” said Cleaver. “She was not even conscious of how that might impact people when she speaks about it.”