Time for a Democratic reckoning on race
Democratic advertising firm GMMB recently came under fire for its culture. Former employees charged that the firm made lower-level African Americans feel undervalued and tokenized, and they struggled to achieve promotions. It would be easy to pile on, but the sad truth is that GMMB is not alone.
In 2014, donor-activist Steve Phillips revealed in a landmark study that consultants of color were left out of the Democratic contracting process. His Fannie Lou Hamer report revealed that of the $515 million spent in the previous two election cycles by Democratic Party organizations less than 2 percent went to firms that had a person of color (of any ethnicity) in leadership, whether they were an owner or partner with others. Just sorting through the spending on OpenSecrets.org for the top 15 political consultant firms hired by Democrats during the last presidential cycle in 2016, the data weren’t any better — maybe worse.
In 2004 I met with one prominent campaign about a job and, in my conversation with the consulting team, told them I wanted to learn the advertising business and would be interested in building a relationship with them. The ad firm was decidedly uninterested in my proposal. That’s fine; I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, but I am unaware of any other Black person they ever hired beyond a junior staffer. In fact, if you went to that firm’s “team page” today, you won’t find a single African American there. Despite that reality, they were one of the most highly sought-after firms in politics.
Sadly, these stories aren’t exceptional. Almost all of the major Democratic advertising and consulting firms fit the same pattern, even those that have helped to elect prominent African American politicians.
If Democrats want to change, the process will be tough, because the problem is entrenched. Here’s how it works: Most of the big consulting firms hire people who worked at one of the Democratic committees or on campaigns. Many of those people were campaign managers, communications directors, field directors or press secretaries — and most people who get those jobs are white. These days, add in the data analysts. In return, those firms recommend the next round of staffers to fill empty campaign jobs — also mostly white. When the next set of contracts are open for bidding, who do those staffers hire or recommend? The circle goes ’round.
Most of the people who lead these firms have strong progressive values, but when they make financial decisions about whom to partner with or hire, they tend to make the same choices as their peers in tech or advertising more generally. They mostly choose white people. That must change.
For those Democrats taking moments of introspection and questioning their allyship, there are three avenues available to get beyond “thoughts and prayers” statements that would help fix these structural problems.
First, Democratic Party organizations and consulting firms should have targets for hiring African Americans in key roles. That means not just on the “Black” stuff, but everything. And don’t fall back on the “pipeline problem” trope. Lots of Black talent exists among mayoral teams, the Congressional Black Caucus and social justice organizations. The consultants just need to want them.
Last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) got caught in a storm on these hiring and contracting questions. Chair Cheri Bustos was pushed to diversify her leadership team and increase outreach to communities of color. She brought in Doug Thornell, one of the few African American partners at a Democratic consulting firm to help navigate her way through it. In the end, the DCCC hired several people of color, including a Latina executive director and an African American press secretary.
Second, consulting firms should subcontract with firms owned by people of color and involve them in all aspects of their work — again, not just the “black” or “brown” stuff. In fact, the party organizations and candidates should require it.
Last, these firms can mentor one owned by African Americans or other people of color, maybe even make a financial investment, and help them solve business issues they may not have the capacity to solve on their own. The larger firm should advocate for the Black-owned firm to get contracts using their political and personal networks. If the two firms are linked financially, that business could be good for everybody.
Some witch hunts are appropriate when people are practicing bad juju, but ultimately, changing systems matters more than exposing individuals. The problem is broad and will require a broad response. Personally, I’m more interested in repair than recrimination. It’s time for Democrats to hold themselves to the same standard to which they hold corporations and Republicans.
Jamal Simmons is a Democratic campaign strategist, CBS News analyst and hosts #ThisisFYI on Instagram and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.
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