Kerry Must Pay Heed to Diversity in Staff, Campaign Strategy

Posted May 3, 2004 at 4:23pm

Twenty years ago today, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr.’s first historic bid for the Democratic nomination was coming to its end. It came after months of excitement, endless voter registration campaigns, rallies in neighborhoods Democrats had hardly touched, and a graceful but eloquent message that would later inspire millions of young people to get involved in electoral politics. Jackson once told his young, idealistic staffers, “We have a poor campaign (meaning short of money) but a rich message (long on hope).” [IMGCAP(1)]

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, equally strong on civil rights and on fighting for the poor and the disenfranchised, went on to win that year’s Democratic nomination. But in the general election, the party spent months trying to heal old wounds, and as a result, Mondale lost all but his home state of Minnesota and the always true-blue District of Columbia. The last thing the Democratic Party needs in 2004 is to repeat the failures of its most recent past on matters of race and inclusion.

For many political pundits and operatives who couldn’t see the forest for the trees, it was easiest to deal with the reverend’s campaign not by trying to understand what it meant and what it could mean, but by reducing it to, “What does Jesse Jackson want?”

I was too young at the time to stand up and shout. But, now that I am 20 years older and wiser, let me say this for the record: Like everybody who runs, all Jackson wanted to do was win, too.

But for him, winning was about more than just grabbing the brass ring for himself. It was about continuing the legacy of civil rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer and opening up the Democratic Party — involving African-Americans and other minorities at every level, recognizing and involving not just the hand that pulled the lever for Democrats on election day, but also the minds that developed strategy and message and, yes, outreach, too.

If the past is indeed prologue, this message has been lost on Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) campaign, which has failed to understand how to navigate one of the most important issues in American politics: race relations and diversity. For those of us who were part of Jackson’s historic journey, the lesson can boil down to two words: respect and inclusion.

In his letter to Kerry last week, Raul Yzaguirre — president of the National Council of La Raza and one of America’s most distinguished leaders — focused on respect and inclusion when he wrote that “relegating all of your minority staff to the important but limited role of outreach only reinforces perceptions that your campaign views Hispanics as a voting constituency to be mobilized, but not as experts to be consulted in shaping policy.” Put another way, we have come too far to go back now.

The Kerry campaign is at a critical moment, and the good news is that it is coming now and not in October.

Beginning today, the Kerry campaign is launching one of the largest paid advertisement campaigns in the history of the Democratic Party — so Kerry will have an opportunity to not only fine-tune his message, but to utilize all of its surrogates, helping to amplify the message at the grassroots level. The voice of Members like Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) — who was recently named as one of the co-chairmen of the party’s platform committee and as a national spokeswoman for Kerry’s campaign — ought to be all over the radio and cable channels talking up the Senator’s vision for a new and stronger America. When it comes to finding diverse talent inside the Democratic Party, Kerry’s cup — like that of former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore — runneth over.

Hey, it’s about the vision y’all.

That vision could use the personal touches of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), and Democratic Senate candidates Inez Tenenbaum (S.C.), Barack Obama (Ill.), Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Brad Carson (Okla.). Who said that Kerry must lead alone? Fat chance! He must lead those already on the battlefield and command this party in the same manner he served in Vietnam: with guts and courage.

There is no question that Jackson played a major role in helping to expand the party’s outreach to communities of color and to bridge the racial, gender and other biases that often plague modern-day politics. The Democratic Party spent years learning this painful lesson of inclusion, and by 2000, we had reached a summit of sorts by naming minorities to key positions across the board, from drafting the national platform and co-chairing important positions to serving as keynote speaker at the national convention.

Truth be told, John Kerry has the courage to build a stronger and prosperous America that would allow this great country to put behind it the racial fears and tensions that have plague modern politics. But it’s now up to Kerry to demonstrate that he can move us forward and get past all these media stories and rumors about his “inner inner circle” being “all white.” I know it’s not the case because the battle over inclusion is an old fight. Old — but sadly not forgotten — because the wounds are still healing.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.