Heard on the Hill

Will Democrats have a ‘Kanye’ problem in 2020?

The party isn't taking the black vote for granted as Trump goes on the offensive

DNC African American Political Director Cyrus Garrett gets a haircut while talking with committee spokesman Brandon Gassaway before the “Chop It Up” listening session. (Clyde McGrady/CQ Roll Call)

On a recent cold November Friday night at Wanda’s on Seventh, a black-owned barbershop in Washington’s rapidly gentrifying Shaw neighborhood, officials from the Democratic National Committee discussed the concerns of black men and shared organizing strategies.

It’s almost impossible to visit a black barbershop without witnessing or participating in some of the most raucous debates of our time. While waiting (too long) for a haircut you can hear someone wax poetic about LeBron vs. Jordan, who really killed Biggie and Tupac, or why the Redskins will never win anything as long as Dan Snyder is the owner.

It’s also difficult to come away believing that black voters are an ideological monolith. The rich tradition of black political thought and its entire spectrum, from Booker T. Washington’s bootstrap conservatism to Black Panther-style radical socialism, is on display while you get a low fade.

Sure, African Americans vote at an almost 90 percent rate for Democrats. But within that Democratic coalition happens to be an ideologically diverse group who ranks civil rights above most any other issue and still believes Democrats are the best when it comes to handling it.

The Nov. 22 DNC visit was a part of the party’s “Chop it Up” initiative, which holds sessions at barbershops across the country to take the temperature of black men and explain to these voters how best to leverage their collective political power.

The sessions, organized by DNC African American Political Director Cyrus Garrett, typically coincide with the party’s presidential party debates and sometimes are attended by DNC Chairman Tom Perez. The tour is also a complement to a separate effort to organize black female voters.

While Mary J. Blige played in the background amid the buzz of clippers and smell of antiseptic, black men discussed a variety of concerns including the economy, policing and criminal justice reform. The main target of this initiative is the sporadic voter, says DNC spokesman Brandon Gassaway. These are the voters who turned out for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but then disengaged from the political process.

But when it comes to black support for President Donald Trump, the numbers are bleak, with his 2016 vote totals in single digits and recent polling reflecting that level of support.

With numbers so favorable to Democrats, why are they worried about losing support?

Because of Kanye West.

The multi-platinum selling, Grammy Award winning, stadium-filling rap legend has been extraordinarily vocal in his praise for Trump. Kanye sat out the 2016 election but said he’d have voted for Trump. And if there is one potential opening Trump has with black men, it’s through criminal justice reform: The president signed into law last year a measure that eases mandatory-minimum sentences, among other things.

Gassaway understands Kanye’s cultural influence personally — as a New Orleans high school senior displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he was angry about the federal response.

“I felt the only person who was talking to me was Kanye West, when he got on TV and said ‘George Bush doesn't care about black people’ because that's how I felt,” he said.

And many black men seem willing to credit Trump for signing the law.

The irony is that Obama and a coalition of Democratic and Republican senators were close to a criminal justice deal in 2016, but were blocked by then-Sen. Jeff Sessions. Trump tapped Sessions to be attorney general, where, Garrett argues, he did more to harm criminal justice and police reform by ending or stalling investigations into state and local law enforcement.

And Obama granted clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders. Garrett, a former Obama administration official, regrets the way they discussed the issue.

“A lot of that was done kind of sheepishly because we were a little nervous about what it was going to look like, this black man freeing all these people, are we gonna get backlash?” he said.

Looking ahead to 2020, one can see Trump touting his support for criminal justice reform while hammering someone like Joe Biden, a key sponsor of the 1994 crime bill that accelerated mass incarceration of African American men.

“Trump is out here freeing all these black men,” one audience member interjected. To which Garrett and Gassaway pushed back and argued that Trump’s Justice Department has been slow to implement the changes, before another man spoke up.

“Obama did too,” the man said. “I’m one of them.”

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