“Show me the money.” That famous phrase from the movie Jerry Maguire succinctly summarizes what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee must do to show that its leaders are serious about addressing the controversy that recently exploded in light of criticisms raised by African American and Latino members of Congress regarding the committee’s hiring practices.
While it is encouraging that DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos (D-IL) announced last week that she has chosen a Latina, Lucinda Guinn, to be the new executive director, it is still not evident that Bustos properly appreciates the depths of the problems that exploded in July, causing chaos and widespread staff resignations and recriminations. The uproar about the overwhelmingly white composition of the DCCC senior staff highlights the latest in a string of missteps that included blacklisting consultants who work for candidates challenging an incumbent.
What the hiring debacle laid bare was a much more profound problem: deeply embedded implicit racial bias that illogically directs Democratic spending toward the pursuit of white Trump supporters—the sector of the electorate least likely to vote Democratic—above all other electoral priorities.
To recap, in July, Politico reported that several African American and Latino members of Congress were alarmed that the DCCC, under newly elected Bustos, was assembling a nearly-all-white leadership team, marginalizing consultants of color, and failing to invest in engaging the country’s rapidly growing Latino population. This led to tense, dramatic staff meetings and ultimately the mass resignation of almost the entire leadership team. In response, Bustos admitted some mistakes were made and created a diverse advisory team that oversaw the hiring of the new executive director.
Bustos’s proposed improvements, many of which are reinstatements of procedures that her team abandoned after taking over from her predecessor, Ben Ray Lujan, are necessary but woefully insufficient. Solely focusing on HR processes fails to address the likelihood that hundreds of millions of dollars will be wasted this election cycle pursing an ineffective political strategy that is rooted in racial bias rather than empirical data.
Bustos’s belief that white voters—and white Trump supporters at that—are the most important political priority for Democrats is long-standing. After the 2016 election, she commissioned a report, “Hope From the Heartland,” that reprimanded the Democratic Party for failing to perform better among rural, Midwestern white voters. Notably, few, if any, people of color were among the 72 Democratic officials interviewed for the report, and a central conclusion of those dozens of white politicians was that rural white Trump supporters voted Republican because of their perception that Democrats were “fixated” on “specific groups that didn’t include them.” In order to improve the party’s prospects, according to Bustos’s prescription, Democrats needed to stop being “too focused on controversial social issues to the exclusion of economic concerns.”
The inherent contradiction and underlying racism of this prescription, and the worldview that undergirds it, were laid bare in a January 2018 article by Politico reporter Michael Kruse. In Indiana, Kruse met with state Representative Terry Goodin, who in the “Heartland” report is lifted up as an example of how Democrats can connect with rural Trump supporters. According to Kruse, as Goodin chatted amiably with a MAGA-hat wearing constituent who had nonetheless voted for her, the constituent, a truck driver, unapologetically stated that he refuses to train new drivers who are Muslim because “they’re taught to be nice to you, and then they blow you up.” After an awkward pause, the conversation turned jovial again, ending with Goodin asking about the man’s “grandbabies.”
Bustos clearly believes that when confronted with such racist views, the preferred approach is to change the topic rather than try to change minds. When faced with sensitive civil rights topics, such as Black Lives Matter and transgender bathroom laws, Bustos says: “I don’t dwell on them” when talking to voters.
From a strictly mathematical standpoint, the preponderance of empirical electoral data proves that the majority of voters do not share the anti-Muslim views of Goodin’s Indiana constituent, but Bustos’s strategy prioritizes attention, energy, and resources on connecting with the minority of voters who do. And, without any real evidence, Bustos posits that Democrats can successfully attract and win significant support from those who are resistant to and fearful of the country’s demographic changes.
It is no wonder, then, that the leadership team selected by Bustos set about prioritizing the pursuit of white Trump supporters. And if the mandate of the leadership is to focus resources on white Trump voters, the importance of attracting and elevating staff of color naturally got put on the back burner, resulting in the meltdown we saw in July.
Properly staffing the DCCC is just one part of the picture. The bigger challenge for the committee is to intelligently spend the nearly $300 million that DCCC is projected to expend this cycle. The DCCC, like many organizations in the progressive ecosystem, is notably undemocratic and opaque in how it decides to spend its resources, and as Guinn assumes the role of executive director, she will have significant say in how to spend the committee’s hundreds of millions of dollars in the racially polarized environment of a country whose demographic composition continues to rapidly change, creating both opportunities and challenges.
Since political spending is publicly disclosed and subject to scrutiny and accountability, this is where the public can see if DCCC leadership has truly learned the deeper lessons about how to win in modern, multiracial America. The most meaningful measures of the committee’s clarity and commitment will be found on the expenditure side of the campaign disclosure reports. Those documents will answer the following questions:
- Which voters does the DCCC prioritize? Will the lion’s share of the spending go to television ads designed to persuade Trump supporters that Democrats are really on their side, or will data-driven decisions prevail? If it chooses the latter, the DCCC could invest tens of millions of dollars in strategic partnerships with local leaders and groups who can help boost turnout in heavily Latino and black districts—particularly in Texas, Georgia, and Southern California—where Democrats can expand their majority.
- Which candidates are being recruited and groomed? How much time, attention, and priority will go toward finding and funding candidates for Congress who reflect the growing racial diversity in highly competitive districts? It is no accident that candidates like African American Lucy McBath in Georgia nd Latinos Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico and Gil Herrera in California had cultural connections with the voters who helped them prevail in their rapidly diversifying but previously Republican-held districts.
- What is the plan for white voters? How much will the committee pander to the worst instincts of anxious white voters by trying to distance the party from “divisive” issues such as immigration and Trump’s racism? If the committee moves away from this approach, it could devote its considerable research budget to polling, focus groups, and studies by behavioral scientists and psychologists to determine how to best tap the anti-racist sentiments held by most white voters.
- Who’s “in the room where it happens”? While the advisory council Bustos has assembled to assist in hiring the next executive director is laudable, it isn’t enough. Who will oversee and guide the committee’s spending to ensure decisions are determined by math and not the wishful myth of widespread white support for Democrats that the party enjoyed before the reforms of the 1960s?
To prove that she has learned the right lessons, Bustos doesn’t have to mimic the scene from Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise shouts into the phone, “I love black people!” But she does need to show her colleagues and stakeholders the money and a budget that proves she’s learned the deeper lessons from the summer debacle.