On stage and in front of the cameras, Sen. Kamala Harris is a rare sight, as a woman of color running for President.
And behind the scenes, many of the people she’s relying on to drive her to that goal look more like her than the legions of white men historically associated with this country’s top political jobs.
To see that in action, look no further than Harris’ recent town hall here in Iowa City.
The packed crowd roars back a greeting to the black woman behind the microphone.
But the California Democrat isn’t on stage yet. Instead, it’s Deidre DeJear, Harris’ Iowa state director, her booming voice firing up the venue for the Democratic presidential candidate.
The people at this town hall, reflecting the demographics of Iowa, are nearly entirely white. But when she looks out at the crowd, DeJear, the owner of a small marketing firm who lives in Des Moines, sees her home. A sharp knowledge of Iowa is why Harris hired DeJear, who lost in her 2018 bid to become Iowa Secretary of State but became a darling of state Democrats.
Look further into the staffing of the Harris presidential campaign to see a key part of her doctrine: expanding who will sit and be heard at the decision table.
The Harris campaign says of 19 senior staffers hired so far, 13 are women, and 11 of those are women of color. The campaign says they’re key decision makers, who will reflect the concerns of a vital demographic of voters as well as reaching out to them.
“So often we see people in politics in a certain framework,” DeJear says. “Maybe it’s a white male, maybe it’s a white woman. But politics isn’t limited to those demographics.”
Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, has opted to change that framework through her campaign and the people who work for it, though she isn’t the only woman of color to seek the presidency. Rep. Shirley Chisholm was the first woman and first African American to run for a major party’s nomination for the presidency, announcing her candidacy in 1972. And this year, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an American Samoan, is in the pack of candidates alongside Harris.
As Harris vies to become the first woman of color to be president, she says she recognizes the value of the support of African American women across the US and how they made the difference in the upset victory won by Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama in December 2017. “It’s a very powerful bloc,” she tells CNN. “Even in the Senate Democratic Caucus meetings, there are people who have been elected, such as Doug Jones, who credit and understand the power of black women to elect candidates and to be a very powerful voice of leadership in a community, equal to everyone else.”
It’s a group being courted by many of the Democratic 2020 challengers, especially after the fall in turnout of African American voters in 2016. Eight of the candidates, including Harris, spoke Wednesday at a forum focusing on women of color set up by the She the People network.
’It was the most diverse room I’ve ever walked into’
The Democratic base is indeed more diverse than ever before. A cumulative CNN analysis of exit polling data shows that from 2008 to 2016, the proportion of white voters taking part in Democratic primaries dropped 3 points, from 65% to 62%. In that same time frame, the African American vote grew by 5 points, from 19% to 24%, and women voters overall grew from 57% to 58% – trends expected to continue into 2020.
“We don’t have enough women who are making the decisions about what public policy will be,” Harris tells CNN during her Iowa swing. “We need greater representation. All of America benefits from that and certainly my campaign does, which is why I made it a focus.”
Harris senior adviser Emmy Ruiz hasn’t experienced this before in national politics. “I remember the first meeting I ever walked into,” says Ruiz, recalling her start in the Harris campaign after she was hired in February. “I was surprised. I was taken aback. It was the most diverse room I’ve ever walked into in politics, and I’ve been a proud member of many diverse teams in politics.”
Other 2020 Democratic candidates running for President have picked people from different backgrounds for the biggest jobs on their campaigns. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren all hired campaign managers who are people of color; in Castro’s case, the manager is also a woman, Maya Rupert. But Harris’ campaign is notable in how many women and women of color are in senior positions.
“It’s important that our staff looks like America,” says Juan Rodriguez, Harris’ campaign manager. Rodriguez, the son of immigrants from El Salvador, ran Harris’ successful 2016 US Senate campaign and says his boss, for years, hired with an eye to diversity. “Sen. Harris has a history of elevating and amplifying all voices to ensure that nothing is seen through only one narrow point of view, and she’s ensuring that her campaign not only employs people from diverse backgrounds, but makes them key decision-makers.”
Kelly Dittmar, scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, calls Harris’ emphasis on diversity “smart politics.”
“This is strategically smart in that a campaign trying to appeal to a diverse electorate should be in tune with the perspectives, concerns, and experiences of that electorate,” says Dittmar, who studies representation in campaigns and Congress. “Smart campaigns work to draw a contrast with their opponent. Harris can note the lack of diversity among those in the Trump camp as problematic and contrary to her and the country’s values.”
Making the message accessible
A recent swing through Las Vegas highlighted the effect of Harris’ diverse senior staff decisions. Ruiz stood on stage, speaking in Spanish to the crowd. Staffers handed out translation headsets, so Harris’ words could be heard in Spanish as she spoke – part of the campaign’s efforts to engage Latino voters.
The suggestion for simultaneous translation didn’t come from Ruiz, but from another senior adviser, Laphonza Butler, following a tenet of the Harris campaign: Are we making the message accessible to everyone?
Ruiz, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and a young mother who is married to a woman, says the campaign staff’s goal is to make sure “the collective experiences of all of our staff really ensure that everyone is fought for, everyone is represented, and that we are doing everything we can to ensure that those voices are heard.”
“Nothing is a mistake,” says Butler, referring to Harris’ emphasis on hiring women after the historic gains women made in Congress in 2018. “She made that choice to offer the best talent in the country to help lift up the voices of communities who have been left out for so many years.”
Those gains don’t come at the expense of the much debated “guy in the Midwest” who flipped to Trump in 2016, the voters who responded to his populist message and delivered key Electoral College votes from Michigan and Wisconsin, says Butler. “I understand where people may see that is the case. But her vision is that ‘Justice for All’ is not a zero sum game – that no one person has to lose in order for whole communities to win.”
In her CNN town hall on Monday, Harris also pushed back on the notion of the “guy in the Midwest.”
“I reject that notion that you have one conversation with someone in the Midwest and another conversation with someone in the South and another conversation with people who live on the coast,” she said.
Despite the growing diversity among Democrats, numerous polls show the two frontrunners are two old white men – Sanders, who is 77, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, who is expected to jump into the race on Thursday.
Dittmar calls the two septuagenarians “the stubbornness of white male privilege at play,” adding that the default, especially in presidential politics, is often white men.
“What Harris is doing will matter if voters prioritize this as an issue in who they support for President,” Dittmar says. And if that’s the case, how and who she hires for her campaign “can help to prove her sincerity on principles – that she is not only talking about the importance of addressing marginalization and exclusion of certain groups from power but is actively working to remedy it in the spaces over which she has the most direct control.”