Diversity Dustup Renews Call For Democrats' Campaign Arm To End Consultant Blacklist

Progressives say to show a diversity commitment, the DCCC must end its effort to stymie primary races against House members.
Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a moderate Democrat who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has struggled
Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, a moderate Democrat who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has struggled to address criticism from the party's black and Latino House members, as well as progressive groups.

Amid heightened pressure on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to improve its commitment to diversity, progressive groups are reviving calls for the campaign arm to end its policy blacklisting consultants and firms that work for candidates challenging House Democrats in primaries.

Our Revolution, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Harvard College Democrats argue that the blacklist, which dates to March and bars consultants who work for primary challengers from getting work with the DCCC, makes it harder for women and people of color to win seats in Congress. 

Political candidates from minority groups are more likely to have difficulty rising in politics through traditional channels, and do to so must often take on established officeholders, these activists argue. Such was the case in the 2018 election cycle: The two successful efforts to unseat House Democrats in primaries last year featured two women of color, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, ousting white men in majority-minority districts.

This cycle, middle-school principal Jamaal Bowman, who is black, is challenging Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, a white man who represents a majority-minority district in the Bronx and Westchester County.

Hank Sparks, president of the Harvard College Democrats, said his group wants Democrats “to have faith in the DCCC,” which is charged with helping elect and re-elect party members to the House. “And to do so, they need to end the DCCC blacklist and prioritize hiring diverse senior staff, as well.”

It’s a concern already registered by Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and other progressive Democrats in Congress, like Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who unseated an incumbent in the 2016 general election.

Maria Langholz, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, argued that gender and racial diversity often go hand-in-hand with advocacy of more progressive policies.

“You see that with who is pushing forward the biggest, boldest ideas within the party right now and also who is getting the most backlash, and that being the ‘Squad’ and they are all women of color,” she said, referring to the nickname for four progressive first-term congresswomen of color ― Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Our Revolution (which emerged from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign), have requested a meeting with the embattled DCCC chair, Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, to discuss their concerns.

DCCC spokesman Cole Leiter said the organization has no plans to change its consultant hiring policy. In a statement that did not offer specifics, he said, “Diversity throughout the DCCC is a top priority to the committee and the chairwoman and we are already acting to address changes that need to be made.”

The progressive groups are reiterating their appeals to the DCCC on the blacklisting issue at a moment of what may be unique leverage for them. No fewer than six senior staff members departed the DCCC early last week following bitter public criticism of the organization from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Latino and black House Democrats had accused the DCCC of failing to be adequately equipped to recruit candidates of color and target voters of color, in part because of what they said was a dearth of black and Latino figures in the group’s senior leadership ranks. Some Latino lawmakers were also angry to learn that Tayhlor Coleman, a black woman the DCCC tapped to run its new initiative targeting young people and people of color, tweeted a xenophobic comment about Mexican-Americans in 2010.

Leiter, in his statement, said, “No one is putting more pressure on us to fix this problem then we are and we welcome any ideas and suggestions on ways we can make the committee better reflect the most diverse Democratic Caucus in history.”

The quality of candidates at all levels of government needs to be challenged. Richard Rodriguez, Our Revolution

But for a number of reasons, the progressive groups pushing for an end to the DCCC consultant blacklist may have a harder time translating the scrutiny of its diversity policies into a broader change in its posture toward primary challengers and those who help them wage their campaigns. 

First, the DCCC policy on its face is non-ideological. It applies to consultants who work for any candidate ― progressive, moderate or conservative ― trying to defeat a House Democrat in a primary. (The reality is that nearly all contemporary Democratic primary challenges are left-wing attempts to unseat a more moderate incumbent.)

The same policy even laid out diversity guidelines aimed at ensuring that the DCCC hires ― and recommends to candidates ― more consulting firms run by women and people of color.

More importantly, though, the very same black and Latino members of Congress up in arms over the DCCC’s personnel makeup are among the most outspoken opponents of primary challenges and, by extension, defenders of the DCCC blacklist.

The vast majority of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus represent solidly Democratic seats where the greatest threat to their hold on the office comes from fellow Democrats in primaries, rather than Republicans opponents in the general election. 

These veteran Democrats are particularly resentful of the idea that their financial dues to the DCCC, now $125,000 per election cycle, would go to pollsters, media strategists and other consultants serving the very people trying to unseat them.

Referring to the possibility of members effectively funding their own challengers, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who is black, said in March, “There’s something wrong with that.”

Progressives critical of the blacklist are aware that many of the incumbents they hope to target are veteran black and Latino House members. Of course, the challengers in those races are virtually always people of color themselves.

In defending their position the progressives also like to cite the case of former President Barack Obama, who in 2000 unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in a primary. 

The blacklist policy “could have put a nail in Barack Obama’s career,” said Richard Rodriguez, an Illinois-based board member of Our Revolution. 

Disparaging “out-of-touch politicians who no longer can serve their constituents and needs,” Rodriguez added that “the quality of candidates at all levels of government needs to be challenged.”