Former DNC CEO Wants More Than Words On Race From 2020 Candidates

“I think all of the candidates ... understand that you cannot win the nomination without the African-American vote,” the Democratic operative says.

Leah Daughtry is optimistic. The ordained minister and political operative — who made history as the only person to have been CEO of the Democratic National Convention twice (2008 and 2016) — is animatedly talking about the field of Democratic candidates already vying for the presidency.  

“I think all of the candidates, particularly the Democratic side, understand that you cannot win the nomination without the African-American vote,” Daughtry said on the eve of Black History Month.

Daughtry knows what it takes to listen to and captivate minority voters. The co-author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics got an early start in politics under civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, helping to run his presidential campaign in New Hampshire in 1984 when she was still a senior at Dartmouth College.

“He was the first figure I understood or had close interaction with on a national political level. He changed my definition of winning,” she said when we meet at her family’s historic House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We didn’t win the White House in ’84 or ’88. But we won something different instead. Hundreds of thousands of people who were registered to vote, who were energized by his message, who he brought into the room through an inclusive outreach — we were able to change the face of the nation.”

This year, the 2020 Democratic candidates are arguably more representative of the country they serve than at any other point in history — more women and people of color are running for president than ever before.

That’s not to say there are any candidates who embody “perfect” progressivism (which, while impossible, seems to be the litmus test politicians have to meet in these ever-embattled partisan times). And there has already been a slew of mea culpas from 2020 hopefuls: Sen. Elizabeth Warren has apologized for her DNA test results that suggested indigenous ancestry; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said sorry for her previous immigration stances (they “certainly weren’t empathetic,” she conceded), Sen. Kamala Harris has been sheepish about her hawkish prosecutorial remarks in deriding “schools not prisons” campaigns, and Sen. Bernie Sanders asked for forgiveness in the wake of criticism about sexual harassment within his 2016 campaign.

For Daughtry, apologies only go so far.

“You know, I love hearing it all, but I think the actions are what really matter. So you can talk about inclusiveness and representation, but if your staff’s not inclusive and representative, then it’s just words,” she tells me, adding that she’s been satisfied with the current Democratic candidates for their campaign staff diversity. “If you want to win, just as a strategic tactic, you’ve got to go where the votes are, and you’re not going to win our vote if you’re not going to have a campaign that’s representative of our issues.”