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Warren’s campaign is just the latest to struggle with diversity

Staffers of color who have left her campaign point to bigger problems.

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks into a microphone in front of a campaign sign that says “Warren.”
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a campaign event at Tupelo Music Hall on February 6, 2020, in Derry, New Hampshire.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Six staffers, all of them women of color, have left Elizabeth Warren’s Nevada campaign in recent months, saying that higher-ups treated them like tokens and ignored their concerns.

“I felt like a problem — like I was there to literally bring color into the space but not the knowledge and voice that comes with it,” one former field organizer, who asked to remain anonymous, told Politico on Thursday. “We all were routinely silenced and not given a meaningful chance on the campaign.”

Warren apologized to the women in an MSNBC interview on Thursday night. “I believe these women without any equivocation and I apologize personally that they had a bad experience on the campaign,” she told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “I take responsibility for this, and I’m working with my team to address these concerns.”

The reports come at a difficult time for the Warren campaign. After a third-place finish in the Iowa caucus, some say the senator is being eclipsed in media coverage by Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, though he came in fourth. Warren also continues to face questions about “electability” that her male opponents haven’t always faced, with commentator Donny Deutsch opining that there was “a certain stridentness” to the senator that prevents her from connecting with voters.

The former staffers, one of whom still plans to vote for Warren, told Politico they didn’t want to hurt her candidacy. But they spoke out because what they experienced is all too common on political campaigns and shows the need for large-scale change. Their words are a reminder that while Democratic candidates in 2020 may want to project the image of a diverse campaign staff, they may not yet understand how to build campaigns that give everyone a voice.

Women staffers of color point to problems with the Warren campaign

Six women staffers of color have left Warren’s Nevada campaign since November, Politico reports, out of a total team of about 70 people. Three spoke to Politico’s Alex Thompson about their experiences.

“During the time I was employed with Nevada for Warren, there was definitely something wrong with the culture,” Megan Lewis, a field organizer who left the campaign in December, told Thompson. “I filed a complaint with HR, but the follow-up I received left me feeling as though I needed to make myself smaller or change who I was to fit into the office culture.”

The other two organizers, who spoke anonymously, reported similar problems. They said they were not sure whom they would be supporting in the Nevada caucuses on February 22.

Lewis, for her part, said she planned to caucus for Warren. But she said it was important to speak out because too frequently, experiences like hers are ignored because of worries about damaging the larger cause.

“Every election will always be the most important election of our lifetimes,” she told Politico. “Organizing culture needs to change because the fact is our well-being is more important than any election.”

Lack of diversity at all levels points to a broader problem

Indeed, the staffers’ reports are part of a larger pattern across campaigns. Increasingly, Democratic presidential candidates know they need to reach out to voters of color — but those candidates, especially those who are white, don’t always know how to do so.

In 2015, Hillary Clinton was criticized for a post on her website titled “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela.Many pointed out that Clinton, a white woman, did not actually have much in common with many Latinx grandparents in this country. Some accused Clinton of “Hispandering.”

This election cycle, the Buttigieg campaign was criticized for using a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to illustrate its plan to fight racism in the US, as the New York Times reported in November. And in January, current and former staffers of color on the Buttigieg campaign told the Times that senior campaign officials had ignored their ideas and concerns, and that they felt they were employed to meet diversity targets.

Biden, meanwhile, claimed in December to have “the most diverse staff of anybody running,” but would not release numbers to back it up.

When it comes to questions about staff diversity, Warren may be held to a higher standard than her white male opponents. Her campaign has made representation of people from marginalized groups a focus from the beginning — she has promised, for example, that if elected, she will go to the White House Rose Garden every year to read the names of transgender women of color who have been killed. So if her campaign fails to listen to its own staffers of color, it’s going against one of its core messages.

Having a diverse staff isn’t just about having a certain percentage of people of color, say those who have worked on or advised campaigns. It’s about who’s actually calling the shots. “In most presidential campaigns, the diversity ends where the real money begins,” Chuck Rocha, head of the consulting firm Solidarity Strategies, told Politico last year. “It’s a good first step to put people of color in leadership positions. But who is really running the campaign? The consultants and advisers who make all the real financial decisions, and this group normally is very old, male, and pale.”

As of last year, six of the Democratic campaigns for president were run by people of color. That includes the Warren campaign, headed by Roger Lau, the first Asian American campaign manager for a major Democratic candidate.

But diversity is also about whose voice is heard at all levels of the campaign. For example, Juan Rodriguez, then campaign manager for Sen. Kamala Harris, told Politico last year that the senator was “ensuring that her campaign not only employs people from diverse backgrounds but makes them key decision-makers.”

For the Warren staffers who’ve left in recent months, it seems that wasn’t the case.

Warren also still faces questions around her handling of her own background. The senator has previously claimed Native American ancestry, saying her mother is part Cherokee. But she is not an enrolled member of any Cherokee tribe, and her ancestors do not appear on official records of the Cherokee or other tribes. Warren has apologized and said she should not have identified as Native American, but to some critics, her apologies have been unsatisfying.

There’s also the fact that Warren is a woman, someone who has faced marginalization, though not the same kind or degree that women of color in America have faced. Progressives sometimes expect white women to be more sensitive to racism than white men.

“Most of us continue to see white women through the lens of gender,” historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers told Vox in 2018. “This allows for us to be optimistic about the possibility that their gendered oppression will allow for them to find common cause with other dispossessed groups.”

When that doesn’t happen, it can be doubly disappointing.

The field of Democratic candidates is overwhelmingly white

In general, the Warren campaign has struggled at times when it comes to voters of color. In a nationwide poll of black voters conducted in January, 48 percent said they would vote for Biden if the primary were held tomorrow, 20 percent said they’d cast their votes for Sanders, and just 9 percent picked Warren. Sanders in particular has made gains among black and Latinx voters after having difficulty appealing to them in 2016, and a more diverse staff may be part of the reason.

Among women of color in Nevada specifically, a recent poll showed 24 percent supporting Biden, 22 percent supporting Sanders, and just 10 percent supporting Warren. A full 22 percent of those polled, however, were still undecided.

Reports that Warren’s campaign tokenized staffers of color are unlikely to help those numbers. But overall, concerns about diversity in campaigns also point to something larger: When Democrats go to the polls this winter, they will still have to choose among a field that’s overwhelmingly white. Harris, the most prominent woman of color in the race, dropped out in December. And as Shamira Ibrahim wrote at Vox, it wasn’t always clear where she stood on issues important to many black voters, like criminal justice reform and health care.

Certainly a white candidate can build a diverse staff, and, as the former Warren staffers’ experience makes clear, the way to do that is not to hire people of color simply for optics without listening to what they have to say. Warren has promised to do better, and there is space for her and others to do so.

But if women voters of color are choosing among Warren, Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg in the weeks and months ahead, there’s one choice they won’t have: a campaign where representation comes from the very top.