Inclusion is more than a word that is used for convenience. It is also about demonstrating in numbers an appreciation for racial and gender diversity.
But when it comes to Democrats, who always brand themselves as the party of the big tent, diversity more often than not, is just a word or a box to check off before moving on to the next political campaign event.
A survey of the campaigns of three Democratic candidates for governor in 2018 — Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thaneder — further underscores why they should not just be talking about inclusion, but that their campaigns should actually reflect its meaning.
And the issue was of particular concern at a July 19 meeting of African-American leaders at Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit, where Whitmer, the leading gubernatorial candidate faced questions about racial diversity as well as her stance on a host of issues.
The reason the question of outreach to the black community was on the table was because Democrats in past elections have faltered in that area. Hiring of blacks in key campaign posts has always been a struggle, which often explains the candidate’s dismal performance in Detroit.
But the other problem with Whitmer at that meeting was that she showed up alone and did not have anyone on her staff who was black.
According to several people at the meeting, the candidate’s answer to questions about the lack of any African-American staff was not sufficient even as she promised to address the issue. Though some seemed committed to the campaign and viewed her as the logical choice, they left worried.
But Whitmer added two African-Americans to her senior staff of seven, Kristopher Banks was named digital director and Ronald E. Owens III, regional political director.
Annie Ellison, the campaign’s communication director, said Whitmer, a former senate minority leader in Lansing, showed up alone because she likes to attend functions without an entourage.
“Gretchen knows that having a team that reflects the diversity of this state at the highest levels of the campaign is paramount to being successful, and that means who’s making strategic decisions about the budget, who’s making decisions about who we will hire in the future, that’s the kind of meaningful diversity this operation is built on, and that’s what her cabinet will be built on when she’s governor,” Ellison said.
“Even though we’re more than a year out from the election, Gretchen’s not taking any part of this state for granted, because we’ve seen what happens when government stops listening to the people — it stops working for them. That’s why she’s spending every moment talking to Michiganders, in Detroit and throughout the state, about how we’re going to fix Lansing and hold government accountable again.”
The campaign of El-Sayed, who was Detroit’s health director for two years before launching his gubernatorial bid, said it is proud of its diversity record.
Campaign spokesman Adam Joseph said there are two blacks on the leadership team of seven, who were hired from the start. The other staff members are from diverse racial backgrounds including Indian, Lebanese and Palestinian descent.
“Abdul believes that our campaign must lead for all of Michigan. That means building a team that reflects the diversity of our state. If you walk into our office or attend any of our canvas launches you'll see Michiganders from all walks of life that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our state,” Joseph said. “And that means having people of color in our leadership and employees that are on a full-time salary with the campaign. It’s time that Democrats walk the walk on equity and inclusion.”
Joseph said while Democrats traditionally rely on the votes of people of color, and have long favored policies that protect these communities against discrimination and promote equity and inclusion, they can do more.
“Abdul believes that we have more work to do with respect to opening doors for people of color to engage in and have ownership within the party. That means encouraging candidates of color to run and providing them the support and encouragement to do so,” Joseph said. “That means engaging people of color as campaign leaders and staff. And that means having dedicated engagement around critical issues in communities of color. Abdul believes that his candidacy is an important step in that direction.”
Thanedar campaign spokeswoman Kim Bode said their leadership team is diverse and is 50 percent white and 33 percent black, adding that 50 percent of the staff are women.
“As an American of Indian descent, Shri Thanedar places a high priority on diversity, along with relevant experience and expertise. Shri also has a long history of hiring diverse groups of people for his successful businesses and actively incorporates diversity into his hiring practices,” Bode said.
Thanedar added: “While Democrats across the country are attempting to build diverse campaigns and implement policies that take into account everyone, we still have a long way to go to ensure a broad range of opinions and perspectives are included. In light of what we are seeing out of the White House and President Trump, that effort is more important than ever.”
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.