Gearing up for the 2004 elections, black and Hispanic political consultants are developing databases and other tools to grow their ranks and attract more business from both national parties and candidates for federal office.
Black and Hispanic activists believe there is significant political talent in their communities that is largely underutilized by the political establishment in Washington, D.C., because for years there was little emphasis on the specialized techniques of reaching minority voters.
Said Sergio Bendixen, perhaps the best known Hispanic pollster in the country: “There aren’t that many [minority consultants] because the opportunities were not there in the past.”
“We exist,” said Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid, who is black. “But we don’t exist in large numbers.”
Brazile, for her part, is trying to change that by starting her own political consulting firm — Brazile and Associates — and compiling a book entitled “A Democratic Guide to Minority Political Consultants” that will be made available to party committees and potential candidates this fall.
Ofield Dukes, a longtime D.C.-based black pollster, is also compiling a list of minority consulting firms at the request of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and the Congressional Black Caucus.
CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called the hiring of more minority consultants a “major priority” for his group this cycle.
Several prominent Hispanic consultants including former Clinton White House officials Maria Echaveste and Joe Velasquez are working on measures to promote Hispanic staffers and consultants.
Echaveste has had informal discussions with the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association about developing a job listing site for aspiring Hispanic politicos.
Velasquez is currently running the Moving America Forward political action committee of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a Hispanic, which is focused on “expanding the number of [Latino] political operatives in battleground states,” he explained.
Despite their best efforts, “there are still not enough people in D.C. among white campaign operatives who know who the Latino and African-American consultants are,” Echaveste said.
That is likely to change over the next decade as Democrats work to shore up their traditional base in the black community and capitalize on the tremendous Hispanic population growth while Republicans dedicate more and more time to making inroads among both demographics.
Brazile sees the development of more minority consulting firms as a long-term project that is only just beginning.
“For too long Republicans ignored these constituencies and Democrats took them for granted,” Brazile said. “There was no long-term plan to create these businesses in the political world.”
Most of the minority political consulting firms service Democrats solely, but Republican media consultant Lionel Sosa drew widespread acclaim among Hispanics of both parties with the Spanish-language work he did for the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. Leslie Sanchez, who also worked on Hispanic outreach for the president during the campaign and worked in the Bush White House, has just established Impacto Group, a consulting firm targeted at Hispanics.
“Democrats have not developed the [Hispanic] talent as well as Republicans have,” Echaveste acknowledged.
Democrats are clearly intent on changing that perception in 2004.
“We have made a real effort to begin our base vote outreach early this cycle, including field and communications,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Kori Bernards.
Bernards added that the committee has not retained any political consultants—minority or otherwise — this cycle.
Mike Siegel, Bernards’ counterpart at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said there would be a “clear and concise effort” to ensure that black and Latino voters are aware of the “tremendous damage done by failed economic policies of the Republican-controlled Congress.”
Despite their best intentions, the Democratic party committees — especially the Democratic National Committee — have drawn criticism from black and Hispanic leaders for their minority hiring practices.
Debra DeShong, communications director at the DNC, said that “through the next few months we will be putting together a comprehensive team of consultants and we will work hard to make sure it is a diverse group.”
It is also worth noting that some Members of the CBC, including newly elected Georgia Reps. Denise Majette (D) and David Scott (D), did not use black consultants in their campaigns.
Cummings said the fact that not every member of the CBC uses black consultants further reinforces the group’s commitment to diversity.
“If we are going to ask for diversity on the part of the party, we have to have diversity too,” he said.
Cummings, Brazile and a number of other black leaders met Thursday with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to discuss their goals for more minority roles on political campaigns, among other issues.
Earlier in the month, a smaller group of black leaders met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), although the meeting was not intended to be solely an airing of complaints about the party committees.
Cornell Belcher, a black pollster and president of Brilliant Corners Strategies, said that “over the last couple of election cycles, a couple of people in a couple of committees have gotten it.” Belcher notes that the DSCC has been the most willing to employ minority consultants and has reaped some rewards as a result.
The best example of this progress is the re-election of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in December.
After failing to receive 50 percent of the vote in the November general election, Landrieu was pushed into a runoff against former state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell (R).
Landrieu had struggled to unite the black community behind her candidacy due to her somewhat tepid relationship with state Sen. Cleo Fields (D), a prominent black figure in the state.
In the month-long runoff, Brazile handled much of the television and radio advertising aimed at the black community while Silas Lee, a pollster and communications strategist based in Louisiana, handled the polling.
Landrieu won with 52 percent in the runoff as black turnout increased and white turnout fell from the primary.
Lee said that while Landrieu was able to convince blacks to turn out for her, her earlier problems with minority voters could have been avoided altogether.
“Democrats forget about nurturing the base and targeting the message at the beginning of the campaign so that they won’t have to play catchup at the end of the campaign,” he said.
Brazile’s involvement in Louisiana was funded by the media consulting powerhouse GMMB because she did not have the financial wherewithal to produce the spots, a problem that plagues a number of minority consultants, she said.
“There is nothing to sustain these groups when the political season is over,” said Brazile. “[This business] requires you to have a lot of capital.”
Ron Lester, one of the best known black pollsters, agreed that “given the high level of competition, a lot of of minority firms that really could have a great deal of success don’t stay around long enough to [do so].”
Lester handles the survey research for 12 Members of the CBC, worked on the 2000 race of Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and has polled for four national Democratic party committees — the DNC, DSCC, DCCC and the Democratic Governors Association.
The key to success for minority firms, according to a number of people interviewed for this story, is to have experience within institutional Washington before going out on one’s own.
“I have been quite successful because people know me and my product,” said Brazile.
Similarly, Echaveste, Velasquez, and public relations consultant Mickey Ibarra all worked for the Clinton Administration and have exploited those ties to create successful consulting ventures.
“We have reached our current level of success as a direct result of my time at the White House,” said Ibarra.
As more black and Hispanic staffers rise through the committee ranks, the number able to strike out on their own successfully is likely to grow exponentially, several consultants said.
Right how, however, the industry is “too new to have reached critical mass,” Bendixen noted.