Think Outside the Box, Democrats, and Hire More Minority Consultants

Why are less than 2 percent of Democratic political consulting contracts going to minorities?

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Volunteers with the national organization Ready for Hillary hold a rally across the street from the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., where Hillary Rodham Clinton was to be honored with a public service award May 8, 2013.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A new analysis by PowerPAC found that less than 2 percent of spending by the three main national Democratic Party political operations—the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—went to political-consulting firms owned by minorities.

The report sent ripples through the political establishment, in part because it threatens to turn one of the longest-standing beliefs about American party politics on its ear: that Democrats are more in tune with the interests, economic and otherwise, of minority constituencies. But this report raises troubling questions about just how true that is. With black unemployment one of the most troubling political issues during President Barack Obama’s time in office, the fact that the Democratic Party is not engaging many black-owned businesses does not look good, no matter the reason.

Party officials expressed commitment to improving their diversity, saying they were confident that their record was better than the GOP’s. But with numbers under 2 percent, that’s not really saying very much. I personally know of a number of political-consulting firms owned and operated by minorities—so if I know about them, why doesn’t the Democratic Party? And if the party does know about them, why isn’t it using more of them?

The challenge for minority political consultants, explains one consultant, extends beyond the Democratic Party.

“In many ways there is a glass ceiling for minority consultants across the country,” said Basil Smikle, founder of Smikle Associates, a New York-based political-consulting firm. “The party has in many ways pigeonholed minority consultants.”

Smikle explained that many minority consultants tend to be relegated to working on issues related to the specific constituency to which they belong. So black consultants may be hired to work on African-American voter outreach, and Latinos may be hired to work with Latino voters. As a result, it makes it tougher for minority consultants to land the jobs and opportunities that are crucial to advancing.

“I can do black politics,” said Smikle, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton when she served in the Senate, “but you don’t have to relegate me to black politics. I can do other things.” As a result of the limited opportunities minority consultants may face in larger firms, many branch out on their own, and then face another problem. “Minority firms are often marginalized, which keeps them from building capacity and keeps them from being competitive,” he said.

In other words, the same high-ranking decision-makers who may have kept assigning a minority consultant in a large firm to work on minority-voter outreach may end up considering only outside minority-owned consulting firms for the same type of work. As a result, the firm has trouble growing at the rate of others and therefore will struggle to compete against larger consulting firms.

Smikle said that the key is having more people in power—including state party leaders, national party leaders and high-powered elected officials—committed not just to diversity but to “thinking outside the box.”

“It takes more people thinking out of the box and saying, ‘This person is talented,’ and if they’d like that opportunity [beyond minority-specific outreach], let’s let them try,” he said.

In Smikle’s case, Clinton gave him responsibilities and opportunities that had traditionally not been entrusted to minority political operatives. It ended up making a huge difference in his career, and he was offered other major opportunities as a result, including advising former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman.

“The only reason I have had the career trajectory I have is because Hillary brought me in. I cannot tell you how valuable that has been to my career,” Smikle said. “It takes people like that to say ‘I’m going to treat you like an equal. I’m not going to pigeonhole you or compartmentalize you. I’m going to treat you like a peer with everyone else.’”

It’s that kind of support that is crucial for minority consultants, he explained. “It’s so incredibly valuable and so incredibly rare.”

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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