Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)

We made it. After eight full weeks of Twitter spats, campaign gossip, polls and memes, we’ve reached our first bye week of The Root’s Presidential Black Power Rankings. Not only have the power rankings been a rousing success, with people eagerly anticipating each week, the engagement we’ve engendered (which is a polite way to say arguments and criticism) from all campaigns means we must be doing something right.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “bye-week,” it’s a break during a sports season when teams relax, heal up and prepare for the next stretch. For me (Dr. Jason Johnson, politics editor for The Root ) and Marcus Ferrell, former black outreach director for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and the rest of our Power Rankings committee, we’re taking a few weeks off for the Labor Day holiday, doing some retooling of the rankings, then coming back strong.

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Why this week? First, Labor Day weekend is actually the beginning of the real campaigning in a presidential year, but more importantly, next week is a huge deadline for 2020 Democratic candidates. In order to qualify for the September debate in Houston, candidates must hit 2 percent in at least four Democratic National Committee-approved polls and have at least 130,000 unique campaign donors by the end of August. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Spiritual Guru Marianne Williamson and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)—the last two of whom have made our rankings in the past—haven’t made the debate cut yet. Missing the debate doesn’t automatically end your presidential campaign in the same way that getting eliminated from The Voice doesn’t end your singing career. It’s just a lot harder to make it. In this final week, we had some big movers, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke moving up four spots, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) dropping four spots, a brand-new No. 1 and some head-scratchers to think about before our first big break. As usual, our judging criteria is below.

How do you rank a campaign’s Black Power? Well, we have our “FLEX” rating, aka:

  • Finances: Are you paying black staff, advertisers, consultants?
  • Legislation: What legislation are you pushing or have passed for black people?
  • External Polling: No matter how good you are for black people, if your poll numbers are terrible we can’t rank you that high!
  • X-Factor: What’s your rhetoric like? How do you handle a crisis or the kinds of events and scandals that directly impact black lives?

 

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#1: Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro

Castro has long been a favorite of many committee members, but this week he finally burst through to the top. All reports indicate he did a fantastic job at the Black Church PAC conference in Atlanta. He qualified for the third debate in Houston. He tweeted about Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, and he even took a swipe at Sen. Cory Booker about cleaning up the water in Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J. His biggest policy this week? Protecting Animals and Wildlife (PAWS); while concern for animal welfare is often unfairly considered a “white people thing,” 44 percent of African-American household own pets (pdf), so he’s hitting all angles with this one.

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Welcome to the top Julian, let’s see if you can stay here.

 

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#2: Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke

We’re going to keep it real with you. There’s been a lot of skepticism in the committee about Beto. He campaigns like a suburban white boy who just took his first African-American history class in college and suddenly tried to join the Black Student Alliance, started wearing dashikis, sporting Jon B. haircuts, and yelling at white cops about “oppression.” But facts are facts: For this week of our Black Power Rankings, Beto was killing it.

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To paraphrase Ibram X. Kendi’s New York Times bestseller, How to Be An Antiracist,” in every speech this week, Beto has argued it’s not enough for America to just not be racist; the government has to be ANTI-RACIST, which is a revolutionary distinction. He rolled out new policies targeted at working black women on Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. He tweeted about the New York Times’ 1619 project, a series of stories about the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in the United States. His speech on the racist foundations of America went viral and got tweeted by Rep. Omar Ilhan (D-Minn.).

Beto wrote about Black Wall Street and the Tulsa riots, then called for abolishing the Electoral College because it’s racist. Even though his overall numbers are still poor, especially with black folks, he actually polled above Mayor Pete Buttigieg once this week. And he did all of this without dropping one “f-bomb.”

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#3: Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Warren did a great job both, in front of crowds and behind the scenes, at the Black Church PAC conference in Atlanta. She is solidly in second place in most polls and has basically built her lead off of eating away at Harris’ and Buttigieg’s supporters. She rolled out a criminal justice reform plan and addressed Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. It’s been a few weeks, but word on the street is her new public engagement director, Alencia Johnson, is doing a fantastic job, and the committee is really big on hiring black staff who make a difference.

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And the biggest sign Warren is gaining momentum? Bernie Sanders’ people have started coming for her publicly. She drops this week because Castro and Beto have done so well, but Warren goes into the bye week healthier than most top contenders.

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#4: Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete’s campaign is gentrification personified; mostly well-meaning but ultimately bringing white folks and white-folk problems to black spaces. Video of his almost all-white crowd in the very black Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago made the rounds this week, but to his credit, Mayor Pete consistently tells white audiences that they need to go out and engage black voters on his behalf, too.

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This week he touched on the 1619 Project, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, wrote an op-ed on mental health for The Root, and did well at the Black Church PAC conference in Atlanta. While all of this helps Mayor Pete, it’s the hiring of Brandon Neal as a senior adviser, formerly a political director at the DNC, that has our committee’s attention. For all the money the Buttigieg campaign has raised, it’s about time they start hiring more black senior staff.

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#5: Sen. Cory Booker

Booker drops again this week, not based on any of his own failings but because he didn’t make moves as big as the candidates above him. Booker’s national polling numbers stabilized a bit; in one poll he was even above Sen. Kamala Harris and some have him in fourth. Booker got the endorsement of Detroit’s Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon this week, which is great, except this same sheriff is being sued by Sgt. Tanicka Jones (and other women) over workplace discrimination in recent weeks. Not a good look for a candidate during the week of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day.

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Also this week, Booker has been a fierce advocate for solving the lead problem in Newark’s water, and after the initial story broke, all evidence says the problem began years after he served as mayor of Newark, so politically, he’s not at fault.

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#6: Sen. Kamala Harris

Harris is dropping like it’s hot, and that’s not a good thing. She’s our biggest loser in this week’s polls and there are plenty of reasons why. Harris skipped the Black Church PAC forum and was going to skip out on the CNN climate debate then switched gears, probably because she saw her poll numbers.

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Harris has dropped 12 points since June (pdf) in CNN’s polling. She consistently polls in single digits now, having lost many educated white women to Warren. Harris’ saving grace? She still leads Elizabeth Warren among black women, but that’s like saying the City Girls have more black fans than Taylor Swift. That’s the least you’d expect.

Team Kamala just hired Maya Humes to be her communications director for the California primary, and while the Power Rankings committee loves seeing more black staff getting hired, given that Harris is polling fourth in both Iowa and South Carolina, going hard in the paint for California right now seems a bit premature.

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#7: Businessman Andrew Yang

This movement has been growing for a while now. It started with black folks watching the Detroit debate with The Root’s senior reporter Terrell J. Starr. Then, my students at Morgan State University and several fellow committee members and even my barber have all been clamoring for Andrew Yang to get on the Black Power Rankings. What finally put him over the line? To paraphrase a text from fellow Power Rankings Judge Marcus Ferrell: “I’d have an extra 20 grand in my pocket if Andrew Yang was president on the day he announced, Nov. 6, 2017.”

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Yang’s universal basic income plan, which would pay every American $1,000 a month, has really caught on with a lot of black folks who the committee has been hearing from. But it’s not just that; his focus on protecting workers from a dystopian future where robots take all our jobs, from farming to trucking and even paralegals, taps into a very real fear that working-class black folks have about future job security. There are real concerns about how popular he is with the alt-right, alt-right apologist radio host Joe Rogan, and his views on Trump supporters, but Yang’s made the third debate and the people have spoken. For this week, at least, black folks are down with the Yang Gang.

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#8: Sen. Bernie Sanders

My grandma used to always say, “Please Lord protect me from your followers,” and there is no campaign that this prayer applies to more than Bernie Sanders. Sanders had another fantastic week on so many levels. New polls show that while he has dropped to third or fourth behind Warren, he still polls either second or third among black voters with Harris and Biden.

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He rolled out “the most progressive criminal justice policy of any 2020 presidential candidate,” according to a campaign staffer who I spoke with extensively (there was some pushback from the committee about that, but I promised the staffer I’d keep the quote in!)

His new school bus policy, which would really help poor black kids in the South, is honestly one of the most ingenious things anybody on the committee has ever heard; it’s worth a read. So why did Bernie drop one spot this week? Because Bernie’s staff got more beef than Chick-fil-A and Popeyes. Last week alone his campaign manager floated unfounded conspiracy theories that the press personally hates Bernie, and his national co-chairwoman Nina Turner had a public Twitter spat with Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, over actress and Bernie surrogate, Susan Sarandon. The committee is down with rolling hard for your candidate (and we personally like a lot of Sanders’ staff) but when your surrogates are promoting SoundCloud rappers’ media dis tracks and spreading conspiracies, it’s not a good look. It makes you wonder how they’d act if he actually became president.

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#9: Former Vice President Joe Biden

Joe Biden is the Teflon Don. No matter what happens, no matter how bad he screws up, his campaign keeps chugging along and his numbers stay solid and in some cases have improved. However, he still drops this week; not because his wife basically said “settle for my husband” or because he made yet another gaffe (which most older black voters don’t care about), or because Rihanna called him out or even because the Daily Beast dropped a story implying Obama really isn’t behind Joe Biden running for president (an implication Team Biden denied when we asked them). He drops one spot this week because he appears to be the only 2020 candidate who’s team balked at the idea of a DNC climate debate. We’ve got the Amazon burning, regular droughts and extreme weather hitting all parts of the U.S. This was not the right move for Biden. It’s not all bad for Biden though; his comms team did a good job pushing back against the ridiculous “Biden talks about Obama being assassinated” clickbait story (He didn’t) and Team Biden hired Rev. Michael McClain as his faith outreach director this week; McClain is not only an accomplished pastor but a great advocate for environmental rights for black folks as well—which will help a lot in CNN’s upcoming climate debate.

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#10: Mayor Bill de Blasio

This week, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill finally fired officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner in 2014. De Blasio didn’t directly make this happen; he couldn’t legally, and he, along with the commissioner have both made face-saving statements about how this decision had nothing to do with political pressure. But let’s be honest; for all of de Blasio’s failures on the Garner case (and he’s had many) his requests to the Obama Department of Justice and his use (in some ways, exploitation) of Garner’s death helped keep the tragedy in public view, which ultimately resulted in this stilted, tepid form of “justice.” So he slips onto the list this week; we hope your black son is proud of you.

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