Eighteen months ago, House Democrats’ campaign arm was turned upside down and shook up its senior staff mid-election cycle after complaints about a lack of diversity in its top ranks.
At the time, Black and Hispanic lawmakers clashed with the committee for not placing a single person of a color in a position of authority. Now, incoming Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.) is drawing early warnings from some colleagues as he taps Pennsylvania-based strategist Tim Persico, a white man, as the committee’s top staffer for the 2022 election cycle.
Persico, a former chief of staff in Maloney’s office, is deemed by many to be seasoned operative with the requisite experience for his new job. But the committee did not conduct an extensive search before landing on him as the new executive director. And some members have already declared that they will speak out if his subsequent hires are not people of color.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a Congressional Black Caucus member, said he is tired of seeing the DCCC engage in “tokenism,” placing diverse staffers in lower positions without authority. Thompson acknowledged that it’s early, but he’ll be keeping an eye on the “overall staffing pattern” of the committee. “Given the fact that we damn near lost the House last time, I think Black and brown, and females also, should be included in the senior operations for the DCCC,” he said.
“If he puts the wrong markers down early,” Thompson said of Maloney, “it will make his job more difficult. Because, in the end, he has to convince CBC members and other members of the Black community that he’s different.”
Members working closely with Maloney’s transition said they’ve brought up the issue of diversity in every meeting with the incoming chair, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations. Several lawmakers told POLITICO they would have liked the executive director to be a person of color but wanted to see Maloney’s full slate of senior staff before raising strong objections.
“It would behoove Chairman Maloney to make sure that he has a very diverse workforce,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). In an interview last week, Gallego previously questioned how Maloney could keep his commitment to diversity “if his top staffer is going to be a white male” but said later via text that he thinks “we can make it work.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) also said in an interview that he would have preferred a person of color for executive director but added that it was not a “deal-breaker.” Maloney has solicited candidates and resumes for other top positions from Meeks and other members of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses.
To promote inclusion, Maloney has also created a transition team full of diverse members to incorporate their input in the hiring process, and he named three members of that team as DCCC vice chairs on Tuesday. In a statement announcing his hires, the DCCC included quotes praising his team from seven other Democratic members — none of them white men.
The committee also announced Tuesday that three women of color will remain in their current roles at the committee for the new cycle: Jacqui Newman, the chief operating officer; Tasha Cole, the chief diversity officer; and Jackie Forte-Mackay, the chief financial officer. Cole will take on the additional title of deputy executive director, a title that Newman already holds. None is a new hire — Forte-Mackay has been at the committee for over two decades. (Persico previously served at the DCCC as an adviser.)
“That work starts with retaining and elevating critical staff who will be integral to running an open, competitive, and inclusive search to hire talented, diverse, and battle-ready folks who share our driving motivation: keeping this Democratic majority,” Maloney said in the staff announcement. He also said he was conducting an “open” and “inclusive” search to fill other positions.
But Persico’s hire is the most notable because of the upheaval at the DCCC in the summer of 2019 and the party’s poor performance with Hispanic voters in November. It has been 10 years since the DCCC’s executive director was male, white and not a member of the LGBTQ community.
Members have put Maloney on notice.
“I’m concerned about racial equity. I’m concerned about having people who understand what minority-majority districts are like,” Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview last week. “I’m concerned about somebody who will meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, understand that we have elections too and oftentimes primaries are important.”
Beatty, who survived a primary challenge from a Justice Democrats-backed progressive this year, said the DCCC’s role is not only to make sure Democrats win the majority but also to help incumbents who “want to come back.”
She said she and Maloney planned to speak soon. “I’ve been told that it’s going to be different,” she said.
Maloney also announced Tuesday that Reps. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Marc Veasey (D-Texas) will serve as vice chairs in charge of Latino engagement, incumbent protection and strategy, respectively.
All three are on Maloney’s transition team, created to help him set up his operation for the new election cycle at the DCCC. In an interview last week, Sanchez said it was Maloney’s prerogative to hire a top staffer with whom he feels most comfortable and stressed she was focused on “the overall staff composition.”
“We’re looking for diversity in all the upper management, not just the entry level,” she said.
Maloney, a gay man who just won a fifth term representing a competitive Hudson Valley House seat, captured the DCCC chairmanship over Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) in a tight caucus-wide election earlier this month. He replaced outgoing Chair Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) after a disappointing showing on Nov. 3, when Democrats won more districts than Republicans but saw their majority whittled down to only a few seats. Maloney will be charged with protecting the gavel during a redistricting cycle when many incumbents may be running in unfamiliar territory.
The incoming chair has a difficult road ahead as he attempts to staff his committee and remain attentive to requests from the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses.
“You can quote me: I’m not surprised,” Rep. Filemón Vela (D-Texas) said in an interview last week of Maloney’s intention to elevate a white man to the top position at the committee.
Vela, a frequent critic of the DCCC, warned the party has to “do a whole lot better, especially with the Hispanic community in Florida and Texas to avoid what happened” in 2020.
The issue of diversity has taken on increased importance since Democrats lost a dozen seats last month, some of them in areas with large Latino populations. The Republican Party’s improvement among Hispanic voters in Florida, Texas and other parts of the country brought down Democratic incumbents and CHC members urged the party to stop treating Latino voters as a monolith.
“I want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to build out a diverse team throughout the entire DCCC,” said Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), a CBC member on Maloney’s transition team.
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