It’s Like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ For Black Campaign Staffers

I wrote this piece before Rev. Jeremiah Wright started speaking out publicly against his detractors, creating a media storm that lead to Barack Obama fully breaking from the man. This story is about Obama and is about race, but it could also be tied to the Wright drama as both are about Obama’s relationship with black America and the impossible bind he is in to stay true to his roots while trying to be all things to all people.

Papa Snob has been playing this game with me for months now called “Spot the Black Person Working for the Obama Campaign.” It’s become an obsession. First it was just about Barack Obama’s Secret Service detail that initially didn’t always have a black officer embedded with him.

My father thought this was incredibly dumb, since Obama stood out so obviously with five white guys in suits surrounding him.

But things quickly shifted to staffers on the Obama campaign. While we regularly saw established black political surrogates backing him on TV and lots of black volunteers on the ground, my father was interested in paid staff, the political upstarts who gravitate to an political star’s esteem to become the speech writers, the press secretaries, the policy wonks and the many other people who make up the Executive Branch.

Many politicians, black and white of both parties, have nourished black political talent from within, creating a launching pad stunning careers. From TV pundit Amy Holmes, a former speech writer for Senator Bill Frist to super Clinton fund raiser Ron Brown, appointed to be the Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration. There are countless black politicians/activists have been mentors to young people, like Democrat Jesse Jackson and former US Congressman Bill Clay.

So my father was interested in the fact that when CBS News did a story on Obama’s War Room, not unlike legendary War Rooms who launched James Carville and Karl Rove to infamy, there was nary a brown face in sight.

Unless you count Michelle Obama, in the video the majority of staffers were youngish white males, some older, ex-Clinton pugilists and some women, also white.

Papa Snob made the observation that while he realized Obama couldn’t appear to be blacker-than-black in his quest for the nomination, he was a little disturbed that he’s seen no black person, besides oracle of commerce Oprah Winfrey, show up as a integral part of his staff. He said if Obama can’t afford to be too chummy with black people now, why is there any impression that he will be more sympathetic than past presidents. And traditionally the members of his War Room now, will make up his war chest in Washington.

Papa Snob is even more pragmatic and less prone to flights of fancy than myself and thinks black people are being a little deluded if they think Obama is going to devote much time to black issues in his administration. And he found this particularly galling since everything in Obama’s background before now demonstrated he was deeply involved in and committed to black people.

My take? Obama does have some black senior staffers (including Cornell Belcher, Cassandra Butts and Eureka Gilkey), but they aren’t as widely known or as omnipresent in the media. But I think there is a larger issue at play. How far will the right, the media and detractors on push Obama until he goes a Sister Soulja too far. As an optimist, I want to disagree with him, but as a pragmatist, I think he’s on to something. I always thought it would be difficult for Obama to tackle “black” issues head on, lest the press and the Republicans start race baiting or worse, start pushing for a tougher stance on controversial issues like Affirmative Action, accusing any Negro who comes within 300 yards of Barack of being an unqualified, “Kill Whitey” hire.

I think Barack will be able to shape some issues as being broader than blackness, like poverty. But some things, like our abysmal public education system and health issues, have a definite black and brown component.

So, is my dad right?

Do you think Barack is going to give us the cold shoulder if he makes it to the White House? And if my dad is wrong about Barack’s staff, I’d love to tell him the names of paid staffers who are black who are playing a major role in his campaign. So feel free to let me know below. I’m not quite sure how to get “Obama black staffer” out of the Google.

24 thoughts on “It’s Like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ For Black Campaign Staffers

  1. My mom made the same observation as your dad and she was ticked off about it.I thought she was being paranoid but they might be on to something. It will be difficult for him to pay attention to any progressive issues (forget about anything of interest to African Americans).

  2. Off the top of my head I give you Dr. Susan Rice…one of his top foreign policy advisors and one of the most frequent and effective campaign surrogates on cable news especially MSNBC. She’s educated, attractive, and basically drops knowledge whenver she’s on.

  3. Here is a link to a survey of racial diversity of the major campaigns, taken last fall:’s paid staff is about 60% white, and only 20% of so female (since Samantha Power stepped down). I find this troubling – while acknowledging the constraints he faces as a black man – since his campaign staff so closely resembles the white male punditry/political power world. Surely, as a person of color from elite universities and Chicago politics, he could round out this staff slightly more than this? It’s not like he lacks the networks. That said, I think there’s the question of race, but also the question of Obama’s centrist politics, and his relying on a typical centrist cadre of political professionals – this doesn’t leave SO much choice to diversify your ranks.But generally, I agree with your dad. And now I’m going off on a tangent…As a person who studies poverty and inequality and works in low-income urban communities, I found the 3 major Dem candidates poverty policy platforms (which I read in a scholarly journal out of Stanford months ago) to be revealing. Edwards’ was the worst (despite his being the “poverty candidate”) in terms of addressing systemic class and racial/ethnic inequity, and Clinton’s and Obama’s were differently appealing. Hers, of course, was more detailed, but also took a more women/children and “human capital” focus, i.e., developing the person/equipping them with skills and training and jobs to help them move out of poverty. She also was the only one to explicit address racial inequality. Obama’s was strong in that he talked about concentrated poverty, i.e., geographic inequality and the need to invest in entire communities, but he was not explicit about racial and urban/rural divides, and of course, didn’t have specifics tied to his policies.He’s in a real bind, as you surely know. I like to believe he’ll tack hard to the left if elected, and more explicitly talk about the problems unique to black Americans, urban America/cities, communities of color, low-income communities, but he’s given me no reason to believe he will. I bet he’ll try to use class-based language, which is a start, but is only really useful if you can also acknowledge the gender/racial/ethnic inequities bound up in class stratification.But this is a bind most politicians dodge. Are we holding Obama to a higher standard to address these issues than Clinton? And if so, why?

  4. redstar: My father and myself were really looking for some fresh-faced, future star, like a lot of the speech writers and higher level staffers who were young but eager. Someone who we’d look back ten or 15 years from now and go a-HA! Obama was the ticket to that person’s success. Someone like who Obama was when he was young or Deval Patrick or Donna Brazille.Anyone really. It is so, so, so hard for young black people to crack into competitive fields like that. I’ve made friends who’ve worked their way into the Democratic Party system but they all got there by working on the campaigns of others.It’s like a night club. You have to know someone to get in.

  5. There are many orbits of campaign staffers–the communications circle; the policy circle; the advance staff; the HQ worker bees; the field office staff—not to mention the staff that still toils away in Barack’s DC Senate office (along with the Senate staff that are headquartered in district offices throughout the state).It’s a sad fact that Black people haven’t had the opportunity to work at high levels on Presidential campaigns–I think that’s changing though. However, the fact remains that he has top campaign operatives–veterans of former national campaigns who have brought a wealth of experience to a relative novice on the national scene. And remember, WHEN (not if) he becomes President, there are hundreds of sub-cabinet level position that are considered Presidential appointments. I have no doubt that you’ll see a plethora of young, bright, black minds filling many of those slots.Having said all that, I suspect that Barack has more young Black people on his cumulative staff roster than you might expect. And, just an off-topic comment, I marvel at the way he has run his campaign. It is disciplined, well-oiled machine, where by all accounts I’ve read, the staff truly likes and respects each other. It’s such a contrast to—I don’t know, let me just pick someone at random—Hillary’s campaign.

  6. I’ve actually heard that the people inside Clinton’s and Obama’s campaigns are miserable. I’m assuming from the celebrity death match going on b/w the 2 groups. (Supposedly the Biden people were happy and content.)

  7. Valerie Jarrett, Senior AdviserMichael Straumanis, Chief CounselMatthew Nugen, National Political DirectorRick Wade, Senior AdviserErtharin Cousin, Senior AdviserArt Collins, Senior AdviserMark Alexander, National Policy DirectorAveryl Bailey, National Lead Advance StaffJoshua DuBois, National Director of Religious AffairsCandice Tolliver, Senior Communications StrategistMarty Nesbitt, TreasurerKaren Richardson, Iowa State Policy DirectorNot to mention all of the National and State Co-Chairs

  8. Interesting Senator Clinton didn’t have any problems finding women and minorities for her campaign staff.

  9. With his history of working in the Black community, I feel that Obama will continue to support the community once he’s elected.For his staff, I think Obama choose people with great skills to get the job done.So far, I think they’ve done a good job. You see them getting better as they get more experienced on the campaign trail.Just as with the Rev. Wright situation, I think all that Obama is doing now in regards to staff and supporters is just a strategic tactic to win the White House.It’s kind of like working in corporate America. You do what you have to do to get ahead, but once you’re at the top, you do things your way.That’s the plan.I hope.

  10. I went to a conference a while ago, when Obama was first getting his campaign up and running, and I noticed that all of the people staffing his campaign’s table were black. I don’t know if they were paid or volunteers, but I remember noticing that.

  11. So the Black Advisory Committee was not started until after Tavis’ dug into his ass.”Ogletree has advised Obama on reforming the criminal-justice system as well on constitutional issues. He is a member of the Obama campaign’s black advisory council, which also includes Cornel West, who teaches African-American studies at Princeton University. The group formed after Obama skipped a conference on African-American issues in Hampton, Va., to announce his presidential candidacy in Illinois.” had no idea it went down like that.

  12. A couple of points.1. You’re dad’s supposition assumes that there are many black political professionals in a position to ascend to powerful jobs in a political campaign.Now before I get jumped on I’m not saying black folks aren’t qualified I’m talking about the usual gatekeeping/ glass ceilings that keep black folks from the jobs that would give them the experience to run a campaign.So my rebuttal to your dad would be who’s on the bench? What is the current state of black participation in that part of the political process and could the abscence of black faces on his campaign team be the result of more of the same lack of opportunity?2. This is the National Obama campaign. What about at the state and local level?I would assume that there are many of us working to help him there. That isn’t to say that having visible examples of black participation at the highest level of Obama’s campaign isn’t good but referring back to my first point I do believe that the political involvement of so many new people will help solve that problem.So we may see more black faces in these photos in the future because of Obama’s campaign.

  13. Snob you hit it on the head and so did Natthedem…You have to be already connected in those circles to get those jobs.So I can’t really blame Obama for not having too many of us on his staff simply because it’s so damn difficult for us to break into those positions.I am a part of YD in my hometown and most of the people in charge are old college buddies, or worked on some other campaign, or are golfing buddies, etc…and they aren’t too eager to let ANYONE, let alone a black person, in their inner circle. The same people get the cabinet positions, internships, and job opportunities. So how can Obama hire us if he can’t find us?

  14. Also, we are talking politics here.(You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.)When the campaign began, Hillary “had” most of the Black elected officials and politicians because they jumped on the Clinton bandwagon.Locally, here in Harlem, Charlie Rangel said “Go Hillary” and everyone went Hillary with the exception of one council person.I think if more Blacks knew Obama would have gone as far as he has, they would have jumped on the bandwagon sooner.

  15. all: Wow. I knew if I asked I would get some answers. I really appreciate all the information. As it stands, <A HREF="“ REL=”nofollow”>Ebony Magazine did a feature in March on the blacks on Obama’s staff and among his key supports.I was sent links to the articles via the Obama campaign through NPR. That said, I’m still interested in how Obama will tackle “black” issues when there is such a push back when they come up.

  16. Obama can’t be too Black, or he’ll scare the white people away…Altho his recent rejection of Rev. Wright is very Black of him, many Negroid politicians reject Black folks a la Bill Cosby to get white folk to jump on the bandwagon. I don’t expect much of a difference if he gets elected, mostly because the structures of the government will still be the structures of the government, one Black dude heading them can make a slight change, but nothing revolutionary.

  17. As Lisa points out, Clinton’s staff is just under 40% white, and 52% women (again, accd’ing to the Diversity, Inc. survey of paid campaign staff of the Edwards, Clinton, Obama and major GOP candidates in Nov 2007). I agree with everyone here that it’s about networks. I’m impressed with Clinton because her staff is a veritable coalition, based on these #s.

  18. I understand where Papa Snob is coming from, but here’s my thing. The ‘usual suspects’ of Black folk who do this for a living, by the time Obama had come along, had mostly been swallowed up by Hillpatine and others, because Obama was a ‘long shot’. Another thing, Obama’s network is different, and quite honestly, there are folks who are getting paid, and not actually willing to walk away from their $$$$ until Obama actually WINS and can offer them something solid. WHEN Obama wins, make no mistake, he’ll have his pick of the best and the brightest of Black folk.

  19. I’m with Papa Snob on this one– I don’t think an Obama presidency in 2008 is going to amount to much for the black community. I hate to be so cynical, but I think that a lot of white people are supporting Obama because it makes them feel good about themselves. When the subject of black anger or white privilege as it relates to inequality in our society is brought up they find it to be a real bummer and they don’t want to hear or talk about it. Moreover, I don’t think many of them would even take responsibility for their privilege because they are so obviously anti-racist since they voted for Obama. Attitudes like this are certainly going to bite him in the butt if he tries to deal with the alarming rate of incarceration among black males for example. This is yet another reason why I support Hillary besides the fact that I think she has more experience. I think, at this point in time, she could be more effective on racial issues than he could and I think she would set him up beautifully to succeed on this score if he were her VP. I know that’s a pipe dream, but I can hope.

  20. c: I think that’s true that a lot of Obama’s white supporters like him because he represents America’s healthy ego, that we’ve gotten better and that the old color lines don’t exist anymore. But the fact that Obama has to de-racialize himself to be elected shows that “black identity” still means “bad.”Irish Americans can run for office and embrace their community. So can Italian Americans and Jews. But if you’re black and you’re running for a national office, you have to be “above” your own race in order to not hurt anyone’s feelings.That’s what I find troubling. The fact that Obama is forever being forced to drop things that signify blackness and the baggage that comes with it. I feel like the media and the opposition keeps calling Obama to the carpet, demanding that he refute some aspect of blackness and he has to dull the more complex parts of black life in order to assure white people that we are “color blind” and that other blacks’ views on race are antiquated. So I don’t like this because this keeps coming up over and over and I just wonder how far with the opposition push this until he is forced to go “a Sister Soulja” too far and winds up breaking the hearts of a lot of black people. I think they’ll still vote for him, because they’ll try to tell themselves that he really doesn’t believe what he says he believes and that he is merely doing this to win votes, but I really think black people need to prepare themselves for the reality that while Barack Obama is a good man his hands are tied by a racist establishment that won’t allow him to be “publicly black” and continue to embrace the community he sought for acceptance so many years ago.I mean, this is a man who could have chosen a racial limbo, but decided to love and embrace black American culture/life with both hands. It’s sad to watch him explain away the culture and people he obviously loves so much as he married a black American woman, went to a black American church, was a Civil Rights attorney and tried to help so many black people.So it will be interesting to see how hard the media/opposition will push things.

  21. The Black Snob, I’m in agreement with everything you just said. I think the irony of a lot of his white support, especially from the media, is that their idea of being colorblind is to whitewash Obama. They might as well concede that they’re not colorblind at all, but rather possessed of a strong will to gloss over his blackness–it’s so obvious in their handling of “Chicken Roost Gate.” I don’t know how a black president can be an effective advocate for his community in such an environment and I don’t see how he’s going to win the presidency if campaigning requires him to negate his very identity. I would like to think that, by now, Americans would be smart enough not to vote for a pro-Iraq War Republican, but that would be naive of me.

  22. Look at the decisions he made in 2004 after getting elected to the Senate… should be an indication.Obama had to choose just a hand-full of the hundreds involved on the campaign to hire for Senate staff. A significant portion were black… including his Chief Counsel (very senior position), Michael Strautmanis, and his Administrative Mangaer, Carolyn Mosley, along with the others mentioned in the post.

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