Black consultants accuse WA Democratic groups of racism

Consultants of color say they’re systematically left off ‘the list’ of who gets hired for campaigns. They have ideas to fix that.

Four political consultants stand together while wearing masks to protect against COVID-19

From left, Seferiana Day of CD Strategic, Michael Charles of CD Strategic, Christina Blocker of Archway Consulting Group and Riall Johnson of Prism Washington gather together at The Station in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood, June 11, 2020. Their group, the Political Consultants of Color Coalition, says top Democratic organizations aren't giving them equal opportunity to work on political campaigns. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

As protests of police brutality against Black people have gripped the nation, a flood of politicians, entertainers and corporations have rushed to declare their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Democratic groups and politicians in Washington state have been no exception, writing mass emails and posting on social media in recent days about the need to dismantle systemic racism.

But a coalition of political consultants, most of them Black, says many Democratic groups and leaders are not living up to their publicly stated values.

In fact, members of the Political Consultants of Color Coalition say the major groups that run Democratic campaigns in Washington have been systematically excluding them for years.

On Friday, the coalition sent key Democratic groups a list of demands, all aimed at ensuring that people of color have as much of an opportunity to work on campaigns as white consultants.

The coalition consists of seven political consultants of color, the majority of whom are Black.

By Friday afternoon, more than 80 others had co-signed the coalition's list of demands. Those supporters included other political consultants, party officials and several elected leaders.

The coalition says one of its main goals is to change how major Democratic campaign committees continually direct candidates to the same group of preapproved consultants — a list they say is overwhelmingly white.

The group is asking for a meeting to discuss its proposed remedies. 

“If Black lives matter, then Black consultants matter,” said Michael Charles, a Black political consultant who is part of the consultants of color coalition. 

The coalition’s top demands address alleged gatekeeping by the House Democratic Campaign Committee (HDCC) and Washington Senate Democratic Campaign (WSDC), which oversee legislative campaigns throughout the state. 

According to the coalition, the WSDC and HDCC each maintain a roster of preferred consultants — a list that strongly influences who gets hired to work on legislative campaigns and, by extension, who gets party money and resources.

How to get on that roster, however, has not been straightforward or clear to consultants not on the list, according to the coalition.

“We have had candidates come to us saying, ‘We want to work with you, but you’re not on the list,’ ” said Christina Blocker, a Tacoma-based political consultant who is part of the coalition. “It creates this question of ‘are you qualified?’ which is perpetuated by not being on this list.”

“And then when we ask about it, bring these issues to the forefront, we are told, ‘Hold on, we’ll get back to you,’” she said. “But then, there’s nothing.”

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the WSDC, said the committee leadership plans to discuss the coalition's demands at a meeting next week.

Pedersen said the Senate campaign committee doesn't dictate which consultants its candidates use. But the committee does make recommendations, and often works with "larger, more established firms" on the competitive races where it spends money, he said.

“To be honest, I don’t know if we’ve thought about the effect of that on racial equity, but it’s a worthy thing to think about — and we will be,” Pedersen said Friday.

"We will talk about what we can do to make sure that we have good opportunities for all qualified consultants to work on races," he said.

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who chairs the HDCC, said that although only consultants on the preferred list can receive money from the committee, the committee worked to update its guidelines last year to try to help remove barriers for smaller firms and consultants of color.

"We’ve been really intentional in the past few years in trying to improve diversity, equity and inclusion," Fitzgibbon said Friday.

Crystal Fincher, another member of the Political Consultants of Color Coalition, said even though the HDCC and WSDC may not be intending to exclude Black consultants and consultants of color from job opportunities, that is what is ultimately happening.

“Racism is not about intention, it is about impact,” Fincher said.

The issue doesn't appear to be about which firms have a successful track record of winning races, the coalition’s members say. Charles said his firm is still not on the preferred consultants list even after winning repeatedly at the ballot box and, in some cases, defeating candidates favored by the Democratic establishment. Charles’ past candidates include state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who won a competitive race for an open state Senate seat in 2018, and King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who defeated Larry Gossett, a 25-year incumbent, by 21 points last year.

Charles said that when he was finally sent some criteria for getting on the list, the rules were skewed against small firms that don’t have a lot of capital or that aren’t already working on numerous other races to help pay the bills.

Fincher said when it comes to legislative races, the percentage of campaign money that goes to political professionals of color is disproportionately low. According to the coalition, consultants of color worked on only 5% of legislative races in 2018, despite representing almost a third of the working political consultants in the state.

She said a major reason is how the Senate and House Democratic campaign committees exclude political consultants from their preferred shortlists, if those consultants work on campaigns that challenge incumbents.

This can prevent people of color from gaining the experience they need to get work on higher profile campaigns, like federal and statewide races, Fincher said.

The policy gives many of those consultants no choice except to work with challengers and political newcomers — campaigns that are harder to win, Fincher said.

She said the system also leaves those consultants with fewer legislative races they can work on overall, making it harder for them to sustain their businesses financially.

“This isn’t about the intention of what people are doing, but the result,” Fincher said. ”And this absolutely has the result of reserving resources, work and money for predominantly white male consultants, and keeping nonwhite-male consultants out.”

Pedersen, the chair of the WSDC, said there is no formal policy for Senate reelection campaigns to not work with consultants who also work with challengers. However, he said, “I think it’s fair to say you don’t necessarily win any friends by opposing incumbents.”

This year, he said, the campaign committee actively discouraged people from working with a prominent white consultant who decided to work on a campaign against a sitting senator.

“That’s not unique to consultants of color — that’s just a fact of the relationships that are involved,” Pedersen said. 

But in the end, Fincher said, the system has been limiting opportunities for Black people and people of color. “And that is the definition of structural racism," she said.

Crystal Fincher
Crystal Fincher, a political consultant based in Kent, photographed at Kent City Hall, June 11, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

To help fix that, her coalition is asking the House and Senate campaign committees to broadly distribute the criteria for inclusion on the preferred consultant roster before anyone is approved to go on the list for a given campaign cycle. The group also wants the race of consultants to be included when the consultant list is provided to candidates. 

In addition, the coalition wants the committees' various legislative campaigns to track and report the racial makeup of the contractors they hire, so there is a public record of how much they’re paying firms that are majority-owned by people of color.

“They may not realize the severity of the problem,” Fincher said. “That’s why tracking what they’re doing and quantifying what they’re doing is so important, so we understand where we’re at — because they might not know.”

Some consultants say the problems go beyond the list. Riall Johnson, another Black consultant who is part of the coalition, said he actually got on the list of preferred consultants, but only after agreeing to turn down work that involved challenging a House incumbent. 

Even after that, however, he said HDCC leaders still discouraged multiple candidates from working with him.

That kind of pattern is why he says the state’s Democratic establishment needs to be called out publicly — like what the Political Consultants of Color Coalition is doing right now.

“We tried to play their game — I actually did play their game,” Johnson said. “And I have yet to get anything out of it.”

Fitzgibbon, the chair of the HDCC, said of the situation with Johnson: “That’s not my understanding of what happened there.”

He noted that Johnson is working with one incumbent Democratic lawmaker this cycle, state Rep. Debra Entenman. Johnson said that’s only because Entenman proactively insisted on working with him.

Reached by phone, Entenman said she would prefer not to comment on the situation at this time — but she did sign on in support of the coalition's demands.

One of the group’s other demands is likely to stir significant controversy. The coalition wants the HDCC and WSDC to stop supporting the campaigns of incumbents who have already been re-elected several times.

For state House members, that would mean cutting off support to a candidate after three election cycles, or six years. For state senators, the proposed cutoff would be two election cycles, or eight years.

Washington state doesn’t have term limits for legislators, so under the current system lawmakers can serve a decade or two, or even longer.

“It’s really on the party to work with us to help bring up the new, young candidates who are really representative of their community,” said Seferiana Day, another political consultant who is part of the coalition.

The group’s other demands include ensuring pay equity for consultants and contractors of color, and requiring highly paid contractors to agree to hire and train people of color. 

The coalition is making similar requests of the state Democratic party, county party organizations and Democratic ally organizations, such as unions.

All the groups are also being asked to publicly report the racial composition of their leadership teams.

Tina Podlodowski, the head of the Washington State Democrats, said the party has been working for some time to make its staff more diverse.

"I think right now we have the most diverse staff in the history of the Washington state Democratic Party in terms of racial diversity, gender diversity, sexual orientation diversity — all of those things," Podlodowski said.

At the same time, she said, “We can always do more, and better.”

Blocker said it’s important that Democratic groups make changes to show they are willing to match their rhetoric with action.

“It just doesn’t send the right message when we’ve been talking about these issues for years, and folks are saying they’re committed to dismantling systemic racism — but they uphold it at the same time,” she said.

This story was updated to include additional quotes from Democratic leaders and new information about the coalition's supporters.

About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.