WASHINGTON—Before declaring Philadelphia ground zero for his campaign operations, former Vice President Joe Biden was taking another important step in launching his presidential bid—enlisting seasoned Black Democratic strategists.
“I’m very proud to have a diverse and experienced staff; it’s important that this campaign has a wide range of perspectives, voices and backgrounds that reflect the America we live in,” Biden said. “I’m glad to have this growing staff be a part of team Biden as we all work together to unite our nation and rebuild an inclusive middle class for all.”
Snagging top Black advisers, such as those who led House Democrats to victories during the 2018 midterms at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and drove the Health and Human Services Department’s’ Affordable Care Act enrollment campaign, is an example of Biden’s commitment to cultural competency.
According to Candice Nelson, academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University, having people of color on staff for communications is key to a campaign’s success. “Tone is very important to a campaign in terms of messaging,” she said. “If the campaign is reaching out to people of color, they want people of color as part of the campaign.”
Nelson said tone can be fatal to a campaign if a candidate’s messaging is received by a community as inauthentic or offensive.
During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign messaging was at the heart of Black Americans’ criticism. Though tone was not the only issue that sank Clinton’s presidential bid, it did demonstrate a disconnect between the candidate and her party’s strongest voter bloc. Only 88 percent of Black voters went for Clinton in 2016, while Obama pulled 91 percent, according to Pew Research.
Looking to 2020, many Democratic candidates are taking steps to engage the Black community, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to address Black infant and mother mortality, and California Sen. Kamala Harris’ cash bail reduction proposal.
Many political commentators wonder whether a non-Black candidate can connect with African-Americans. It raises the question of whether Biden’s early move to bring in major Black political operatives can help fill the perceived gap between candidates and communities. So far, Biden’s campaign consists of eight top-level national staffers who identify as Black or African-American.
Who’s on Team Biden?
Team Biden has a diverse group of Black staffers who represent many regions of the country, colleges, intersectional social identities and areas of policy expertise.
Kamau M. Marshall—director of strategic communications
Marshall served as deputy national press secretary and director of African American Media at the DCCC during the 2018 midterm elections. In this role, he was part of the Year of Engagement team, which spent $30 million to mobilize communities of color in a midterm election that flipped the most seats from red to blue since 1974. Previously, Marshall worked on communications and more for Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), and at a public relations firm SKDKnickerbocker. He also served in the Obama administration as a speechwriter, and was communications adviser at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the leadership of Secretary Tom Vilsack and Foreign Agricultural Administrator Phil Karsting.
Hometown(s): Chicago; Baltimore; Pittsburgh; Birmingham, Ala.; Columbus, Ga., and Atlanta
College: Texas Southern University
Quote: “When I listen to people in the communities I’ve come from and people [from early voting states], women of color and people of color, they support a person like Vice President Biden. He meets people where they are and that’s important to them. More importantly, he listens to the people and he is a life learner. Also, Vice President Biden has over 40 years of experience as an elected official, being one of the youngest ever elected into the U.S. Senate at the age of 29. While working as VP, he was one of the main connectors in Congress, especially having a strong relationship with the congressional Black caucus. He has been working with the African-American community for a while and has only gotten stronger and better over the years. That kind of competency and experience matters in the Black community.”
Erin Wilson—national political director
The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation alum led the Pennsylvania operations for Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) to a 13-point margin victory during the 2018 midterms. In 2016, she served as the Pennsylvania deputy state director for Hillary for America. Also, Wilson managed the Democratic National Committee’s New England regional political engagement.
College: University of Pennsylvania
Jamal Brown—national press secretary
Brown served as press secretary of the White House Office of Management and Budget for the Obama administration. He was the director of regional press for Michelle Obama’s 2018 midterm election organization, When We All Vote. In 2008, Brown began his career with GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, and that year was named to OUT magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential LGBTQ people in the world.
Hometown: Sacramento, California
College: Dartmouth College
Quote: “I am thrilled and honored to work for someone with a clear and established progressive record on a range of issues, including climate change, criminal justice, violence against women, marriage equality, gun control and more. To work for an individual who has not only dedicated their life to public service but [is] a leader who can admit when they’re wrong, and take the necessary steps to course correct, is rare.”
Symone D. Sanders—senior adviser
Sanders is a former CNN political commentator. In 2018, she served as a resident fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School and in 2019 at the University of Southern California’s Center for the Political Future.
Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska
College(s): Creighton University
Quote: “This is one of the most consequential elections in our lifetime. I believe, as the vice president has said, that we are in a battle for the soul of our nation. I’m passionate about my politics. I feel strongly about banking and just as strongly about health care as I do about criminal justice reform and housing. So, for me, it’s not one specific policy. It’s the fact that I want to beat the brakes off Donald Trump and I feel like Joe Biden can do that.”
Brandon English—senior adviser
English served as a deputy executive director and digital director of the DCCC, where he built a system to recruit grassroots supporters. He also launched the committee’s digital organizing program, which shattered online fundraising records. Under English’s leadership, the Democratic Party increased digital revenue from $14 million in 2010 to $49 million in 2012 and to $70 million in 2014. In total, more than $150 million of English’s digitally generated funds supported Democratic campaigns across the country.
Hometown: Cleveland Heights, Ohio
College: Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Quote: “On the digital side, I was thinking when we launched this thing, we were all thinking what’s going to happen. On the actual launch day, we were sort of talking and whispering in the office saying, if we get 20,000, 25,000 donations, that would be good. If we don’t get there, how will we message this and what will we do? What we saw was not only a lot of support from folks we expected to get support from, but donations that came from folks who were searching for us online and finding our ads online. We ended up raising more money from folks who found us than from folks that we actually went out to try and go get. The support is larger than any of us could have ever expected.”
Sherice Perry—communications director to Jill Biden
Perry’s résumé includes more than a decade of experience in health policy, advocacy and communications. She served as the director of specialty and broadcast media in the Secretary’s Public Affairs Office at the Health and Human Services Department during the Obama administration. During that time, Perry focused on public health and the Affordable Care Act. Previously, she served as executive director of The Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, the health equity program manager at Families USA, and was a communication specialist with the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service.
Hometown: Valley Stream, New York
College(s): University of Pennsylvania; Georgetown University
Quote: “I’ve traveled across the country these last few years, and now in my work with Dr. [Jill] Biden, I hear stories of how our work to expand health care access has changed people’s lives. Parents can get their kids the care they need, young people can take the chance to start businesses and people with pre-existing conditions have access to doctors and medication they need to properly manage their health. The vice president wants to build on that progress and strengthen the Affordable Care Act. But it’s not just policy—I know how deeply they both care about our nation and our community. It’s an honor to join this team and work for people who I truly admire and respect.”
Ashley Williams—trip director
Williams served as special adviser and director of special projects at the Department of State for the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. Previously, she was the senior assistant to Jill Biden while at the White House.
Hometown: Tallahassee, Florida
College(s): University of Pennsylvania; George Washington University; and Georgetown University
Quote: “Vice President Biden is someone who is committed to focusing on a wide range of issues. He is also very much open to listening to the staff, and I think that’s a big part of the reason why all of us are here because we have something to offer to him as he works on the platform to address people within our communities. He has shown over the years that he is committed to issues that we care about. What I admire about him is that he is willing to listen, adapt and change, and do what is most impactful and helpful to all communities.”
Isabel Aldunate—Hispanic media and Nevada press secretary
Aldunate most recently served as the deputy national press secretary for Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in his Capitol Hill Leadership office. Also, she is fresh off the campaign trail for Andrew Gillum’s bid for governor of Florida, where she served as deputy press secretary. Aldunate began her political communications career as a communications assistant at the National Association of Real Estate Brokers and has served in communications roles with the Maryland Clean Energy Center, Climate Action Campaign and the American Council on Renewable Energy.
Hometown: Bowie, Maryland
College(s): American University; University of Maryland Baltimore County
Quote: “Under our current president, we have had two government shutdowns because of his obsession with a wall that even congressional Republicans were not on board with completely. So, we Americans suffered because he was so polarized and just pandering to his base,” Aldunate said. “Biden would be a president for the people, not just for a set of people. He would be a president for everyone and wouldn’t sacrifice Americans’ livelihoods and well-being just for an idea.”
Q and A with Team Biden
Editor’s Note: The transcript of this conversation has been condensed for space and clarity.
Floyd: Why did you sign on to work with Biden?
Marshall: I personally chose Vice President Biden because he fits where people are right now. He’s an actual real human that has an organic connection with people, and I think that’s what separates him from other candidates. It’s not about his age or race, but more so about his experience and relatability. VP Biden brings a lot to the table and he has what it takes to win. After traveling to a host of congressional districts during the 2018 cycle, it was clear where I needed to be for 2020. Besides Mrs. Michelle Obama, VP Biden was one of the most requested surrogates in the 2018 election cycle. Moving forward, VP Biden says ‘ordinary people do extraordinary things’—that motto always stays on my mind while working on this campaign.
Williams: There is no other place that I would have been than here, and I say that as I am preparing for two graduations this weekend with my master’s and law degree, all while planning two weddings. I believe in who he is, and I know he is the best person to unite our country. I have to also add that he knowing all of this is completely supportive. He understands deeply that family is important.
Floyd: What policy passions are driving the team?
Perry: I got involved in this world because of health care. I recognized early on [a child] that when people got sick some stayed sick and some got better. That’s when I began to understand things about the health care system and decided I wanted to change it. Working in the last administration allowed me to do that.
Aldunate: My mother is Black and father is an immigrant from Bolivia, and I feel like ever since the Trump administration has begun, America has become a very hostile environment for Hispanics and immigrants in this nation. Vice President Biden has made it a staple of his campaign to make sure that people are treated with dignity and respect. He has made it known that this country is built off of the greatness of immigrants and that there isn’t a reason to make America great again, like Trump says. I’m part of this campaign because I think Vice President Biden will be the person to stop Donald Trump in his tracks.
Floyd: Could you explain the former VP’s work style?
Sanders: The thing that’s so great about Vice President Biden is that he is all about relationships, so much that he won’t just stop for a five-minute quick chitchat. Your chitchat will become 30 minutes or more. But that’s what’s so good about him. I think that lends his strength to his relationships with the African-American community in places all across the country.
Williams: People come up to him and want to pour out their stories and talk to him—and he listens to them as if they are the most important person in the world, because to him they are. He is going to stop and talk to every single person who either stood out in the rain or who traveled from near or far, even if it means running behind on the schedule. He truly is one of the most decent men that I know. He is honest and honorable. He often says all politics is personal, and he truly believes this. He embodies that every single day because no person is more important than the next. He believes that you should speak to the janitor just like you would speak to the president of the corporation. Both of those people to him are the same, and they deserve to be recognized and talked to because everyone has a story.
Jessica A. Floyd is a candidate for a master’s degree focusing on politics at Medill-Northwestern University. You can follow her on Twitter @JessAFloyd.