Nearly five years ago, Joseph R. Biden Jr. gathered his closest advisers to decide whether he would run for president in 2016. This was a “final judgment” meeting, as he would later describe it in his memoir, and around the room were Mr. Biden’s family and more than a half-dozen of his most trusted confidantes.
It was his innermost circle. Everyone was white.
Today, as Mr. Biden makes his third bid for the presidency, his campaign manager is white. His chief strategist is white. His three chiefs of staff as vice president (all still key advisers) and four of the five people who have been deputy campaign managers are white, as are the leaders of his economic team.
Mr. Biden won the 2020 Democratic primary on the strength of a multiracial political coalition anchored by black voters who overwhelmingly rallied behind him, and he has pledged to build a diverse administration as president. But while some black advisers have cracked Mr. Biden’s upper echelon and his team is racing to expand, the people setting strategy still skew heavily white, with limited Latino and even less Asian-American representation.
In recent days, as protests erupted over the death of George Floyd after being pinned down by Minneapolis police officers, Mr. Biden has moved to forge even stronger ties to black Americans, presenting himself as a healing force in the country’s searing debate over race. He has delivered two addresses acknowledging the pain and suffering of African-Americans, drawing a sharp contrast with President Trump’s belligerent response.
But the fear, even among allies, is that a lack of diverse viewpoints in Mr. Biden’s brain trust could come with a long-term cost: a misinterpretation that boiling anger at Mr. Trump among black and Latino voters equates to excitement for Mr. Biden; insufficient outreach to minority groups; and — perhaps most worrisome of all — the possibility that Mr. Biden’s team would take for granted that his strength with black voters in the primaries would repeat itself in November, a complaint lodged against Hillary Clinton four years ago.
“It matters who is doing the shaping of the campaign,” said LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. She was one of a dozen black female leaders invited to a recent private call with Mr. Biden, during which she said representation came up. “We can’t keep going and asking black folks to show up and make sure the boogeyman doesn’t get you. If you think the fear of Trump is going to be enough to move black votes, that is going to be a critical error.”
Mr. Trump has regularly been accused of racism, including his recent threats to quell the unrest with vicious dogs and calling the protesters “thugs.” He has a long history of taking positions that demonized and denigrated minorities, including his false attacks on the Central Park Five, his birther lie against former President Barack Obama and his fear-mongering about the migrant caravan in 2018.
As for viewpoints he seeks, Mr. Trump has virtually no African-Americans or other people of color among his most trusted advisers, who include his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his chief of staff, Mark Meadows; Hope Hicks, a longtime aide; and Dan Scavino, a deputy chief of staff for communications. In the photo op the president staged this week at a church across from the White House, the aides pictured beside him were all white. And Mr. Trump won only 8 percent of the black vote in 2016.
But for Mr. Biden, demonstrating differences with the president is not enough to drive minority voters to the polls, or a substitute for delivering an inspiring message to people of color, some activists argue. Black voters are a critical constituency for Mr. Biden and could make the difference in a razor-thin election. His recent off-key remark that black voters torn between him and Mr. Trump “ain’t black” only heightened the sense of urgency. The president’s re-election machine leapt to amplify the comment, the latest effort seeking to dissuade African-Americans from voting for Mr. Biden, or from voting at all.
So far, the strongest public pressure on Mr. Biden has been to select a woman of color as his running mate. But interviews with more than three dozen donors, activists and Democratic officials inside and out of the campaign found that many viewed the racial composition of the Biden brain trust just as significant in terms of how he can unite the broad spectrum of the Democratic Party in 2020 and, if elected, govern in 2021.
“It looks like it’s a work in progress,” said Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“If you look at the traditional inner circle, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of voices of color around the table,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the No. 5 ranking Democrat in the House.
Mr. Jeffries, whose bill banning police chokeholds was embraced by Mr. Biden this week, credited the influence of key black members of Congress on the former vice president, who he said was “acting with an open heart.”
Privately, the Biden campaign leadership has emphasized to Democratic leaders that it is broadening its upper ranks, including two new senior advisers who are people of color and the formation of a new coalitions department. Mr. Biden himself has made a blitz of appearances to signal the significance of key ethnic groups, including private calls with clergy, lawmakers and civil-rights leaders.
More hires are coming: The campaign is sifting through a list of 100 Latinos recommended for jobs, and has been pinging black leaders for suggestions, according to people familiar with the plans. Biden officials have emphasized that the campaign was severely limited by its budget in the primary — and have asked for patience.
“The team is not built out yet. We won the primary with a skeleton crew,” said Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Mr. Biden’s first national co-chairman. “We absolutely are cognizant of how it looks. We believe that optics show values and we’re going to continue to strive to get it right.”
Some nonwhite advisers have certainly advanced to the inner sanctum of the Biden campaign. Mr. Richmond has a standing invitation to strategy sessions, and Symone Sanders is an influential senior adviser with a wide-ranging portfolio, from progressive outreach to overall messaging; both are black. Outside the campaign, Mr. Biden deeply values the counsel of Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, and, of course, Mr. Obama.
“People of color have power here,” Ms. Sanders said. “When it comes to the purse strings, when it comes to access, when it comes to strategy, when it comes to messaging.”
“If you say top 10, we may not have hit the number we want,” Mr. Richmond said. “But two of the top 10 are Symone and I.”
As the Biden campaign adds new senior-level hires, the question is how much the new voices will be incorporated at the highest levels.
The previous highest-ranking Latina on the Biden campaign, Vanessa Cardenas, left as national coalitions director last fall. “They didn’t expand the circle of voices that are truly making decisions,” Ms. Cardenas said in her first public comments since her departure.
Years of fierce loyalty
Even before he entered the 2020 primary, Mr. Biden was aware of the need to diversify his senior staff and explicitly asked advisers to work toward a more diverse team, according to a person familiar with the request.
As a candidate, Mr. Biden has pledged to appoint a cabinet that looks like America, choose a female running mate and nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court.
Those who have worked with Mr. Biden over the years describe him as solicitous of an array of different perspectives. “Otherwise,” said Valerie Jarrett, a top White House adviser to Mr. Obama, “he wouldn’t have been the vice president for Barack Obama for two terms.”
At the same time, Mr. Biden, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, has often retreated to a familiar set of faces for counsel at critical junctures. His operation is known for its fierce mutual loyalty, and many of his advisers of all backgrounds have remained close for years.
His three chiefs of staff as vice president — Bruce Reed, Steve Ricchetti and Ron Klain, but especially the latter two — remain outsize 2020 influences. Mike Donilon, his chief strategist, has been with him since the 1980s. Mr. Biden’s family, including his sister, Valerie, who managed his previous races, and his longtime Senate chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, are key outside confidantes. Anita Dunn, a senior adviser, and Kate Bedingfield, a deputy campaign manager, wield some of the widest influence over messaging. All are white.
Don Graves, who was Mr. Biden’s counselor as vice president and one of his highest-ranking black aides, said valuing diversity was “fundamental to who Joe Biden is.”
“The fact is that folks like Ricchetti and Ted Kaufman and Mike Donilon have been around the V.P. for a while,” said Mr. Graves, who remains close to Mr. Biden. “But he knows that it’s a different day and he gives a lot of credence to folks like Symone and Cedric and, in some ways, values their input more than the folks who’ve been around for a while.”
Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who took over as campaign manager in March, is said to be keenly focused on diversity, and the campaign recently hired two veteran strategists and Obama veterans, Julie Chavez Rodriguez and Karine Jean-Pierre, as senior advisers. (Mr. Biden had first recruited Ms. Jean-Pierre in early 2019.)
Black and Latino donors and strategists have said diversity concerns are not just about having people in the room, but making sure that those who are there are not expected to speak exclusively about race, or on behalf of black or Latino voters everywhere.
In an introductory call with her staff, Ms. O’Malley Dillon was frustrated with the public perception that the new hires were chiefly representatives of minority groups and explicitly pushed back on the idea that Ms. Rodriguez, who is Latino, and Ms. Jean-Pierre, who is black, were hired to focus on black and brown voters, according to two people on the call. She echoed that message on Twitter.
While she was announced as a senior adviser and the most senior Latina on the Biden team, Ms. Rodriguez will not actually be working full-time for Mr. Biden; she is a consultant and keeping one other client.
One of the other three people of color initially announced as a senior adviser in 2019, Brandon English, has been largely disempowered.
Mr. Jeffries, the New York Democrat, said the presence of respected black lawmakers in the Biden orbit — especially Mr. Clyburn and Mr. Richmond — has alleviated some concerns on Capitol Hill because they “hopefully will make up for any perceived deficit in his kitchen cabinet.”
Mr. Clyburn, who has a direct line to Mr. Biden but is not involved in the campaign’s day-to-day operations, has pressed the campaign to hire more black vendors and organizers and to “pay them like you pay white people who place TV ads,” he said in an interview this spring.
“That was my problem with the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Mr. Clyburn said of a lack of black-oriented outreach. “And I don’t want to see the same thing done again.”
Steve Phillips, a major Democratic donor and the author of the book “Brown Is the New White,” fears the Biden campaign is at risk of repeating the mistakes of Mrs. Clinton, who, like Mr. Biden, swept the black vote in the primary — and then failed to fully draw those same voters in November.
“How are they processing that? What are they doing to make it different this time?” asked Mr. Phillips, who is black. “This is about who’s in the decision-making positions, who’s in the room where it happens.’’
Latinos seek more influence
Concern is more acute among some Latino leaders. Polls showed that Mr. Biden began the 2020 primary as the leading choice of Latinos, who will make up a pivotal bloc of voters in November, but he ended up losing Hispanic voters badly in early states to Senator Bernie Sanders, who invested heavily in outreach. In California, Mr. Sanders carried 51 percent of the Hispanic vote to only 25 percent for Mr. Biden, according to an exit poll; in Nevada, the margin was 50 percent to 17 percent.
“He’s surrounding himself by an almost all-white inner circle of high-level staff that don’t reflect the diversity of America,” said Domingo Garcia, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, who spoke recently with Mr. Biden. “Our voices are just kind of muffled in the whole campaign structure.”
Cristóbal Alex, for instance, is regarded as the campaign’s top Latino strategist, a senior adviser with a portfolio beyond Latino outreach. But he is not seen as a member of the inner circle.
“I believe Cristóbal is trusted,” said Representative Tony Cárdenas of California, the chairman of the political arm of the Hispanic Caucus. “But I have yet to see he is empowered” to the same extent that Mr. Sanders granted authority to his top Latino adviser, Mr. Cárdenas said.
Mr. Cárdenas, who has helped arrange recent weekly calls between Mr. Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, and Hispanic lawmakers, said the Biden campaign was now “saying they understand what it’s going to take” to win those voters in November. (Jill Biden’s chief of staff, Anthony Bernal, is the lone Latino deputy campaign manager and is close to the family — he is one of two aides regularly at their home in Wilmington, Del., during the pandemic — though less involved in broader strategy.)
The Biden campaign is planning to significantly ramp up its Latino outreach as it seeks to stretch the Electoral College map to include Arizona, readying a plan with a hefty paid-media program, according to people familiar with the matter. A group of top Hispanic fund-raisers recently created a new internal Biden fund, code-named “Presidente,” with initial pledges of $2 million.
The Biden team has also had to field some disenchantment from Asian-American leaders. Some were upset when the campaign, in one of its first moves after Mr. Biden became the presumptive nominee, replaced Seema Nanda, the Democratic National Committee’s top Asian-American official, as chief executive officer.
Varun Nikore, president of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander Victory Fund, which recently hosted an event with Mr. Biden, said he “couldn’t point to one” Asian-American with significant political sway inside the Biden hierarchy.
While the campaign’s chief operating officer and the newly announced chief financial officer are Asian-American, lack of representation has been a concern for those who worry about anti-China messaging in 2020. In a recent call with Asian-American members of Congress, Mr. Biden said he would “work with our caucus on future messaging related to China,” said Representative Grace Meng of New York.
Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, who became the highest-ranking Latino in the Biden campaign as national co-chairman in January, rejected the notion that Mr. Biden does not seek diverse counsel. Citing the campaign’s lack of cash, Mr. Garcetti said he was surprised at the slimness of the operation when he joined.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh there’s no Latinos here’,” he said. “I looked at the campaign and said, ‘Oh there’s nobody here.’ Because we didn’t have the resources. It wasn’t like the closet was filled with a bunch of non-diverse faces. It wasn’t filled yet.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
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