A Very White Republican Leadership Plans Minority Outreach

Criticism from inside the ranks. “Any kind of racially specific campaign activity was often treated with skepticism by white staffers,” says one former RNC staffer.

Priebus speaks to reporters after holding private talks with Latino and other community leaders at Tamayo restaurant in East Los Angeles. Reed Saxon / AP

As the Republican Party gears up to launch a concerted, well-funded outreach effort aimed at attracting elusive minority voters, it’s not just battling dismal poll numbers and tough demographic trends — it’s working to overcome its own overwhelming whiteness.

There is not a single racial minority among the 20 most senior officials who run the Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, and National Republican Senatorial Committee — the three wings of the GOP apparatus charged with promoting candidates and winning elections. And a range of former Republican staffers told BuzzFeed that this lack of diversity has paralyzed the party’s ability to connect with minority communities.

“If you’re trying to court African-American voters, it’s much better to have an African-American in the room talking about how these outreach policies are going to be implemented,” said former RNC chair Michael Steele, the first African-American to hold that position. “They have an appreciation and understanding of what the issues are, how the language is being interpreted, and what takeaway they will get from your visit.”

As they exist now, Steele said, “these institutions are old, they’re stale, and they’re crumbling. We can either shore them up with faces that look a lot like mine, like Marco Rubio’s, like Susana Martinez’s, or they can crumble and go to dust.”

The need for people, and not just policies, that appeal specifically to voters of color has been a long-running theme of Republican politics. Steele’s own elevation in 2009 was driven in part by hopes, which did not come to fruition, that he could woo black voters. And on the electoral level, county, state, and national Republican parties have been relatively successful at encouraging and backing qualified black and Hispanic candidates, a program pushed by George W. Bush and Karl Rove.

But the party’s official Washington face is whiter than ever, and it is the subject of criticism that echoed throughout conversations with minority operatives who have worked for the GOP, some of whom declined to speak on the record for fear of career repercussions.

RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said Republican leaders are well aware of their organizations’ lack of diversity, and are taking unprecedented strides to address the issue.

“No convincing needed,” Spicer told BuzzFeed. “We just issued a pretty scathing report saying just that. We need more diverse people, especially of different races and ethnicities, to be at the decision-making table. Yeah, we agree. I don’t think that’s a point of contention.”

Since the release this month of a 100-page “autopsy” commissioned by the RNC — which called for an expansion of the party’s minority outreach efforts — chairman Reince Priebus has been trumpeting a $10 million plan to establish a permanent grassroots presence in black, Hispanic, and Asian communities across the country.

“We have become a party that parachutes into communities four months before an election,” Priebus told CBS, pledging to hire “hundreds” of new field staffers. “In comparison to the other side, the Obama campaign lived in these communities for years. The relationships were deep, they were authentic.”

But building relationships of trust with minority communities could prove more complicated than funding a pricey outreach initiative.

One former RNC field staffer, who is Hispanic, described a culture of cynicism among his predominantly white colleagues when it came to minority outreach. He said that in his office, whenever they were notified of a new Republican outreach effort, they would pass around a Beanie Baby — which they had dubbed the “pander bear” — and make fun of the “tokenism.”

“Any kind of racially specific campaign activity was often treated with skepticism by white staffers,” he said.

He also recalled a Mitt Romney rally last year featuring Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, during which the staffer and his coworkers were tasked with finding Hispanics in the crowd who they could place on stage for the benefit of the TV cameras. It’s a common, bipartisan practice in campaign politics — but one that his colleagues resented.

“My white peers were clearly not understanding what a powerful image a Hispanic senator standing in front of a sea of Hispanic Romney supporters would be,” he said. “They grumbled about it, treated it like a chore. Not racist or anything like that, just didn’t understand why they were doing it.”

Derek Khanna, a young wonk who was fired from the House Republican Study Committee last year after writing a controversial policy memo, pointed to the tension between a desire for diversity and a revulsion at the “identity politics” that Democrats have historically used to build sturdy ethnic coalitions — and sometimes to convince voters the GOP is racist.

“I think Republicans are naturally averse to the idea that if you’re a minority, you have to vote this certain way,” Khanna explained. Still, he said, “It’s important… [and] useful to have the rainbow members of the Republican Party” making the case to minority voters, and brainstorming new ideas and policies that will attract a broader cross section of support.

Virtually every Republican, regardless of his or her preferred approach, acknowledges now that their party faces a stark demographic challenge. In the 2012 presidential election, race was a more effective predictor of which lever a voter would pull than either age or gender. While Romney won both white women and white youth, President Obama won Hispanics and African-Americans across age and gender by such large margins that his reelection was easily secured. To be competitive in future national races, Republicans must find a way to cut down the Democrats’ advantage among racial minorities.

The first step, many Republicans argue, is for the party establishment to prioritize diversity as it staffs up. (The leadership of the Democratic National Committee is also majority-white, but is more diverse than its Republican counterpart.)

Steele said he invested heavily in this area while he was RNC chair, building a six-person coalitions committee focused on minority outreach.

“But that was disbanded by Reince,” Steele said. “So then they sit back and scratch their heads and wonder why they didn’t have the kind of response from those communities they wanted. Well, you can’t just throw up a website, throw some black faces on there, and think we would be impressed. It’s a cynical ploy as viewed by many African-Americans.”

Steele, whose relationship with his successor has grown increasingly antagonistic in recent months, went on to blame the party’s struggles to win black and Hispanic voters in 2012 partially on Priebus. He specifically criticized him for failing to promote minorities to senior positions.

“I’m not saying you need a person of color in that job,” he said. “But you have to feel it in your core. Reince stood by my side for two years. He at least gave lip service to what we were trying to do. I found out later he didn’t necessarily believe in it. That’s fine. But you have to really believe it.”

“Reince is not the guy to get this done,” he said.

Spicer countered that the coalitions committee was not the only casualty when Priebus took Steele’s job, and that deep cuts were necessary at the time to get the RNC out of debt.

“The fact of the matter is, in January of [2011], the financial state of the RNC was so bad, we did not have the resources to meet basic payroll,” Spicer said.

Besides, Spicer said, the value of the coalitions committee — while staffed by talented people — was ultimately more symbolic than practical.

“Is it good for the building to be diverse? Yes. Absolutely. But do I think if we suddenly offered a bunch more minorities jobs in RNC headquarters that it would cause a huge sea change? No,” Spicer said. “What makes this approach different is that we’re not solving the problem in the building… What we’re talking about now is not only putting minority people in the RNC, but putting paid minority staffers throughout the country.”

He added, “This is not a headquarters-solvable problem.”

With reporting from CJ Lotz.

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