Having to be twice as good – African American women in the campaign industry

By: - June 7, 2018 12:35 pm

Najaah Daniels, campaign manager for CD4 candidate Patricia Spearman: “When I say I’m a campaign manager, they give me this look that says, ‘What? You?’” Photo: Michael Lyle

Too often, Najaah Daniels walks into a room and people assume she is everything but what she actually is – a campaign manager running a congressional race.

“People think I’m (state Sen. Pat) Spearman’s assistant, or they think I’m her niece,” she said. “When I say I’m a campaign manager, they give me this look that says, ‘What? You?’ I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman, black or 25. I don’t know what it is, but I know that I earned this.”

The campaign industry is still dominated by white men. That is despite the fact that the power of African American women, specifically their presence at the polls, has been recognized if not revered.

Their vote is sought after during campaign season. But not always their input.

“When it comes to black women in politics, and I’ve seen this in my own party, we will be the talking point, we will be the shiny new thing in the front window” but not granted leadership roles she said. “It’s really important we don’t just use black women for what they can do on the sideline, but actually giving us the voice and power to do what we need to do as leaders.”

There has been a little progress. In the last couple years, more women of color are running for elected positions – though they can still struggle to secure institutional support as well as the financial backing they need to succeed.

Daniels, an Afro-Latina woman, said it’s the behind-the-scene roles that people don’t think about. Black women are rarely considered for top roles such as campaign managers or political directors, she said.

Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and becoming a highly visible and, more recently, controversial political operative, was an early trailblazer for African American women in the political industry. But Brazile’s high-profile position didn’t sweep away the status quo.

Asha Jones was the political director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Nevada. Jones said many of the career obstacles she’s faced are similar to those faced by women, in particular women of color, in all manner of professions. 

After graduating college in 2000, Jones was offered an organizing position on then-U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley’s campaign, but it had no benefits and a set end date.  

“This is what I wanted to do as a political science major,” she said. “But I had a child at the time.”

Jones fortunately had support from her family, which enabled her to afford to work for Berkley’s campaign.

“I think that is the barrier for black women in particular getting involved,” she said. “We always have a ton of responsibility and we can’t always go take a job that has no benefits and a defined end.”

For the next few years, Jones worked off and on political campaigns, taking odd jobs during the off seasons. She would also volunteer for politicians trying to establish herself.

Eventually, she went on to work for the U.S. Senator Harry Reid before getting hired by Hillary for America.

Often times, she said people would approach her male subordinates, thinking they were in charge.

Jones’ experience gave her a deep knowledge of Nevada’s political landscape including the black community, which she worked hard to cultivate.

“It has made me very protective of African American outreach in Las Vegas,” she said.

When Daniels working in Nevada politics in 2015, Jones took her around to help her better understand the political climate, but also learn the connections within the black community.

Along the way, Jones also became an inspiration for her.

For almost a decade, Daniels earned the political credentials she needed to run a campaign. As a high school student, she was an activist and volunteered with the NAACP Youth and College division in New York. She had also worked at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. She worked on New York City political campaigns, including a city council race and the campaign of New York  City Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

Prior to arriving in Nevada this January, she was hired as an organizer for Hillary Clinton, spending most her time in Congressional District four. 

She is one of the few women of color currently running campaign in the state.

Leisa Moseley, a long-time political consultant, is also running a local race.

Moseley never envisioned a career in politics. However, like many African Americans, Obama’s 2008 campaign was a game changer.

Going through a divorce and looking for something new, she took a six-week fellowship with his campaign in Las Vegas. When it ended, she was offered a job as a field organizer.

Similar to Jones, her family was able to provide child care allowing her to do the job.

After Obama won the presidency, she worked for Organizing for America for a time before starting her own consultancy agency, managing city council races in Boulder City and North Las Vegas, losing some, but winning some.

Moseley said it wasn’t just about winning but scoring higher votes than people anticipated. “People doubt I could do it since it was an off-election year,” Moseley said. “But I did.”

Other than a brief stint working for the Bernie Sanders campaign, Moseley has been running campaigns in every cycle, being called upon to represent anyone from city council candidates to those running for state assembly and senate.

Though she has a good track record, she always feels the pressure.

“There is no room for slacking,” she added. “You do have to be twice as good. I think it’s a perception of competency.”

Jones, now the government affairs director for the College of Southern Nevada, said Nevada is a state that wants outsiders who come in to pay their dues, but the requirements for people of color are higher.  “I mean, that’s just for anything we do,” she added. “Our dues are just different.”

And that still doesn’t mean they won’t get bypassed for advancements beyond field directors.

“That’s a fine role if that’s what you want to do,” Jones added. “That shouldn’t be the only role.”

Even when they stay the course and are able to work their way from field managers and outreach coordinators to more prominent jobs, more obstacles await.

“You walk into a room and people are surprised to see you,” Moseley said. “You are always aware of how you speak, how you dress and your hair. I’m certainly aware of how loud I am and what voice I use.”

In some ways, Jones said Nevada has gotten better at promoting people of color to prominent positions in political campaigns. However, that’s mostly for state and local races.

For more high-profile races such as campaigns for governor or federal offices, more often than not help is sought from out of state and doesn’t include women of color at the helm.

People like Jones are working to help black women face one hurdle of getting inside the already established political network.

“There are certain systems you work within,” Jones said. “Then, when you hit a wall you know how to fight.”

Though she doesn’t have a job directly in politics, Jones is still active in the community. She plans to host a bootcamp mid-June for people in the African-American community who have the desire to work in politics.

“So when people say they need to hire more organizers, they don’t have to bring people in from out of town,” she said. “We have people in the community who have already been trained.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.