Politics

DCCC chief overhauls hiring operation after lawmaker outcry

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Rep. Cheri Bustos, chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm, is trying to hit the reset button after a tumultuous month — hoping to convince frustrated black and Latino lawmakers that she is taking diversity seriously while maintaining her focus on holding the House.

Bustos (D-Ill.) notified members on Thursday of a new advisory council that will conduct the search for an executive director, following a massive senior staff shakeup from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in late July.

The move, which comes after two POLITICO reports detailing the unrest within the caucus over the lack of diversity in the committee’s senior ranks, is intended to further underscore her commitment to reshaping the upper echelons of the campaign arm.

Twelve Democratic lawmakers and five technical experts with former experience working at the campaign arm will sit on the council, according to a letter from Bustos obtained by POLITICO.

Bustos and her top aide have held repeated phone calls with lawmakers on the issue. And she assured members in the letter that she is running a “broad and open search for the DCCC executive director.”

“We are moving quickly to fill this role, but we will do so in a way that honors the values of the most diverse House Democratic Caucus in U.S. history,” Bustos wrote. “I look forward to hearing your ideas and suggestions.”

The letter also includes a link to a questionnaire soliciting members for advice on what “qualities and experiences” Bustos should look for in a new executive director, what “topics” should be covered in the interviews, and what information the next executive director should “keep in mind” when they enter the role.

In conversations with members across the caucus’ ideological spectrum, Bustos has sought to reassure them that the DCCC is addressing its diversity issues while remaining fixated on her end goal: Keeping the House majority.

In addition, Bustos has enlisted her senior aide, chief of staff Jon Pyatt, to reassure skittish lawmakers following the staff departures at the DCCC. Pyatt reached out to chiefs of staff for vulnerable Democrats in the last week, promising them that protecting freshmen in swing-district seats remains the campaign arm’s first priority.

But some lawmakers remain restless.

The announcement of the new advisory council comes after lawmakers began privately expressing concerns that Bustos and the remaining DCCC leadership had not done enough in recent weeks to implement a thoughtful — and thorough — hiring process to fill the vacancies at the campaign arm or devise a timeline for doing so.

A group of a half dozen black and Latino lawmakers held a conference call earlier this week to air concerns about the lack of a coherent hiring strategy at the DCCC, more than two weeks after five top staffers were forced out. Bustos emailed members last week informing them of her next steps and that the executive director position had been posted publicly, a rare move for a top job at a political committee.

The advisory council will consist of a dozen Democrats, all of whom already have various leadership roles within the campaign arm’s sprawling hierarchy: Reps. Charlie Crist (Fla.), Madeleine Dean (Pa.), Suzan DelBene (Wash.), Val Demings (Fla.), Robin Kelly (Ill.), Gwen Moore (Wis.), Scott Peters (Calif.), Raul Ruiz (Calif.), Linda Sanchez (Calif.), Brad Schneider (Ill.), Mark Takano (Calif.) and Marc Veasey (Texas). The members will have the option to sit in on interviews of executive director candidates.

“I spoke with the chairwoman today and from our conversation it’s clear she has heard her colleagues’ concerns about diversity in the DCCC’s senior leadership and is taking immediate action to get on track,” said Ruiz in a statement. “It takes guts to admit you’ve messed up, and there is no one who can question that Cheri Bustos is owning where she fell short and working to make the DCCC an organization we can all be proud of.”

“As a former frontline member who flipped a red-district, I know personally how important the work Chairwoman Bustos and the DCCC are doing,” Ruiz said.

In addition, several House Democratic campaign veterans will assist with the search: Dan Sena, executive director during the 2018 cycle; Kelly Ward, executive director from 2013 to 2017; Doug Thornell, who worked at the DCCC for two cycles from 2007 to 2010; Raghu Devaguptapu, a longtime consultant for the committee; and Jacqui Newman, current interim executive director and chief operating officer for DCCC.

“All of us care about what’s happening at the DCCC. … It’s gotta get fixed. It’s serious,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who co-chairs the financing arm of the campaign committee, said in an interview. “But in terms of recruitment and supporting the candidates and delivering for them, it’s about their districts and it’s like two different buckets.”

Democrats have watched closely to see how Bustos would reorganize the DCCC staff after several senior aides were forced out late last month. Bustos was criticized by her colleagues for failing to meet promises to diversify the DCCC’s senior staff and making comments about how her husband and children are of “Mexican descent” that were seen as insensitive.

Lawmakers were also vexed by the status of DCCC staffer Tayhlor Coleman, whose nearly decade-old tweets hostile toward Mexicans and LGBTQ people surfaced in a Washington Free Beacon story.

Some members were told by the DCCC that Coleman would be immediately moved to a different position having nothing to do with outreach to minority voters, but as of POLITICO’s July report, Coleman continued to work on a critical outreach project, angering some Democrats.

Bustos soon made an emergency trip back to Washington to address the growing concerns. The DCCC’s executive director, a longtime Bustos aide, then resigned followed by several other senior committee staffers.

And Coleman is now expected to move to a senior role on the DCCC’s independent expenditure side, which would be located physically outside of the campaign arm’s building, according to multiple sources.

Privately, Democrats have been worried about whether the DCCC, and Bustos, could recover before the 2020 campaign kicks into high gear. The topic came up in several conversations during the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual nonprofit conference in Mississippi last week, according to sources present.

It’s not all bad for the DCCC. It’s fundraising consistently outpaces its Republican counterpart, a recent slate of House Republican retirements have created potential new pickup opportunities, and vulnerable freshmen are steadily breaking fundraising records of their own.

Bustos has also been in constant contact with lawmakers across the Tri-Caucus — the Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American Caucuses — and freshman members over the last three weeks to reassure them of her ability to stabilize the campaign arm.

“I feel like the DCCC is really doing great work and that [Bustos] has taken on the diversity issues head on with the seriousness that it requires,” said freshman Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who flipped a Republican seat in LA County last year. “As a frontliner I feel totally supported and like I have the resources I need.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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