'Wake up call': Prominent group warns Biden campaign that it's falling short on outreach to women of color

With less than four months until Election Day, a prominent group that advocates for women of color said Joe Biden’s presidential campaign must ramp up its ground game and get-out-the-vote efforts, particularly in battleground states, warning that, if not, the presumptive Democratic nominee could struggle to mobilize key voters

She the People, a national advocacy group, outlined the concerns of grassroots political organizers after a series of 90-minute virtual listening sessions held the week of June 15. The sessions included 41 women from 16 states, including battleground states Florida, Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The participants, including elected officials, strategists and activists, described feeling “taken for granted” and “invisible” and “used” despite belonging to the party's most loyal voting bloc, according to a summary the group provided exclusively to USA TODAY. The group said it will present the findings to the Biden campaign Wednesday.

“This is our wake-up call. These are the alarm bells we’re ringing,’’ said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People. “We’re saying we want to win, but if you listen to the women on the ground we’re not there yet. We must change, evolve, pivot in order to set ourselves up for victory in November.”

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People listen to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at the Hyatt Park community center on May 4, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. It is Biden's first visit to South Carolina as a 2020 presidential candidate.

The women also raised concerns the campaign hasn't tapped some key voter engagement groups that could help energize voters.

Meanwhile, they're anxiously awaiting Biden's choice for his running mate.

Biden needs his Biden:Here's a look at the women under consideration as his VP

Montserrat Arredondo, executive director of the civic-engagement group One Arizona, knows Biden has met with progressives such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But while people make assumptions about how Biden would govern, she hasn't heard him explain how his plans differ from President Donald Trump's.

“I’d like to hear more from Biden, more about what that means in practice for our communities," said Arredondo, who formed her group in 2010 after protesting for 109 straight days at the Arizona state capitol against immigration legislation. "Biden has name ID, sure, and has been the vice president. But he can’t take it for granted. That’s not just for down-ballot races. It’s for the pure excitement of what a presidential election year should bring to voting."

Biden campaign officials said they had to get through the primaries before organizing for the general election, and the coronavirus has hindered traditional meetings. The campaign announced five new staff hires in Arizona on Tuesday, adding to two staffers already there. Last week, the campaign hired three aides to improve contacts with people of color: Pili Tobar, as communications director for coalitions; Ramzey Smith, as African-American media director; and Jennifer Molina, as Latino media director.

“Voters of color – Black voters, Latino voters, Asian American, Pacific Islanders, Indigenous voters – are a key part of our general election strategy,” said Symone Sanders, senior Biden campaign adviser, who is Black. “We are not taking anything for granted.”

Symone Sanders, senior advisor to 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden, listens to him speak to the press outside of Detroit One Coney Island in Detroit where he made a campaign stop on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.

Campaign officials said they are scaling up in all states. The campaign has organized Women for Biden teams in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. The campaign has hosted national calls with prominent women of color, such as Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, and Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia lawmaker.

More:Joe Biden vowed to pick a woman VP. Some Democrats say she must be a woman of color

“We are reaching out to all voters across the party, from Black women to young people to the tribal community,” said Ashley Allison, Biden's coalitions director, who is Black. “We’re not building programs that are cookie-cutter. We are going to customize the work that we do to make sure that each demographic is touched and reached and listened to and heard, and hopefully they will vote for Joe Biden because he is the best candidate for the job.”

A key constituency for Democrats 

Women of color traditionally vote overwhelmingly for Democrats and provide a bedrock of support for the party. But She the People, which held the first-ever Democratic presidential forum focused on women of color last year, warned that if Biden doesn’t speak more persuasively and more inclusively in swing states, the insufficient outreach could doom his campaign as some believe it did with Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.

The forum in 2019 attracted nearly all of the major candidates at the time. Biden had not yet announced his presidential bid.

“We need to see some significant changes, otherwise we risk a 2016 result,’’ Aimee Allison said. “It’s not about TV commercials. It’s about, are we focused on this critical electorate to make sure we have high turnout?”

Biden holds a double-digit lead against Trump in national polls in early July, according to summaries by fivethirtyeight.com and realclearpolitics.com. Trump has been battered by rising deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment and racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death May 25 in police custody.

Biden picked up key support from Black voters in South Carolina and then a series of Southern states on Super Tuesday, delivering a stunning comeback after crushing losses in early primaries. And Biden routinely promotes the need to support women- and minority-owned businesses when discussing the economy and job creation.

But the complaints from women of color are coming from a key demographic for any Democratic victory. Black women supported Clinton with 98% of their vote in 2016 against Trump, and Hispanic women with 67% of their vote, according to a Pew Research Center study of exit polling.

Millions fewer women of color voted in 2016 than in 2012, when President Barack Obama was seeking reelection, according to a She the People analysis of data from exit polls. The shortfalls far outweighed Trump’s margins of victory in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, helping tip the balance to Trump in the electoral college despite Clinton winning the popular vote.

Women of color, who experts say are often trusted voices in their communities, have been critical to Democratic wins, including the 2017 upset win by Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama.

Wendy Smooth, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, called it a “horrible miscalculation’’ on the part of the Biden campaign that She the People feels pushed to “call him out.”

But Smooth, who wasn't part of the She the People survey, said one option for voters of color is "to just stay home."

“I really thought the Democratic Party had heard and had realized the option, but apparently not," Smooth said.

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Among the concerns raised by women in the survey was an interview in May on Charlamagne tha God's popular radio show, "The Breakfast Club," during which Biden touted his record on civil rights. At the end of the at-times contentious interview, Biden said: "If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black." 

The third-ranking member of House leadership, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose support as an African-American leader was crucial for Biden, said he "cringed" at the comments. He maintained his support.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.

Christina Tzintzún Ramirez, a founder of the voting-rights group Jolt in Texas, worried that Biden hasn’t detailed how, as president, he would remedy economic and health disparities that plague Black and Hispanic communities – issues that have become more acute during the coronavirus pandemic.

“He has an opportunity that we want to see him seize to be able to talk about how he can address those massive disparities that our communities are suffering from," said Ramirez, who endorsed Biden and who said the campaign has reached out to Latino groups in Texas. “Our job is to push candidates and campaigns and parties to deliver the real change that we need."

Andrea Mercado, executive director of the advocacy group New Florida Majority, wants to see Biden make more commitments to his racial justice platform and talk more about policing policies.

She also hopes Biden doesn’t rely on traditional campaigning, especially during a pandemic.

“We’re hoping Biden won’t just run a traditional campaign run by operatives in D.C., but will really tap into community organizing and energizing the electorate that we need to deliver a resounding defeat of Trumpism in November,” she said.

The women also worried about the lack of support so far from the Biden campaign for candidates running in state and local elections. In Arizona, Arredondo said, voters are excited to hear what elected officials will do about education, health care, marijuana and immigration, in offices from city council to mayor to governor.

Biden tailored his state-based campaigns so that Arizona will operate differently from Michigan or Florida, campaign officials said. The national campaign will build on the success of local candidates who already organized their communities like Mark Kelly, the Democratic Senate candidate in Arizona, officials said.

“Vice President Biden believes that it’s not enough if we just elect him president and he doesn’t have a Democratic Senate and House to work with, if he doesn’t have partners across the country in governors and mayors, in state legislatures,” Sanders said.

'He really does listen to us'

Nia Page, a national co-leader of the Historically Black Colleges and University Students for Biden group, disagreed with the view that Biden's outreach was insufficient.

She said the candidate pledged $70 billion in January to the institutions that are crucial to the African-American community.

“Joe Biden has a proven track record valuing HBCUs," said Page, who graduated last month from Spelman College in Atlanta. “He does really listen to us."

Jessica Holmes, commissioner for Wake County, North Carolina, and member of the Biden campaign’s “kitchen cabinet” that has weekly meetings with the campaign, said she feels that she has personally been heard by the campaign and has contributed to policy development. But she said Biden’s team “should welcome criticism as an opportunity to learn, listen and do better.”

“My experience with the Biden campaign has been very hands-on,” Holmes said.

Moderator Joy Reid and She the People founder Aimee Allison listen as Democratic presidental candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., answers questions during a presidential forum held by She The People on the Texas State University campus Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

But Holmes said she lends “credibility to those voices that don't feel as engaged” and will offer suggestions to the campaign about how to engage voters who likely don’t have access to the internet. Holmes, who is also running to be North Carolina labor commissioner, said campaigns need to adapt during the pandemic, perhaps by returning to more classic ways of campaigning like doing a “phone tree" of supporters calling each other.

“If the Biden team is not reaching segments of the population and segments of the population do not feel heard, it is the team's responsibility to figure out what those specific concerns are and to address them,” Holmes said. “I think it's important that we validate the concerns of people who want to hear more and want to be engaged."

How can Biden address the concerns?

As possible remedies, the women suggested Biden choose a woman of color as his vice presidential running mate, invest in down-ballot races and surround himself with more women advisers.

“Black women are articulating that these things don’t come for free,’’ said Smooth, the Ohio State professor, referring to supporting women candidates in local races and get-out-the-vote efforts. “Black women have continued to become even more seasoned as a political operative group."

Biden has committed to choosing a woman, but not necessarily a woman of color. But many activists, including several who participated in the She the People survey, said choosing a woman of color would inspire his political base.

More:Some young Black voters not enthusiastic about a Biden presidency

“For me, a woman of color is a must,’’ said Allison of She the People. “We have a deep bench.”

Melanie Campbell, chair of Sisters Lead, Sisters Vote, a national political advocacy group, praised Biden’s for hiring what she called “sharp” Black women for his campaign and turning to key advisors in the Congressional Black Caucus such as Democratic Reps. Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware.

But Campbell and other women talked to Biden and his campaign staffers by phone in May about their push for him to select a Black woman as his running mate. More than 900 women from across the country have signed onto a letter urging Biden to choose a Black woman, she said.

“It’s about enthusiasm especially in the moment that we’re in,” said Campbell, who wasn't a participant in the listening session. “Black women need to keep pushing this candidate and any other candidate that needs our vote to win.’’

Contributing: Rebecca Morin