The Scandal In The Nunn Memo Is What’s Missing

I’m a Democrat, and a partisan. I want Michelle Nunn to beat David Purdue like a Pillowtex pillow. But I’m reading the memo. And I am … grumpy.

I’ve spoken to Jeff DiSantis, Nunn’s campaign manager, who both vouched for the memo’s authenticity and dismissed it as an early planning document crafted by a consultant.

At least half of Nunn’s vote — and probably much more than that — will come from African Americans in November. Where are they in her campaign? A few names leap out: Richard McDaniel, her political director and advisors like Stacey Abrams, house minority leader in Georgia and Andrea Young, an attorney and daughter of Andrew Young. But as I went through the list of proposed policy experts the planning document said might be tapped for advice, I kept coming up with white names and white faces. Young white women. Older white men.

“We have a diverse group of folks who are helping us, and we get their opinions,” DiSantis said. The policy experts listed are simply an early spitballing attempt to find help. Young and Abrams are around, as are others, he said. And he invited me to visit the campaign headquarters to see the diversity for myself. I’m sure there are plenty of black people around. That’s not my point.

Georgia is awash in African American attorneys and highly-educated executives with policy experience who would leap at an opportunity to advise a senator. But even on the proposed voter protection team — the group of campaign attorneys who will guard against voter intimidation and polling place shenanigans faced by Black and Latino voters — every one of the eleven people listed is white. 

I know, I know. Planning document. It’s still transparently stupid and insulting. This is Georgia. I was not aware that there’s a shortage of highly-qualified African-American voting rights attorneys in Georgia. The idea that someone putting a planning document together wouldn’t view that as an oversight is a red flag.

While other folks have been parsing Nunn’s financial strategy or concern about oppo attacks on her work at Points of Light, this kind of myopia speaks to my chief anxiety about her campaign, and it’s the one thing missing in her enumerated threats: the risk of taking the black vote for granted.

“We’re reaching out to community leaders,” DiSantis said, when I asked about the focus on black clergy — a dubious endeavor in the modern electorate. “We’re talking to elected officials and business leaders, which is very large and surprisingly so for a Democrat, in every part of the state and demographic.”

I wrote last year about the attack on Nathan Deal’s diversity efforts after it became clear that 93 percent of his appointments are white. Deal could be absolved, sort of, because so few African-American political hacks are Republicans. “Deal’s first obligation when making political appointments in the execrable spoils system that is patronage politics in Georgia is to hire Republicans.” I wrote. “The first qualification for a political appointment when the governor is a Republican is to be a Republican. If you’re not a registered Republican, generally speaking, you need not apply.”

Well. Democrats don’t have a shortage of qualified African American policy experts. I’m not suggesting some sort of quota or the idiotic racially-tinged staffing practices that lead to discrimination lawsuits. I’m suggesting that a campaign that’s really connected to the black community is going to have a thick stack of African American resumes to work with, and the folks on the short list — like people named in a planning document like this — would reflect that.

The document talks at length about the need to turn out African American voters in high numbers while capturing at least 30 percent of the white vote. But Nunn’s discussion of issues specifically related to African American voters has been relatively muted, even in areas where conservatives appear to be coming around, like sentencing disparities. It’s message discipline, designed to avoid facile attacks from the right that may erode that 30 percent of the white vote she needs. She needs that to be electable.

But I come away from this document with a sense that black people would be perfectly welcome holding signs or making phone calls … just don’t ask her for too much, please. She needs to win.


  1. Greg S says:

    Nunn, Deal, Perdue and Carter all know a secret: black voters have no where to go in this state! While her strategy is not going to drive turnout, I doubt anything she could do would drive turnout both ways, that is.

    “Can you say Obama?”

    She has made a calculation, good or bad, that she can draw enough moderate white woman to offset the monolithic white male republican vote while keeping minorities in the democrat fold.

  2. Ralph says:

    Since the black vote is 90% Democratic, it is logically taken for granted – no need for black advisors, experts, or in Nunn’s political and social circles. Just hold those signs and get out the black vote in higher percentages the best you can. Black voters aren’t going to come out in greater numbers because there more black policy experts are listed or put in front for photo ops. And as you point out, pandering to a specific black segment will backfire with other minorities and whites. It is going to be very hard for Ms. Nunn to gain the necessary 30% of the white vote or more, so racially sensitive Democrats like you should concentrate more there.

  3. saltycracker says:

    Chet Martin wrote I get by as a sincere hurt of a lost campaign. I started but didn’t share the emotions of winning and over a few years experience a principled person morph into a not wanting to dissapoint his new fair weather politico-friends. And improving his personal lot in life with the connections.

    It has to be even more disappointing when the warning bells of being used go off before you are out of the gate. I’ll repeat David McCallum, what we need are politicians with authenticity.

    The most ridiculous, inane retort on bad things is the other side does it to. Your demo observations should be heeded. I put my partial list for republicans in Charlies post. At least it is entertaining.

  4. Stefan says:

    I’ve done voter protection in 2008 and 2012 and I am white. It does not make me less effective.

    I would assume that any attorney who knows some election law and was willing to volunteer their time over the past few years and continue to do so for this campaign would be on that list. I would also suggest that to advocate for another you do not have to occupy the same demographic as that person. Almost everyone on that list has been doing election protection for free for the last 6 years. That’s what caused that selection – nothing more.

    Political memos from within the campaign don’t have time for niceties. A lot of people got a look into the reality of a political campaign. There is no pretense from good consultants. You have to maximize the black vote, pull off as many whites as you can. Raise money from economic givers, lean on friends, and leverage relationships. The problem is that the calculus of the campaign can be antithetical to the warm thoughts of pure goodness that are needed to grow the volunteer army necessary to expand the electorate.

    This is the reality of a winning campaign. In the world of trial law, you often want to be the one to introduce your weaknesses so you can deal with them yourself, rather than letting them define you. The Nunn campaign knew these charges would come, they just thought they’d come from the other side. They are out now, and they have a short period of time to nullify them. If not, they may become the refrain of the campaign.

    • George Chidi says:

      I’m not suggesting that the strategy, overall, would be ineffective or is even wrong. The memo itself is the straightforward advice I would expect anyone capable of raising $40 million to get.

      Nor am I suggesting that white election law volunteers are less effective. What I am suggesting is that the people the campaign organizers reached for first look a hell of a lot more like them than they do the electorate they’re counting on for support. It’s demeaning. It also undermines the Democratic principle of egalitarianism and equal opportunity.

      It’s as if to say, “hey, I know I was born on third base — anyone competitive in this race would be — but I hope you don’t mind if I surround myself with a whole lot of other people who were also born on third base who wouldn’t be caught dead in your neighborhood after 10:30 p.m. because I know them and they know me and I don’t really know any of you. Also, fight income inequality and wealth disparity!”

      You live your values. I expect better.

      • Yeah but election protection is just a bad example. I would guess if you were able to obtain a list from the 2009 Kasim Reed campaign for mayor, the same names would have been on it.

      • Stefan says:

        I see your point, but the election protection team doesn’t prove your argument. If they called the team, “Unpaid Customer Service Representative Team For Explaining Election Law to Volunteer Poll Workers Who Were Born Prior to 1935 Through The Conduit of Very Upset Voters Who Feel Disenfranchised” I don’t think anyone would worry too much about who was on it.

        That said, I think the job is tremendously important.

  5. Chet Martin says:

    Politicians will never give power to those they don’t have to. Even those with the heaviest conscience have to spread their loyalty so widely that they’re loathe to give it away for free.

    I imagine that if I was an African-American version of myself- young, ideologically diverse, and primarily focused on a future of opportunity- it would be in my best interest to cultivate ties with the libertarian branch of the Republican Party. I’d find fellow travelers in the fight against racially-discriminatory policies like mandated sentencing and the drug war. If nothing else, it would be wise to make Democrats earn my vote.

  6. I can shed a little light on election protection for a statewide Democratic campaign, as I have helped to organize the EP for the party in years past and for the Barnes campaign in 2010. While you may imagine that the next Thurgood Marshall might emerge from an election protection case, the reality is much, much more boring. It’s typically a few lawyers fielding calls on election day that range from the real (a precinct opened late or is having problems with machines) to the imaginary (Barack Obama wasn’t on my ballot).

    In the imaginary cases, people take down a name and a number and it pretty much ends there. In the real cases, a local attorney in that county is typically contacted, an emergency order is typically granted and that precinct stays open a little later, and the party will then typically robocall voters in that precinct and let them know they have another opportunity to vote if they had left the line when the precinct wasn’t open earlier.

    The same cast and crew of mostly white guys have been doing it for years and doing a good job at it. Many of the local attorneys that they contact to actually go before judges happen to be non-white, especially depending on the county. If you happen to be the best African American attorney in Bibb County, and you’re interested in election protection, you’re much better off being in the rolodex (and I assure you that you are) of one of these EP guys manning a phone so you can get to the courthouse and fix the problem instead of sitting answering the phone in Atlanta.

    The reality of the situation is that in year’s past, the real action took place at the local level and it was fighting (under Section 2/5 of the VRA) to ensure that minority areas had sufficient numbers of precincts and voting machines. And due to the nature of Georgia’s elections where local races (especially in most of the places that have large minority populations) are almost always decided in odd numbered years, the heavy lift of election protection has almost always been handled by a diverse group of local attorneys acting in their own interest before the nominee for Senate or Governor is even being thought about.

    With the changes to the VRA from the Supreme Court, this could be changing. But if some county is going to reduce the number of precincts, you can bet that the same system that existed in the VRA days is still there to make noise about it now, whether or not a statewide campaign gets involved.

    So while election protection is important (and I don’t at all mean to downplay the importance of the work these attorneys do), and in my experience there have always been non-white attorneys who have shown up to do it, it remains kind of a niche activity that the core group enjoys doing, and many up and coming attorneys of color find that there are more exciting/personally rewarding ways to get involved with a campaign.

    • Stefan says:

      This is all true. I was on the ground in Clayton County, which involved arguing with polling officials and threatening to go to court, etc. Much better to be in a conference room with danishes answering phones, but other than in 2008 it was a bit slow.

      • Speaking of Clayton County – they were the biggest offender in 2010. Ex commissioner Wole Ralph (who is African American) cast the deciding vote against Clayton having an elective advance voting day two Saturdays before the general election. This despite every white and black person on the Barnes campaign pleading with him/the commission to do it.

        He’s also the guy who cast the deciding vote to kill C-Tran and who lost 2-1 in the primary in 2012. From an election protection standpoint, I think every elected Democrat short of Barack Obama both white and black contacted this guy to try to get him to change his mind. He was just a bad apple, pretty sure his reason was some kind of personal grudge with Eldrin Bell, voters in his county be damned.

        I’ve read the leaked memo and while there is certainly some stuff in there that I would not have chosen to release, it’s really not that bad. It ranges from the “obvious” (Nunn will try to get black voters to vote and get more white votes) to the “bad but publicly available if you do your homework”. On election protection, there is really no “there” there.

  7. Mrs. Adam Kornstein says:

    My favorite part of today has been taking calls from all the people who are pissed as hell their names aren’t mentioned in the memo. It’s a reverse “Nixon’s Enemies” list, I’m so old I remember when folks used to get mad about being ON lists.

    George, it was a plan, in December way before the actual working groups were underway. I presume in 8 months they had a chance to figure out that some of the assumptions needed more development work.

    Cripes, any junior consultant using Google could find all these folks on 6 dozen FEC disclosures, DNC Host committees and the JJ dinner in 2008.

    Male and pale.. snort, yes just like 90% of the political consulting class. I’m not saying it’s right, it’s not… but it is true.

    • George Chidi says:

      It’s true. … and it matters.

      Nunn is trying to do something that’s been impossible for at least 12 years: win a statewide seat as a nonincumbent Democrat. I don’t want to hear how she’s accepting things as they’ve always been done … because it doesn’t work.

      She’s been playing things unusually safe for six months, hoping the other guy makes a mistake. That’s the strategy, in a state that’s still probably +6 Republican. I suggest it’s because she’s surrounded by similarly high-achieving third-basers who have never had to risk anything to come out ahead and don’t know how to start now.

      • I hate to break it to you, but there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time a campaign spends writing policy papers (on sentencing disparities or any other issue) to appeal to various constituencies and that campaign’s chance of winning. While the leaked memos may lack black names, they also spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with issues other than fundraising, which was basically the only important function for this campaign back in December.

      • Harry says:

        George, you seem an idealistic guy, but the party with which you seek to identify isn’t idealistic. At best, in the scheme of things you’re seen as a useful idiot, sorry. Here’s Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter, products of years of inside nepotism in leading elite Democratic families of Georgia. These pedigrees stretch back for quite a few generations.

        Race and politics aside, years ago I personally met and had a great conversation with Maynard Jackson and wife Valerie, two of the most intelligent and polished individuals I ever encountered. Perhaps there were a couple of things in Maynard Jackson’s political background that would even today keep him from being elected to statewide office. But why is Democratic Party of Georgia every cycle always intimating that charismatic black politicians can’t get elected governor or senator in Georgia, and at least let the power brokers get behind them and anoint them one time, as they did with Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn and so many others in the past? Do they really think the electorate is still so backward?

        Here’s what I think, and it involves a difference in the makeup of the two parties in this state: The Democratic Party of Georgia is controlled by a little clique of long-established white families. With a couple of exceptions perhaps, the GAGOP isn’t like that. Admittedly the GAGOP also has a way to go with getting qualified black candidates elected but, after all, how many blacks vote the Republican ticket? Oscar Johnson, an old black man, put it this way when I was a youth and we were working on unloading sheet metal from a truck in the summer heat. “Oscar, how come we’re out here working on the back of this truck and Mr. Smithwick is sitting in his air conditioned office?” “He knows all the right people and he’s been knowing ’em a long time!” Where do you think you are in that picture?

        • Harry,

          I must say – that is an excellently written …. pile of horse manure.

          “The Democratic Party of Georgia is controlled by a little clique of long-established white families. With a couple of exceptions perhaps, the GAGOP isn’t like that.”

          But why is [the Georgia Republican Party] every cycle always intimating that charismatic black politicians (looking at you, Melvin) can’t get elected governor or senator in Georgia, and at least let the power brokers get behind them and anoint them one time, as they did with [Mark Butler?] and [Barry Loudermilk over Tricia] and so many others in the past?

          You’re certainly the pot calling the kettle oppressive.

          • Harry says:

            As I said above — admittedly the GAGOP also has a way to go with getting qualified black candidates elected but, after all, how many blacks vote the Republican ticket? It takes two to tango.

      • Stefan says:

        The entire idea of winning a general election is to that you assume you will get the votes of the strong Dems and lose the votes of the strong Republicans and you’ll have to compete to motivate the lean Dems and convince the tossups. If you have to spend time convincing the strong Dems, which is what you seem to be suggesting, you’ve already lost. So if your concern is breaking a 12 year losing streak, this plan would be a good way to do that.

  8. objective says:

    i’m not sure if anyone has just straightforwardly acknowledged the truth & import of george’s point yet. while i haven’t read through every list on the memo, or know the nunn campaign well, if there’s a lack of diversity on the team, it is a problem on several levels, both ethical and practical. someone mentioned the importance of fundraising. well, how do we tap into new donors and donor networks? it’s not by being at arm’s length. same with motivating voters & volunteers. now, folks may know election law well, and folks may know racially-packed policy issues well, but that still omits a racial awareness and consciousness that shouldn’t be omitted. if you want anyone to vote for you, you have to start by relating to their starting point. for many voters, that means race/ethnic identity. that may change in the future, when everyone is fully racially conscious, and can easily relate to any of their fellow humans, but until then…someone has to lead on building the relationships and truly inclusive networks.

  9. Three Jack says:

    What is the big deal with this campaign plan? If this is all it takes to ‘offend’ people, then those pretending to be offended should step away from politics, maybe takeup crochet.

    The Nunn campaign planned to get money from Jews and gays because when raising campaign funds, where do you go? ‘Where the money is and go often’ as famous bank robber Willie Sutton stated. You need votes as a liberal, go where the votes are and go often, women, blacks and hispanics. Why is this shocking or even newsworthy?

  10. objective says:

    as a jew, i’m not offended by the suggestion of the memo, but as a fundraiser, i think it’s shortsighted. there are lots of untapped networks through which funds can be raised, which most campaigns just ignore. it’s just easy (a mixture of efficiency & shortsightedness) to rehash the existing networks, even when it limits your potential.

  11. Three Jack says:

    One part of the leaked plan that exposes Nunn’s publicity stunt from a few weeks ago as just that –

    In the plan, the campaign lays out their expectation for outside groups providing millions to support Nunn. From Politico – “Their spending plan is built on the assumption that Senate Majority PAC and other Democratic independent expenditure campaigns will spend $8 million and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm would spend another $8 million. EMILY’s List made an early commitment to raise at least $1 million for Nunn.”

    The campaign decided last year to try the stunt attempted 2 weeks ago where Nunn signs the ‘Peach Pledge’ even though they knew it would not fly and that they need the groups as much or more than the GOP.

    • Stefan says:

      I totally see your point, but I’d like to clarify two things. One, EMILY’s list wasn’t going to spend anything in Georgia. They just serve as a fundraising conduit. Second, the DSCC isn’t covered by the pledge. They aren’t a super PAC and they have disclosed donors and spending. The Senate Majority PAC, well…

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