If you’re a person of color hoping to get hired by a political campaign, here’s the ugly truth: You’ll probably get paid less than your white counterparts, if you’re even hired at all.
On both sides of the aisle, there is a racial pay gap in campaign politics. Asian, Black and Latino staffers are paid less than their white counterparts, according to an analysis by the New Organizing Institute.
For example, African-American staffers on Democratic campaigns were paid 70 cents for each dollar their white counterparts made. For Hispanic staffers in Democratic campaigns, the figure was 68 cents on the dollar.
And a recent study by PowerPAC+, funded by a major Democratic donor, revealed that less than 2 percent of spending by Democratic campaign committees during the past two election cycles went to firms owned by minorities.
Political operative Michael Gomez Daly worked on two congressional campaigns in 2012 with similar budgets. On one campaign, Daly, who describes himself as “a very light-skinned Hispanic,” was brought in as a field director, primarily for his skills as a Latino operative who could reach out to the Hispanic community. On the second campaign, where they did not know he was Hispanic, “I just came in as ‘Michael Daly,’ instead of ‘that Latino operative,’” he said. “Right off the bat they offered me twice the amount for the same job.”
Most of the operatives interviewed for this article, all of whom have years of experience in campaign politics, said they had to make an early, conscious decision to avoid being pigeonholed as a specialist in minority outreach. For minority campaign staffers, they said, the path to enduring success lies in saying “no” to jobs like that early on in your career.
“It was pretty clear to me early on that you can get put in a box pretty quickly. You get offers for jobs: African-American outreach, Asian-American outreach. Oftentimes when you start doing that work, it's hard to get out of it.”
“It was pretty clear to me early on that you can get put in a box pretty quickly. You get offers for jobs: African-American outreach, Asian-American outreach. Oftentimes when you start doing that work, it’s hard to get out of it,” said Sujata Tejwani, president of Sujata Strategies, a Democratic firm.
Added Rodell Mollineau, a past president of the progressive tracking organization American Bridge, “As a person of color [at the start of your career], you’re always put in situations where a primary part of your job is communicating with or working with other people of color.”
The NOI statistics on the campaign race pay gap compare all staffers of each race, and average out the salaries. One of the explanations for lower minority wages could be that they tend to be represented in lower-paying campaign roles.
“Most minority staffers get hired in campaigns in field jobs, and field jobs pay less,” explained Jamal Simmons, a Democratic political operative. “The problem is: they don’t hire African Americans, Latinos in the parts of the campaigns where they spend the most money. The most money in campaigns is spent in communications, polling and data. In those parts of the campaign, it’s very much mostly white.”
Conventional campaign wisdom is that voters best respond to pitches made by those who are similar to them. But this limits the roles that minority campaign staffers are able to play.
“There’s a presumption that minorities can’t manage ‘white’ issues. There’s a presumption that white voters won’t like to see a black press secretary, or that white voters won’t want to see an African-American or Latino political director,” Simmons said. “There’s just a general prejudice factor,” he said, that’s based in an antiquated understanding of race relations.
The issue of race can sometimes create doubts even in the minds of the most experienced operatives. “If the swing population [in an election] are white, you do wonder if you’re going to get hired,” said Tejwani, an Indian-American with decades of experience on campaigns.
The hidden prejudices present in broader American society are part of the problem. One operative compared campaigns to business startups that are constantly shutting down and restarting. With deadlines looming, top campaign staff may lean subconsciously on stereotypes about minorities.
Said one operative with experience in Virginia and Georgia: “The structural racism that happens in the United States, and how it is reinforced by a lot of presumptions, don’t get dropped because you’re working on a campaign.”