Bernie Sanders’ African American Aides Blame ‘Higher-Ups’ For Snubbing Black Voters

Bernie Sanders Photo / Source: Joe Raedle / Getty
Bernie Sanders has taken some major losses in his run for president and many political commentators have consistently questioned his efforts at securing support from Black voters. Now, some of his aides and allies are offering insight into the major problems of his campaign, and most of it seems to involve a problematic chain of command.

During the primary season, Sanders took some noticeable losses in states like Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia where Democratic competitor Joe Biden won by large margins. Many of these states, including South Carolina and Mississippi have a large percentage of Democrats that are Black.

Apparently, some of Sanders’ staff saw the losses coming because of how his campaign was being run. “I knew that our campaign had not done the work it needed to do,” Donald Gilliard told The Washington Post. Gilliard acted as the deputy state political director for South Carolina. Gilliard went on to say that he felt the campaign’s strategy was “geared toward white progressives,” which left Black voters behind.

Ivory Thigpen, a state representative, acted as the co-chair for Sanders in South Carolina and he strongly supports his message. However, if you let him tell it, Sanders’ problem was his delivery.

“I think the distinguishing attitude for Sanders, that you didn’t see associated with Biden, was an angry white man,” Thigpen told The Post. “In the African American culture, nonverbal communication and body language is huge.” Thigpen added, “I think being accessible would have made up for it.”This seemed to be a primary critique from some of Sanders’ aides who felt there was a disconnect between local and national leadership. One of the most visible people up for critique was Nina Turner, who acts as Sanders’ national co-chair. The former Ohio state legislator became Sanders’ most prominent Black ally by traveling with him across the country, introducing him at rallies and helping him shape the campaign’s Black voter outreach in states like South Carolina.Although Turner has been a much-needed voice in the political world, some staffers felt she was wrong for the job when it came to South Carolina outreach. “She didn’t know the state,” said Gilliard, who said he likes Sanders but parted ways with the campaign after South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary.

Thigpen also added that he remembered telling Turner privately that campaign officials discussed something that never came into fruition, and he often felt like he was “going to customer service and saying, ‘Hey, I want this done.’”

Others who worked in the state blamed national campaign officials for sending out who they believed were unseasoned strategists. They also thought national didn’t devote enough energy to advertising on television and Black radio. In addition, they felt national missed opportunities to bring Sanders in for face-to-face meet-ups with Black leaders and voters. Even something as simple as yard signs were lacking, according to staff, which could’ve been an important factor in a state where they say visibility is a big part of the political culture.

Mal Hyman, a former congressional candidate and a Sanders surrogate in South Carolina, argued that, “Inexperienced state leadership was very slow to respond and to take any risk or broaden our base or to push for some of the what we thought were common-sense suggestions.”

One idea that was knocked down by “higher-ups,” according to Gilliard and Thigpen, was for Sanders to visit a convention of Baptist ministers. However, Jessica Bright, who acted as state director, said the decision was “more of a scheduling conflict. It wasn’t anything outside that realm.”

Another instance of local and national strife came when the campaign parted ways with then-state director Kwadjo Campbell in November.

Just before Campbell left the campaign, he sent a scathing memo to Sanders, Turner, campaign manager Faiz Shakir and other top officials criticizing their decisions, according to folks with knowledge of the situation.

“I have not been able to do my job of building a base in the African-American community because of interference from National on a number of critical strategic decisions that have impeded our ability to gain traction among this key demographic needed for victory,” Campbell wrote.

He accused the campaign heads of preventing him from partnering with local Black candidates and of interfering with personnel strategy. Turner defended some of national’s decisions saying Campbell suggests some actions that weren’t legal.

“Some of the partnerships that he proposed did not comport with campaign finance laws,” she explained, adding that many of his other ideas were “carried forward.” Campbell, however, argues that it was “not illegal to have our volunteers team up” with volunteers from local campaigns.

Marvin Hayes is an operative from Ohio who was hired as a senior adviser to Sanders’ campaign. He argues that they did a good job in South Carolina. ”

“I would say, without fear of contradiction, we had the best campaign operation and field operation in the state of South Carolina,” said Hayes. He further suggested that Sanders’ bad performance in South Carolina was due to voters’ belief that Biden was more electable when pitted against Donald Trump.

“There was a lot of energy and attention being paid to the defeat of Donald Trump,” explained Hayes, while “the important part of Senator Sanders’ message was about what is affecting people’s lives on a day-to-day basis.”

After Sanders’ big losses in Southern states, it seems like his team tried to remedy the situation. They brought in Phillip Agnew, a prominent Black activist and campaign surrogate, as a senior adviser. Turner and another official also spent hours working the phones so they could secure and endorsement from civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But still, Sanders still seemed to be opting out of major opportunities to connect with Black voters. He canceled a scheduled visit to a civil rights museum in Mississippi to campaign in Michigan instead, and he canceled plans to give a racial justice speech. He also skipped a commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” in Alabama. When a reporter questioned him on this, he snapped that he was in California drawing a big crowd.

Bernie Sanders’ African American Aides Blame ‘Higher-Ups’ For Snubbing Black Voters

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