Politics Mondays: Exclusive Q & A With Donna Brazile, Founder and Managing Director, Brazile and Associates, LLC
It will probablly take decades for political scientists, historians and journalists to take the full measure of Donna Brazile's contribution to American politics. The controversial and influential political strategist has arguably seen the last five presidential elections from more unique perspectives than any of her "peers" in campaign politics. Now with her new book, Cooking With Grease, the Louisiana native tells some of the stories of those campaigns, along with the story of her life. The result is a deeply personal and professional work that should be studied by anyone seeking a better understanding of race relations in the American South, Black politics, and the billion dollar political campaign industry.
Earlier this summer, Donna Brazile granted BlackElectorate.com an exclusive interview. What follows is that conversation.
Cedric Muhammad: I think the book Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics is very powerful and I am personally recommending it to any young person who is interested in politics, particularly young Blacks.
Donna Brazile: Thank You.
Cedric Muhammad: In going through it, one of the things that I was struck by, which you make a point to emphasize is how your upbringing, and more so your sense of identity and recognizing what it meant to be Black in terms of your family and your relationship with God informed your fighting for justice. That runs throughout the entire book. So I wanted to just start chronologically. One part that stuck out to me is an area in the book where you talk about a time where your grandmother is talking to your mother about you being too dark (in complexion). You and your brother Teddy. I thought that was very poignant and real. And when people talk about politics they mainly talk about issues and policies but they won’t talk about how your identity and even the issues of skin color inform how you have to relate to people and how sensitive you may be later on in life to that subject matter. So that was just a classic example and I just wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about that and how that issue of you being a young, strong, assertive relatively darker-skinned Black woman guides your thinking and informed you at a young age.
Donna Brazile: Well the 60s were a very powerful moment for African-Americans. It was like a transition period out of a period of relatively difficult and tough times – segregation and Jim Crow. And I think my grandmother, who loved us – and by the way, I don’t know how I left this out of my book but my grandfather was quite dark himself, and my uncles and aunts, they were dark-skinned – but my grandmother, maybe because what had happened to her husband and maybe to her dark-skinned children, really drilled into us not to spend any time in the sun to not get any darker than we already were. And I kept insisting on spending time outside in the sun because I am like, ‘Well, I am Black. I mean there is nothing that I can do about it’. It was a fact that I was Black. But when you are a kid, I will never forget it. I felt like in addition to White people not liking us, or perhaps respecting us, that even within my Black family, they had issues with the color of our skin. And so it led me early on to rebel. I spent more time rebelling at the whole notion that something was wrong the color of my skin. My grandmother embraced and loved us but she really wanted to warn us. But Blackness to me was not just a skin color it was an attitude. It was a philosophy and ideology, so to speak. I wanted to embrace my Blackness and it made me spend more time in the library learning everything that I could about being Black.
Cedric Muhammad: Well that stood out and to me, and I still have to give some more thought to this, but you are almost like a nationalist-civil rights organizer. In the sense that for years, people have always kind of separated those two schools of thought. So you had the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam on one side, supposedly and then you had SNCC and SCLC etc…supposedly on the other. But it seems to me that whether it is your self or Huey Newton or Minister Farrakhan or Joseph Lowery, there is a very nationalist and identity-first type of worldview that guides (the) political activism. So it seemed to me that your assertiveness, your sense of justice etc... in many ways it is not ‘political’. It is just very human. And so I just wanted to know what you thought about that. Were there ever moments when you were getting into politics at a relatively young age – and I know you made reference to reading The Muhammad Speaks newspaper and I think you caught a whipping for that ( In her book Donna recounts getting into trouble for reading the Nation Of Islam’s newspaper as a child) – when you were confused about how to accept any political ideology that was out there at that time that would (also) embrace your view of yourself, or was it clear that what Dr. Martin Luther King had established was the way to go?
Donna Brazile: No, I was interested in both sides. I wanted to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was struck by Angela Davis and Huey Newton. Die Nigger, Die, H. Rap Brown’s book; Soledad Brother by George Jackson; That Nigger's Crazy by Dick Gregory. I had a wealth of information at my disposal but my mother was like the John Ashcroft of her moment. She would just ban us from reading those books. So I would often get those books and hide them under my bed or wherever and I would always go back at it and get my butt whipped. And I would say (in response) that (Donna’s sisters) Sheila and Cheryl were reading True Confessions and all those other silly and trashy magazines and I was just reading books and magazines that would enlighten me and help me. Until I was 16 I was more along the lines of the Black militant child, a Black Panther child. Dr. King’s death radicalized me in many ways. I felt that he was a man of peace and non-violence who taught us the way to go – of non-violence. And I read all of Dr. King’s books when I was a little girl. In his own book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? when he talked about embracing his enemies and praying for them, I had to put the book down. How could I pray for those who persecute me? And I know it is written in the Bible because he quoted scripture in referring to loving our enemies but it was very difficult. I wanted to fight back. I had a very rebellious streak. I still have it. I have been able to smooth out things with the passage of time but that child in me is not ever going to stop fighting back. I have a tremendous resource of energy when it comes to fighting for the underdog. I have done it throughout my life and it is very tough. And it puts me at odds (with some). You know, one of the things that I have learned, Cedric, on this book tour is that I may have now stepped into an area where I no longer fit into the Democratic Party’s paradigm of being just a happy little content voter. I see problems on the horizon that this election is bringing about as to how the Party relates to people of color, and the fact that they don’t like many of us to speak up and speak out. They would much rather us remain silent and to try to work within the system. But when the system fails you; when the system is not addressing your concerns; and when the system would much rather leave your issues off of the table, then I feel obligated to stand up and speak out.
Cedric Muhammad: Well I wrote something, and I am not sure if you saw it. But I talked about Howard Stern, Michael Moore and Minister Farrakhan. And the point I was making was that in many ways, they are anti-Bush without being pro-Democrat or pro-Kerry and so there seems to be a high level of activism that is in the street that is not associated with partisan or electoral politics, that is ripe. And I thought of you as a little girl, and me, and the things that we read that have nothing to do with (electoral) politics. You have a section that deals with a lot of the cultural influence – the music, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and the magazines and the other things that you just described regarding the phase you went through. The thing that I am wondering is, in light of what you just said, is there something that the Black electorate and Black community needs to revisit among the so-called ideologies of the Black militant, or the nationalists or the progressives that can some how be merged with our participation with electoral and partisan politics?
Donna Brazile: Well I think that at some point our officials must stand for something and find something that they can embrace that they understand that they want and they need to come back to the Black community. I feel that we have lost our core values and this election is really about what we stand for, what the Democratic Party is standing for. I would hope that Black officials today – Black elected officials, Black appointees and grassroots leaders would sit down and come up with a set of goals, and a set of issues that they support.
You know, I am trying to see if my Jewish Brothers and Sisters would be respectful of me saying this, because I understand it to be something about which people are a little sensitive, but the one thing I have always admired about AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and Jewish organizations is that they understand the symbolism as well as the security of Israel. That is an issue that is paramount to having their support publicly and politically. For African-Americans we have not defined our Israel, our bottom line. And I do believe there are certain issues that are in my judgment as important to us as Americans and as African Americans as Israel is to Jewish-Americans. Be it the support and survival of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); the support and survival of the continent of Africa; be it the support and survival of our cities and urban communities; we have to develop that this electoral season, and then unify behind it. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
We may not share everything on the agenda but if we have some items that people of good conscience and courage can come around then we really wouldn’t mind if Bill Cosby spoke out or Al Sharpton spoke out or Carol (Mosley-Braun), or Jesse Jackson, or Elijah Cummings because we would all be saying the same thing. And that is what is lacking today in our political discourse. But we are not saying anything that is relevant, outside of what is relevant to public policy. Yes we want to have better judges on the Supreme Court to enforce the law. Yes we want to have a change in the White House so we can create jobs and so forth. But that is not enough. I know for a fact when people read my book you will learn that during certain campaigns I have said, in regards to certain Blacks and certain people who are involved, if they are not putting on their dashiki they should get out of the way. And in the Dukakis campaign I was on protest for a day. I refused to go to work because they had insulted African-Americans. They insulted us when they put us on a different floor. They insulted us when they said that putting $10,000 toward helping the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation was tantamount to a slush fund. And those same people who made the decision in 1988 are now at the table this year. And therefore I am very alarmed that the more things change the more things can stay the same. Only two weeks before the Democratic convention we began to advertise in the Black press. In the last two weeks of the entire campaign season we are back to having what? A two-week campaign…We are not going to have the old relationship with the Democratic Party. We need a new relationship. And I don’t have to be the person to help structure the new relationship. I never said it should be me. I said it should be people who understand how to navigate the political process. If members of the Congressional Black Caucus are taking that role then they need to be a little more visible because I believe they are going to be held accountable for ensuring that John Kerry (is responsive). I believe that John Kerry is listening to them.
Cedric Muhammad: Well you may not remember but in our lunch a couple of years ago I referred to you as the "chiropractor" (in Black electoral politics).
Donna Brazile: (laughter) I remember.
Cedric Muhammad: And I see you like that. Now I want to test this. You speak of yourself primarily as an organizer.
Donna Brazile: I am.
Cedric Muhammad: Now what I have noticed in over four years at BlackElectorate.com is a problem in operational unity amongst the activists, organizers, campaigns, strategists and then the ideologues. So in terms of your background which has really dealt with most of that, how do you think it is that we can come together and do what it is you are advising?
Donna Brazile: Well, it has to start now. It begins at the Democratic convention, because that is where the largest gathering of African Americans is. Once it starts there it goes from there to some other place. The follow-up should be at the CBC convention, another moment where we all know that people are gathering. It has to start somewhere and I hope it starts with just a declaration of who we are and what we want from the political process.
Now, I go through the Democratic platform with a fine-toothed comb, because when I see things that will distinguish the Democratic Party from the Republican Party I will speak up on it. But if I see items that are missing I also speak up on it. So I think it starts with Black Democrats, and African Americans at every gathering from the NAACP to the Urban League. It starts wherever we are. It doesn’t have to start because some crisis occurs. It can start because we have decided that the time is now. Because the time is now.
Cedric Muhammad: Now one of the key splits (among Black leadership) that you allude to in your book is back to the time right after the King holiday drive (during the administration of President Ronald Regan). You make this comment in writing, “ The King holiday drive unleashed an even more ambitious design for the movement. The day after Reagan signed the bill, Reverend Jesse Jackson announced plans to run for president of the United States. Prior to his announcement, Jackson and Reverend Joe Lowery of SCLC had convened meetings all over the country to discuss the possibility of an African American running for the highest office in the land. But there was a big split between the politicians and the ministers.”
And then, quite brilliantly you go through and reference Shirley Chisolm’s campaign and you tie it all together with establishment Black support for Mondale and the tension with the so-called insurgency candidacy of Rev. Jackson. To me it seems like we still haven’t gotten over that…
Donna Brazile: No we haven’t…
Cedric Muhammad: and with Rev. Sharpton’s campaign, you could see a little bit of that, again. So in your view are we revisiting all of these lessons in history that we have not gotten from the civil rights movement to the Gary, Indiana political convention to Rev. Jackson’s campaign?
Donna Brazile: We are going to continue to repeat history until we make a bold stand and break through the logjams that keep us apart. The one thing that is lacking in the Black community is not just unity, but having an agenda. Again, without an agenda it is like the Bible says that without vision our people will perish. There is no vision. There is no agenda.So when Al Shaprton ran I kept telling Al. He kept saying, ‘We gotta have a new relationship with the Democratic Party. We’ve got to have’…this that and the other. And I kept saying , ‘Al put it in writing. Put it in writing, so that we can all galvanize around it’. He didn’t put it in writing. It is not in the platform. I came the furthest on Sharpton. I went from not trusting Al Sharpton to respecting Al Sharpton. And now I still talk to him.
Look, we are individuals in the context of what our struggle is about. Right now I would not have a sense of what movement to join. I really don’t. I have no sense of what movement to join, right now. Because I am in a very (different positionand place). I don’t want to join the ‘Anybody but Bush movement’. I don’t want to join the ‘Everybody wants Kerry movement’. I don’t want to join any of those movements because I don’t know where they are going to end up or where we are going to end up. And so I would hope that again, African American leaders and I refer to leaders as people who have been chosen to represent us at any strategic level and those who are natural born leaders at the grassroots level. I would hope that the community comes together around a certain set of ideas and principles. And again, I put a lot of pressure on the Black Caucus for two reasons. One, they are the highest elected leaders in the country. They represent more than 20 million African Americans. And they speak and they have resources. So they have a natural platform. Why not use that platform?
Cedric Muhammad: Let me get a little bit more into the campaigns here. And I think you and I have talked about this previously. About the stance that Vice-President Gore took in fighting or asking for the recount in the Supreme Court in 2000.
Donna Brazile: Right.
Cedric Muhammad: I just wanted to know in light of this new growing political mobilization in the Hip-Hop community, and people that are very apathetic and skeptical – what do you tell people that say that Florida 2000 was enough for them? That from the civil rights movement up until Florida 2000 (there is enough evidence and proof) the system is broken. That what happened in Florida was a defining moment that showed that there is only so much that we can get out of this and we need to put our emphasis elsewhere. What do you say to people who say that Florida ends all arguments about participation in the electoral system?
Donna Brazile: Florida should have been the beginning of something. Florida, in my view showed the power of the Black vote. The fact that the government – the state government, and yes, the federal government denied participation of innocent citizens shows you that we should seize our power and break new ground in American politics. We should go to the polls with a defiance this year. With an attitude that we have the right to vote and can’t no one stop us. So what do I tell people? ‘Turn on your power’. Turn on the power of your vote. Use the power of your vote. Use the power of your vote to change your community. To change the direction of the country and to change America as a place in the world. We have the power. If Blacks stayed home this fall, there is no chance in hell the Democratic Party can win back the Senate or the White House. Because we have the balance of power in those battleground states that will make the difference. And I don’t have to tell you. You know that in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Louisiana and now North Carolina, we are in play. We may not be in play in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico but Hispanics are in play. Minorities are in play. We’ve got to stop acting like we don’t have any control over our lives. We do.
Cedric Muhammad: Well, for me, and I do intend to vote, but I have watched the aftermath of Florida. And in 2001 we linked to an article you had written in the Hartford Courant, an op-ed piece.
Donna Brazile: Yes.
Cedric Muhammad: And you said that Black leaders needed to learn the lessons of Florida. Now I have watched for four years, and Donna, my opinion is that they have not learned the lessons of Florida. I watched the Congressional Black Caucus betray Rep. John Conyers’ bill (shelving his bill in favor of much weaker legislation supported by the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives) which would have dealt with …
Donna Brazile: the felony re-enfranchisement…
Cedric Muhammad: yeah, and the outright voter intimidation. And it would have dealt with some of what happened in Duval County. So I watched that happen. And over and over again, whether I talked to the NAACP and Hillary Shelton and others, - even Congressman Elijah Cummings, when I interviewed him – I hear nothing but compromise (on the issue of legislatively addressing the specifics of what happened in Florida) . And so to me, the last four years has shown me that the Black political establishment is willing to bargain with our tragedies.
Donna Brazile: Right.
Cedric Muhammad: And so when people say ‘you can’t vote for Nader’. Or when people say you have to vote for Kerry, I don’t understand it, in light of what you endure which you go through in the book - which almost brought tears to my eyes - in the way that the Gore campaign virtually ignored you on how to fight the recount. I still am looking for more of a definitive reason why we should vote, not at all, but just in terms of the Democrats – the people in my view, who betrayed us in our great hour of need.
Donna Brazile: It is because we need more fighters at the table. As you can imagine, writing a book, you add as much as you believe you should and then you take somethings and you just, you know…
Cedric Muhammad: (laughter) right.
Donna Brazile: But I can just say to you that in those battles that I have, I did not get the help and support that I thought I needed from certain segments of the Black community. No question, Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings, Carrie Meek, including her son Kendrick. I felt that they had my back. All I can tell you is that it was the most painful period of my life. It was one of the reasons why I am dedicating the resources that come from writing this book to Duval County and to help make sure that nobody calls my people stupid again. It really bothered me to see what happened. It hurt me but look, it hurt the Democratic Party and it hurt Al Gore. At that point Gore was resorting back to being Vice-President. He wasn’t resorting to being a street fighter. He was doing what he felt was in the best interests of the country, in his judgment. You forget but at the time, if you recall, the Democratic Party wasn’t about the Democrats fighting. The Democratic Party was like, ‘close it down’. So it was a very painful moment. And here I was an activist-organizer turned campaign manager saying, ‘Close what down? Damn it there are still votes to be counted.’ So you can understand the frustration and the pain. I can recall it as if it was yesterday. I sat there at the table numb. I was saying, ‘Am I crazy? Have I lost my marbles? Didn’t someone just steal votes?’ It was very painful. But yes, I go back out there. I go back out there for two reasons. I am determined that this election must be fought in every state and every county because this is about the heart and soul of our country, and the kind of country we want to live in. So I am not taking my marbles and going home. The Democratic Party is the only vehicle I have to fight with, and to fight back with in order to achieve the goals I believe we must achieve. It is not a perfect Party and Democracy is not perfect but I am trying to make the Party more responsible and more accountable. And I wish I had more fighters at the table. I can tell you this. Other people that I have worked with this year, there are several that have just stood up and stood out. Some inside the Black Caucus - Jesse Jr. has been a strong soldier. Gregory Meeks has been a good strong soldier. You know my friend Minyon Moore on the DNC Executive Committee…We have been fighting tooth and nail. Ben Johnson has been fighting on the inside. We have been fighting. But you know what? That’s what you do…ain’t nobody going to lay down and play dead.
Cedric Muhammad: In the area of accountability, though. I understand the strategy of working within the Democratic Party. But to me there has been no accountability for what happened in Florida. What I am trying to understand is, is the Democratic Party with the help of the same surrogates that you mentioned going to come to me and all of us that voted last time and ignore what happened and say, ‘You still have to support this Party’? At what point would the Party actually believe that Blacks would walk out on them? Because other than that leverage of a walkout or an exodus, I don’t understand how or why they would want to do the bidding of a people who will not hold them accountable for gross violations, and gross betrayals like what we saw in Florida. Not just taking people for granted. That’s a whole other subject. But an actual betrayal. And if I have Donna Brazile there and Donna Brazile can’t get heard, I don’t know what is going to give me more confidence.
Donna Brazile: I tell you what gives me confidence every day of my life. Every day I try to make another round of phone calls. Another round of discussions to try to get people to know and see the bigger picture. I tell you that I believe that the people who are inside the party in positions need to be held accountable. A conference call should be had, or some outreach should be done for people who hold leadership positions. I often go out and talk on Black radio a lot, and talk to Black newspapers and I say, ‘Yeah I don’t mind being held accountable and I will tell you the truth. I can do this but I can’t do that’.
If it was up to me the Kerry campaign would have started spending on advertising (in March). If it was up to me the Kerry campaign would have been on the ground (much earlier) in all of the strategic battleground states and the battlefield states. If it was up to me Blacks would be playing leading roles in determining what happens at the state and local level in terms of their own participation. But it is not up to me. This is a new day in the Democratic Party. I was part of the Clinton-Gore operation. This is now the Kerry-Edwards operation. There are new African-Americans sittin’ at the table and you know on one hand, you have to pass the baton on and on the other hand you have got to pass on some other stuff. And I am trying to do both.
Cedric Muhammad: What do you think of Karl Rove as a strategist and what is your relationship with him?
Donna Brazile: I respect Karl Rove’s intellect and his ability to really focus on what is a priority in this country versus what’s not priority. I believe that he understands how to navigate the political process. I have enormous respect for his political intellect. Now, do I enjoy his personal company? No we are not friends in that regard. But I respect him as a political operative, as any political operative who knows how to play the game. He knows how to play the game. You know, I don’t demonize people to demonize people. I don’t demonize them. God is going to handle them. God says ‘Let vengeance be mine.’ I can learn from Karl Rove and he has learned from me. And I have tried to take back the things that he has learned from me (laughter). But he is a very shrewd operator.
Cedric Muhammad: I have to say that by far, for me, the ‘untold history’ part of the book is the role you played in helping to organize the Million Man March. I did not know any of that. I think you told me a little bit about it over lunch. But that was absolutely incredible. To me those few pages in your book that deal with that could really connect the story of the entire book. Because there you are like the ‘young Donna Brazile’ you write about making a stand, pulling on her Brothers at the same time, leveraging your access to power and your relationships and your deep understanding of the legal system and the political process. But overall what was that about? How did that happen and what did that day mean to you?
Donna Brazile: You know that had a profound impact on me as an organizer. I had to sit back, as people deliberated and debated whether they were going to participate, and how the Farrakhan factor played in it. And I kept thinking about my own brothers, my nephews, my father, my uncle, my grandmother and I said to myself, ‘Ok, I have got to help.’ It is so amazing, I still have lots of the files and records and stuff. And you know, I am one of a handful of people, there are perhaps more now, but up until that point, one of a handful of people who have organized large scale demonstrations in our nation’s capitol. I am proud of that. That I have spent most of my adult life learning how to organize mass movements and mass rallies. So I just sat back as long as I could and I... my conscience couldn’t allow me to sit it out. I picked up the phone and I called Brother Leonard Muhammad and I talked to, at the time, Ben Chavis - Ben Muhammad, and now he is known as Dr. Ben Chavis again. I talked to Sister Claudette Muhammad and others and I said, ‘OK until everybody works out what they have to go and work out, let me go ahead.’ I knew Chief Gary Albrecht. He was my neighbor. I knew Robert George in the Speaker’s office. So since I knew people I wanted to (connect them). I will never forget toward the end I got full. I mean full in the sense that as a Black woman I had done my part. But the Brothers who worked on the Hill (had to take responsibility). Now remember, as a Black woman working on The Hill as Chief of Staff (for Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton) I was one of the highest paid African American staffers. I was also press secretary and had good ties with the leadership. I went to my Brothers who had equally good jobs and said, ‘I have done my job. Now you must do yours. All we need to do is show them our staff I.D.'s. We can escort. We can get our bosses to rent whole rooms. And I just went to everybody. Carol Mosley Braun was in the Senate that year and I went to her and told her we need some Senate rooms. I mean the notion that Dorothy Height, Louis Farrakhan, Joe Lowery, Maya Angelou and all of these people would not have a place to drink some coffee? I told them all I would order stuff. I don’t know, I just felt moved.
Cedric Muhammad: But Donna, I just want to harp on this because to me, it is indicative of a larger problem. I mean, nobody knew that (the role you played).
Donna Brazile: Right.
Cedric Muhammad: And I attended it and know some of the key players. Nobody (generally speaking) would know that it was a Sister that did that, much less Donna Brazile. It just blows my mind (laughter).
But at that late hour (right before the March) some very important things were left undone?
Donna Brazile: Yes. Well, let me just tell you, it was still in formation. The last piece that comes together in any march is the whole logistics piece. It was so amazing because the Brothers started arriving the night before and then of course the Capitol police were saying, ‘They can’t sleep on the lawn. They can’t sleep on the lawn.’ I said, ‘They are praying.’ It was the most peaceful march I had ever witnessed. And of course all of the marches I have been involved with have been peaceful and non-violent. But in terms of being peaceful I am referring to the spiritualness of it. It was a very spiritual moment.
And so I thought my day was over with and I got a call from Brother James Muhammad of The Final Call and I said ‘OK Brother I got you this, I got the water turned on, I got the electricity turned on, what more can I do?’ And you never know how much power you actually have until you go up against power. And I went over into Speaker Gingrich’s office and I said, ‘I need one more thing’. And they said, ‘What is it?’, I said, ‘I need to use the Speaker’s Balcony because they want to take a picture of the whole march.’ And I had already worked with the Park Service to get a picture from that angle. We got a picture from an angle from Speaker Gingrich’s office. That’s when I knew that I had access and influence beyond my title as a staff person.
Cedric Muhammad: What would you like for this book to do?
Donna Brazile: I would like people to read the book and come away from it knowing that one person can make a difference. I spent my entire life thinking that I could make a difference and I still believe that one person can make a difference. Anybody can make a difference, if they choose to.
Cedric Muhammad: Thank You so much. And, I love you.
Donna Brazile: I love you too my Brother.
Monday, October 25, 2004