In early December, more than 100 members of Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign staff gathered at the South Bend City Church a mile from headquarters for a mandatory half-day retreat about diversity and inclusion. Less than two months remained before the start of voting, a time when most campaigns are focused full-time on politics.
Buttigieg advisers say the retreat was part of an ongoing effort to foster a progressive culture that empowered employees of color. For some of these staff members, however, the workplace itself was a problem, and working for a candidate with so little support from black and Hispanic voters had become demoralizing.
In interviews, current and former staff members of color said they believed that senior Buttigieg officials didn’t listen to their concerns and ideas about the campaign. One said there was a daily “emotional weight” on people of color who felt they were employed in order to help the campaign meet its ambitious diversity targets. Some Hispanic employees felt disrespected when managers asked them to translate text, even if they didn’t speak Spanish.
A follow-up meeting nearly two weeks after the retreat — organized by staff members — became emotional, according to two people who attended. Some employees of color spoke about feeling disrespected by white colleagues. Others said they felt stressed from having to answer questions from friends and family members about working for a candidate struggling with minority voters, the two people said.
A second meeting, on Jan. 2, featured lengthy discussions of the importance of diversity in hiring and sometimes tearful descriptions of the difficulty of recruiting people of color to the staff, according to a recording of the session that was provided to The New York Times.
One employee also recalled a troubling incident for staff members of color: The campaign had planned a fund-raiser with a donor who had helped try to suppress the release of video showing the police shooting of a black Chicago teenager. Some members of the vetting team had warned against doing the fund-raiser with the donor as co-host. Campaign fund-raising officials proceeded anyway, and at the last minute, amid an outcry, were forced to remove the donor as co-host and return his donation.
The Buttigieg campaign’s focus on staff diversity resembles, on one level, efforts found at many organizations. But most campaigns are fast-growing, fast-moving enterprises that rarely have time or money for in-depth workplace self-assessments or extensive inclusion and training programs. The situation at Buttigieg’s headquarters also stands out as unusual because of the unique set of pressures on a campaign and a candidate trying to become a trusted voice on matters of race.
Interviews with half a dozen current and former staff members — and a review of internal documents, emails and the recording — show how the campaign and its employees grappled with goals and grievances related to diversity. Those interviewed insisted on anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements or fear of retribution.
In addition, the Buttigieg campaign made other employees available to discuss its handling of workplace issues.
In a statement, Mr. Buttigieg, 38, who recently finished his second term as mayor of South Bend, Ind., nodded to those challenges and struck a progressive tone in emphasizing the importance of supporting his staff.
“We’re proud of the staffers who stood up and made their voices heard to help our campaign improve and be more inclusive,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “We realize that we can always do better and these honest discussions are how we make progress, and we will continue to provide our staff the safe space to have them.” His campaign provided the statement in response to questions about the operation.
Vernon Gair, the accounting director for the campaign, who was made available by officials there, said that because of Mr. Buttigieg’s struggle to attract black voters, the campaign had to meet a higher bar internally in addressing the concerns of minority employees. “We can’t just be good enough on these issues — our candidates, and our teams,” Mr. Gair, who is black, said in an interview.
He said he was a member of what the campaign called “bridge” groups aimed at providing support to staff members who were members of certain affinity groups, including black and L.G.B.T.Q. employees. Mr. Gair said his group had conveyed some of its frustrations to the campaign manager, Mike Schmuhl, who took the time to listen. Mr. Gair declined to be specific about the frustrations.
After this article was published on Tuesday, the Buttigieg campaign posted a lengthy explanation of its diversity efforts online. “Pete for America is committed to creating trusted environments for issues to be raised and addressed within, across and outside the campaign,” the campaign wrote. “We are proud of our efforts and we are especially proud of our staff.”
After a town-hall-style event in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Tuesday, Mr. Buttigieg dodged a question about whether or not he had discussed the article with his staff.
“I want everyone on our team to know that I’m proud of them, I’m thankful for them and I support them,” he said, adding that the campaign had tried “to empower staffers at all levels to be able to speak to their experiences, to raise concerns and to have these tough conversations, and they are tough.”
Asked as he was walking away whether he had apologized to staff members of color who might have felt marginalized while working on his campaign, Mr. Buttigieg did not respond.
While concerns about diversity are not uncommon for people working in other political campaigns, the flurry of activity inside Buttigieg headquarters related to workplace culture is unusual so close to the start of voting, said Donna Brazile, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns since 1984.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Ms. Brazile said. “Not in ’08 and never in 2016.”
Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said campaigns were becoming more open to hearing from junior staff members whose concerns in the past may have been largely ignored by top officials.
“On any campaign, regardless of your staff, it’s really hard, pressure builds and it’s important to take a pause and ask people how it’s going,” Mr. Mook said. “And sometimes those meetings can be tough.”
While polling still shows Mr. Buttigieg in a deep hole with black Democrats — a recent Washington Post survey found he had just 2 percent support nationwide — he has exhibited some signs of progress among black elected officials. In the last month, he has won endorsements from Representative Anthony Brown of Maryland; Mayor Quentin Hart of Waterloo, Iowa; and Deborah Berry, a former Iowa state representative from Waterloo.
Still, skepticism remains even among some Buttigieg supporters about his ability to win over black voters. At two separate Iowa events on Monday, Mr. Buttigieg faced questions from voters about how he will win more support from African-Americans.
From the beginning, Mr. Buttigieg’s inner circle of top advisers, most of whom are white, went to great lengths to hire a diverse staff, and they say they reached their target number: forty percent people of color, a high proportion that is usually a plus for campaign outreach to voters of color. Chris Meagher, a spokesman, said the campaign had made an effort to hire people of color in leadership positions, including Brandon Neal, a senior adviser.
The campaign held an initial staff retreat that included a session on diversity in May, then held the December retreat in South Bend and scheduled local retreats in December and January for workers in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina, Mr. Meagher said.
Yet as Mr. Buttigieg rose in the polls through last year, his struggle to win over black voters became the biggest threat to his chances, and pained many minority staff members.
Early in the campaign, he faced questions as mayor about his decision in 2012 to fire Darryl Boykins, South Bend’s first black police chief. Then, in June, the fatal shooting of a black resident by a white police officer in South Bend presented perhaps the biggest crisis of his candidacy. Mr. Buttigieg was briefly forced off the campaign trail to address the matter.
In October, the campaign was rocked by revelations that among the hosts of a scheduled Chicago fund-raiser was Steve Patton, a lawyer who had tried to block the release of footage of the 2014 police shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. After black leaders including Jesse Jackson objected, the campaign distanced itself from Mr. Patton.
Another problem arose in late November, when Mr. Buttigieg came under fire for comments he made in 2011 about children from “lower-income, minority neighborhoods” not having “someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.” The remarks prompted a scathing essay in The Root.
Current and former staff members said The Root’s article became a source of angst among employees of color in the campaign.
The article was discussed during an all-staff meeting the day after it was published. At one point, Mr. Schmuhl, tears in his eyes, told staff members that he understood people of color on the campaign were “hurting,” according to three people who were present.
After the half-day retreat in early December, which the campaign says was scheduled before The Root’s article was published, a group of six staff members took additional steps to address their colleagues’ concerns. They organized the two follow-up sessions, titled “Building Belonging,” in an apartment building that is home to many campaign staff members.
The campaign’s senior leadership was aware of the sessions but did not participate in them.
On Jan. 1, the campaign’s national engagement coordinator, Raven Hollins, circulated a survey soliciting examples of microaggressions in the workplace, asking that only people of color complete it.
The first question asked whether employees of color had experienced any of six microaggressions from a white colleague, a list that included being interrupted and being “called the name of a different staff member of color.” Ms. Hollins declined to comment.
When the group of about 70 staff members convened for the Jan. 2 “Building Belonging” session, several spoke emotionally about their challenges in recruiting and hiring a diverse work force, according to the audio recording obtained by The Times.
Staff members also expressed frustration about the recent departures of minority colleagues, the importance of helping people of color build their professional political networks and hard feelings about the Patton episode two months earlier.
Katrina Smith, a young member of the vetting team, spoke about the episode involving Mr. Patton’s fund-raiser, telling her colleagues that leadership had ignored her group’s warning that he was an inappropriate host.
“The decisions that were made on those committees that ended up impacting everybody on the campaign, especially people of color, were hard ones and were not considered appropriately because of the makeup of the committees,” Ms. Smith said, according to the recording. “In a lot of different places on the campaign, we kind of have to screw up big-time before we make any big changes.”
In a statement provided by the campaign, Ms. Smith said, “Even as a more junior member of the team my voice is fully heard and valued.”
Mr. Meagher, the campaign spokesman, attributed the Patton episode to a “communications breakdown.” Marcus Switzer, an official in the Buttigieg fund-raising department, said he had subsequently helped improve the process of vetting donors.
“We were able to professionalize and operationalize some things and also account for the fact that this is a campaign that has had rapid growth,” he said.
Also during the Jan. 2 meeting, Buttigieg aides responsible for meeting the campaign’s diversity goals spoke in emotional terms about the difficulty of hiring minority candidates, the recording shows.
Alexis Gonzaludo, a member of the campaign’s fund-raising department, told colleagues that “my stomach is in knots” as she talked about the difficulty of attracting diverse candidates. She said she had become dismayed when she looked in the campaign’s hiring database and “it’s just like, a bunch of white dudes.”
“It’s been a shock, but not a surprise — really hard to find diverse candidates,” Ms. Gonzaludo said. “I feel a lot of pressure to, like, just hire someone.”
Ms. Gonzaludo, in a statement provided by the campaign, said: “These types of conversations, where people come together to have an open and honest discussion, are an opportunity to strategize on finding new resources to recruit talented candidates from all walks of life.”
Sonal Shah, the campaign’s policy director, who helped organize the “Building Belonging” sessions, said the young staff members of color had long been asking for an open discussion of issues of diversity on the campaign.
“They wanted to have a conversation about ensuring that we as a campaign were maintaining diversity and inclusion as a top-of-mind issue,” Ms. Shah said in an interview arranged by the campaign. “From the organizations that I have worked at, this has been consistent with young people. They always want to make sure they’re having that conversation.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign said the retreat and follow-up meetings over the last two months, and other sessions throughout last year, showed its commitment to diversity, and its openness to having staff members voice their frustrations.
“I think there are some, you know, global issues that are not unique to our organization,” said Mr. Gair, the accounting director. “The purpose of the conversations was to create a safe space for folks to voice that with their colleagues.”
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