With a few days left in this contentious presidential cycle, Kamau Mandela Marshall continues to focus on engaging a diverse group of voters. As director of strategic communications for Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, he plays a vital role in crafting resonant messages and finding ways to connect with all segments of the electorate.
Before joining the Biden camp, he served as a spokesman and an advisor for African American Media at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), where he was a team member credited with winning back the House in 2018 for the first time since 2006 and flipping the most seats from red to blue since 1974. In this role, Marshall was “a part of the DCCC’s Year of Engagement team — a $30 million program that mobilized communities of color across multiple voter contact streams.” Among the highlights, Marshall says, was working closely with one of his heroes, the late Congressman John Lewis as well as Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-IL), the youngest Black woman elected to the House.
Marshall, who was born in Chicago, says two elements played large roles in his life of public service: His father’s and maternal grandparents’ work as ministers and coming of age within activist, multicultural communities in the South and Northeast, including Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Columbus, Georgia and Atlanta. After gaining a degree in journalism and a master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University in Houston, he followed his calling “to be a servant of the people in communications,” working at a communications firm known as SKDKnickerbocker and for an array of elected officials such as the late Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Congressman Al Green (D-TX) and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) as well as a speechwriter and adviser at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Obama Administration.
In an exclusive interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE, Marshall shares the challenges and rewards of his current role in the Biden-Harris campaign.
With a few days before Election Day, do have any major concerns about the coalition that has been developed to try to put the Biden-Harris ticket in office?
Since we launched this campaign on day one, we’ve always said, it’s going to take a diverse coalition of voters to win, that’s for the primaries and that’s also for the general election as well. I think most people remember Nevada and certainly the best political comeback in history – Joe Biden winning the South Carolina primary. Black people and people of color overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden. People see what’s in front of them and they also see that we currently have a president that has failed the American people. The current person in the White House doesn’t have a record to stand on when it comes to the Black community.
Your strategy in terms of communications unlike past campaigns both Democrat and Republican, was to not treat the African American community as a monolith. You reached out to different segments.
The African American community is not monolithic. We know that the Black community is diverse within its own race. Also, I think that goes for other races as well. You have to reach out to those different constituencies within that constituency. We saw that at the very beginning and that all came from listening to people. One thing about this campaign, we listen — Joe Biden is a listener and Kamala Harris is a listener. Once you listen, you capture those details and those things you need to do for the people, meeting them where they are and on the issues that matter most to them. That matters. Engaging with different constituencies has been a key element, especially as we are doing things in an untraditional manner.
You have been able to assemble a powerful group of influencers to bring your message to constituents.
It’s not me, this is a team and campaign effort. Also, it’s definitely great teamwork that has gotten us this far. I want to be clear, this campaign is very scrappy and sturdy on many levels. We have a great team of folks identifying and working closely with influencers, whether it’s a celebrity who can make a large splash or a local activist. It’s all about trust. People listen to people they like and most of all people they trust with a credible track record. It’s important to reach people where they are, and identify people they trust, especially when it comes to their local communities. It really matters.
Share with me the relationship that you built with the business community after the race equity focus initiated after the protests in response to George Floyd’s tragic death. Is this a new development or something that had been growing?
I would say it’s a little bit of both. I think that the uprisings were a big wake-up call for folks. But do know in this work and why I work for who I work for – both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris know we have to do more as a nation than just heal and recover – we have to rip up the race-based inequities that still infect every part of society, and build back better for the future. Biden has been fighting alongside Black workers, families, and small businesses for his entire career – for voting rights, civil rights, workers’ rights, and a more fair and just society.
In this time, people are figuring it out: How do we use this moment and this time? How do we all come together and work through this? And, in the midst of all this, we are still in a global pandemic. I think it is a lot of organic stuff happening. Also, this is something that won’t happen overnight. People are realizing the moment we’re in right now, the leadership that we have to fill, and that people have to come together to get things done. The iconic R&B singer Frankie Beverly said it best, “We are one,” and when you are one, you get more done, period.
Right now, we need a leader who is willing to talk about race and address it head-on. Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris can talk about race while also be forward-thinking. Both know that Black Lives Matter, while also discussing systemic racism with plans to move forward. Again, we are literally in a battle for the soul of this nation.
The campaign had a special focus on the challenges of small firms.
Correct. However, I would like to focus on Black businesses. Like other facets of the Black community, Black businesses have been harmed tremendously during the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout. Again, that goes back to the current leadership which has failed the people. Joe Biden has committed to helping Black businesses access capital and more. The campaign’s answer to this issue is to address this via the Biden Harris racial equity pillar of the Build Back Better plan. These efforts have been highlighted weekly through our “MAKE IT HAPPEN MONDAY” program led by Trey Baker (Director of African American Engagement). We use these types of events, particularly this one — as an organizing effort to highlight small businesses and how Biden and Harris will help this community. When doing this event and having these types of conversations — participants leave with an understanding of the economic component of the Biden- Harris Build Back Better plan.
You have also focused on the devastation faced by African Americans in the current environment.
Look, President Trump turns Americans against each other and fuels toxic racism for his own political gain. He has no desire to unite Americans or to move this country forward. Division is his primary political strategy. It’s wrong, and it’s not who we are as a country. As my old boss, Rep. Elijah Cummings would say – “We are better than this.”
This race is Scranton vs Park Avenue. Joe Biden sees the world from the kitchen tables in Scranton. Donald Trump mocked those kitchen tables. He mocked Biden and his family for having to move away when his dad lost his job. This is the struggle that working families across the country face in Trump’s economy. And, Trump mocked it. After white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, the current president said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Following the tragic murder of George Floyd, as millions of Americans stood up for healing and justice, Trump actively fanned hate and even encouraged violence. Hate crimes have surged on his watch, he has admitted that he’s trying to keep Black Americans from exercising their sacred right to vote, and he continues to slander the Latino community. While all of this is happening, Joe Biden continues to meet the moment and address those issues head-on. Biden and Harris recognizes that race-neutral policies aren’t enough to end race-based disparities.
As President, Joe will: Expand access to $100B in low-interest loans in Black and Brown communities. Create a $15K down-payment tax credit that allows homebuyers to access it when they make their purchase. It will be free tuition at public colleges and universities, as well as public or private HBCUs for families making under $125K and free high-quality, universal pre-kindergarten for all three-and four-year-old toddlers. Forgive existing public college and private HBCU tuition-related debt for individuals making under $125K. Reform our policing and criminal justice systems, banning chokeholds, ending cash bail and private prisons, and no incarceration for drug use alone, decriminalizing marijuana; investing $1 billion a year in juvenile justice reform; expanding access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment education and job training, during and after incarceration; and expanding DOJ powers to address systemic police misconduct. Ensure everyone has access to affordable health care by Building on Obamacare and expanding access to affordable health care for millions of Americans. And lastly, Defend civil rights and voting rights, which is now under assault – reinstating the full Voting Rights Act. Fight for environmental justice – restoring scores of protections gutted by Trump. That is the type of leadership we need right now on issues that matter to the American people.
As you began your engagement in this type of work, which political campaign did you find most transformational in your career?
I found that President Barack Obama campaign was game-changing. While in college, I was a volunteer on his first campaign. In 2012, I was an official campaign staffer. I didn’t have a big role, but the position was impactful and important on so many levels. As a former field organizer, you are the face of the campaign. To this day, I still talk with my volunteers from the Obama campaign. Some of them have become family. While working in Nevada one of my volunteers is now one of my adopted mothers, her name is Ms. Peggy Selma – my Obama momma. The campaign brought us together.
Besides the Obama campaign, I would say working on a mass amount of congressional campaigns in 2018 was major. Lastly, the Biden Harris campaign has been a rollercoaster ride. I’ve been on the Biden campaign since day one. He’s the one I believed in as a [presidential candidate]. During the 2018 election cycle, I traveled around the United States and everyone always kept saying, “We know you’re going to go to a presidential campaign. Which campaign are you going to?” Even though I would prefer not to discuss, and depending on who it was — I would always tell them: “I don’t know. If I had to pick, I’m going to go with Joe Biden’s campaign.” Not even knowing if he would run. But my wish came true and he’s running for president and here we are today.
You talked about how campaigns have changed. When you look at the Obama campaign in 2008, it was the first presidential campaign to effectively use Facebook and other social media. Fast forward, how has campaign communications tools evolved? Have they become more impactful?
This is not a traditional environment right now when it comes to campaigning. No campaign has been done it this way…as a virtual campaign due to [the pandemic]. I will say that our digital efforts have been amazing with a great team with a lot of fingers on this campaign. Again, the Biden Harris campaign hired some of the best in the business and I’m glad to work with all of them every day.
Coming from a background of public service and your political experience, do you envision one day taking the lead in a campaign as a candidate or will you continue to work behind the scenes crafting strategy and messaging?
Right now, I’m focused on Joe Biden and Kamala Harris becoming President and Vice President. Also, it’s been a true privileged to work with some amazing candidates that I helped get elected over the years. For me, it has been a huge blessing to work with so many great leaders. Whether I become one of those people, I don’t know. That’s not my mission right now. My mission is Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Most of all, I want to do my job and my part as a citizen while also being a productive, effective, and efficient communicator.