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Staffs in Mass. governor’s race struggle with diversity

Makeup is called vital for building coalitions of voters

Listen to the Massachusetts candidates for governor on the campaign trail and you’ll hear calls for inclusion and praise for the state’s diversity. Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike speak proudly of their intent to embrace all communities and aggressively protect civil rights.

Yet despite the candidates’ campaign rhetoric, their paid staffs do not always reflect the state’s cultural tapestry.

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There are candidates with no black staff members, some without Hispanics on their payroll — at least one lacks both — and those who have not hired any Asian staff members.

Among the large field of candidates, Democrats Martha Coakley and Steve Grossman and independent Evan Falchuk have staffs that best reflect the diversity of the state. Republican Charlie Baker has a staff that is almost entirely white. Democrats Joe Avellone, Juliette Kayyem, Don Berwick, and independent Jeff McCormick fall somewhere in between.

Having a diverse campaign staff is not simply about checking boxes for the sake of political correctness, analysts say; it can also be critical to tapping into a broad coalition of voters in a state whose residents are largely white but which has significant pockets of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in urban areas. They point to Elizabeth Warren’s Senate win in 2012 and Coakley’s loss in the 2010 Senate race as evidence.

Warren dominated the cities when she beat Republican Scott Brown and claimed a Senate seat, the same seat Coakley lost to Brown nearly three years earlier. And Warren did it in part by paying great attention to those cities’ communities of color, which often means having high-level staffers who also connect with the community.

Political operatives say hiring people from diverse backgrounds is a challenge for campaigns, where too few people of color make their way up the political pipeline because they are underrepresented at the ground floor. Entry-level jobs often come with grueling hours and little pay, a combination that specialists say makes it difficult to recruit first-generation college students or those with heavy student loan debt.

Still, there is no excuse not to have a diverse campaign staff, said Kelly Bates, a specialist in political diversity. “At this point, in 2014, it is unforgivable,” she said. “But worse, they lose.”

If a candidate goes to an event in Chinatown or the Vietnamese community in Dorchester or the black community in Roxbury or a working-class community in Western Massachusetts, “the opinion leaders” watch to see whom the candidate arrives with, Bates said.

Even if they don’t know the candidate, voters want to see whom that person surrounds him- or- herself with, she said. “And we’re not just talking about a face,” she said, “but someone who understands the community.”

Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a political consultant dedicated to increasing the number of women and people of color in politics, said campaigns “are viewed as a microcosm of society. The folks who are running these campaigns need to be able to look at them like most folks who vote do.”

Coakley’s campaign said she “learned lots of lessons from past campaigns,” including her failed 2010 bid. And while there were no black people on her paid campaign in January, three of her current 24 staff members are African-American, the campaign said last week. There are also three Hispanics and two Asian-Americans, according to the campaign.

Grossman, the state treasurer, has a campaign staff of 16, which in includes three blacks, two South Asian-Americans, and one Hispanic, his campaign said.

Falchuk, the independent, reported having 27 staff members on his campaign, including 16 paid interns, as of two weeks ago. Among them are three blacks, one woman of African-American and Caucasian heritage, three Latinos, and two Asian-Americans.

Each first-time Democratic candidate had gaps in the diversity of his or her staff as of last week, according to figures provided by their staffs. Kayyem had no Hispanics on her staff of 18, though a spokesman for her said Sunday night that a Hispanic staff member was recently hired; Berwick had no Asian-Americans on his staff of 25; and Avellone has no blacks on his staff of nine.

All have championed diversity from the campaign trail.

Kayyem told supporters at a rally last month: “My career reflects what is best about our party: access and leveling the playing field with an equal commitment to protecting our communities and our children.” And Berwick, who often introduces himself as the most progressive candidate in the race, said at a March forum, “Government has an obligation to pass a moral test. We established a nation using words like ‘we’re created equal,’ ‘liberty and justice for all,’ ‘equal justice under law.’ ”

Baker, who ran unsuccessfully against Deval Patrick in 2010, the state’s first black governor, has one Asian-American among the 18 employees on his current campaign staff but no blacks or Hispanics, his staff said. At a rally just before the state GOP convention in March, Baker took to the microphone after the party’s Boston chairman highlighted the diversity in the room and said: “You need a state government, and we need a state government, that reflects the greatness of the people of this state.”

Sarah-Ann Shaw, a longtime Democratic activist from Roxbury, said she would expect gubernatorial campaigns to have more people of color on their staffs, especially given the state’s rising Hispanic population.

“I just wonder how and where the candidates get their representatives of color. Do they get them from other campaigns? Are they recommended?” she asked. “It’s important that the people they get know something about the communities they purport to represent, because if you don’t understand the community or who’s who, you could stumble.”

When people of color are hired, diversity advocates say, it is critical that they hold key positions like press secretary or political director. Extending an employee of color’s responsibility beyond outreach to black, Hispanic, or Asian communities ensures that person is not professionally pigeonholed, they say.

“The candidate has to make a conscious effort, and in particular a conscious effort in Boston, because the field is not huge,” said Natasha Perez, who is Cuban-American and the political director for McCormick’s campaign. There is one black and one Hispanic on his staff of 11.

The people who surround a candidate influence everything from campaign messages to policy positions. They help shape the public discourse, their sway extending beyond the trail and into office.

“Just think about it from a policy perspective,” said Perez, who was a longtime Democratic strategist prior to being recruited by McCormick. “Any candidate does not have the answer on every single issue, so a good candidate reaches out to a variety of people. Staffs that are diverse just have a better mix of ideas.”

Campaign organizations typically do say they want a staff that is representative of all of their potential constituents, so they can better connect with voters in those communities. But that’s only the first step in connecting with voters.

Activists note that in communities of color, campaigns often have to motivate people to get to the polls before they can start worrying about who is voting for their candidate, a process that takes money and time.

“To what extent and how much will they invest in those communities becomes the question,” said Joseph Feaster, an attorney and longtime political operative in communities of color. “Where are they going to spend their dollars? Where are they going to direct their advertising? Is the candidate seeking financing from those communities or doing meet-and-greets? Do you have an office set up there?”

Because, Feaster said, “dollars are king. You follow the dollars, and that will tell you the influence that an individual or community has in that campaign.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com.
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