Q&A: Bertha Lewis advises candidates to hire more organizers and fewer pricey consultants

Courtesy of The Black Institute.
Bertha Lewis, founder and president of The Black Institute and founder of the Black Leadership Action Coalition

Q&A: Bertha Lewis advises candidates to hire more organizers and fewer pricey consultants

A new report from The Black Institute and the Black Leadership Action Coalition looks at all aspects of the 2021 elections, including ranked-choice voting.
By
June 16, 2022

The Black Institute and the Black Leadership Action Coalition recently released an analysis of the 2021 election, offering it as the basis for how candidates should approach the upcoming election cycle. Known as “The BLAC Manifesto: A Postmortem 2021,” the report looked at all aspects of the last election, from getting ranked-choice voting implemented, to voter participation, to campaign investments in staff and consultants. At the same time, the report provided a deep look at what hasn’t worked for candidates, aiming to give them a better shot in the primaries and on Election Day.

New York Nonprofit Media caught up with Bertha Lewis, founder and president of The Black Institute and founder of the Black Leadership Action Coalition, to talk about the manifesto and ways of improving the electoral process. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the purpose of The BLAC Manifesto Postmortem report?

We wanted to take our time and to really take a deep, deep dive. At one point we had 450 candidates, between people declaring, people dropping out. Here at The Black Institute, we said, let’s look at the data. Our lens is always through a Black and Brown lens. But you’ve got to look at what are the real numbers – digital data. And so we took a deep, deep dive.

What does the report say about the state of Democrats in New York, and the prevailing concept that the state is a Democratic stronghold? That concept sounds like something automatic and something that could be taken for granted.

Let me back up just a tiny bit, because in 2021, the predecessor to this was the Black Manifesto, where the Black Leadership Action Coalition laid out every single office, here’s what that office can and cannot do. Because what I have found over these past 30 years, people will run for anything, and they start talking. They sound like they’re talking about being president of the United States as opposed, you know, (being) a city councilperson. So, we wanted to be very clear; lay that out. And then, the second part was laying out the issues that mattered to The Black Institute and for Blacks. And then third, a short thing of reimagining how New York City could work. This current thing with the mayor having to go every year to Albany for mayoral control of schools, it’s ridiculous!

So, we followed up the manifesto and did the postmortem. And what we wanted to do again was to take a deeper dive. But even though this is a Democratic primary, mostly Democratic voters, people think about it in that way, and they shouldn’t. The first thing is this, are we exercising democracy? We found that in 2021, this was the easiest way for people to vote. And thank God for ranked-choice voting. We set some people’s hair on fire. But when you’ve got 400, almost 500 candidates, it makes sense to try to rank these things. So, we think that ranked-choice voting worked, that’s good; and that Black and Brown, and minority people understood it.

What are your thoughts on public funding for political candidates?

The 8-to-1 match, you know, is a tale of two things. We definitely support public funding. However, (with) that 8-to-1 match, as we saw some candidates, and I shall not name who I think they were, getting a whole bag of money. It was a double-edged sword. However, here is a cause for being paranoid and frightened. Still, we had abysmal voter turnout, and with the City Council and all of the city officers being wide open, we wound up increasing Republicans in this Democratic city. So, why is that? In the report, we lay out what we think were the successes and the failures, and why this was. And let this be a lesson. 2023 is coming. And in 2023, all these brand-new people that just got elected, they’re going to have to do it all over again. They’re going to have the match money, however, we found that more money was spent on consultants and TV ads. Not enough money was spent on the field, actually engaging the people that you wanted.

What happened to the boots-on-the-ground philosophy of campaigning? 

That’s one of the points that we make in this report. Who are you actually talking to? You want somebody to get into that voting pool with early voting with RCV. I don’t care if you had to put on a hazmat suit. You’ve got to knock on doors. You’ve got to go to churches. You’ve got to be on the ground. You cannot do everything over social media. You cannot do everything on the internet. What we also found was when you went to a lot of these candidates’ websites, there really was no contact information, so, you could call the campaign manager, that you could call somebody in an office – person to person to make direct contact with. In my personal opinion, I think there were too many people running. Democrats, especially since this is a Democratic town, (should) sit down with each other, come up with a strategy and not just tactics. Don’t be in (a) circular firing squad, as our great Mayor (David) Dinkins used to say about Democrats. It did not happen. It was like everybody was for themselves. And you could hardly tell, distinguish one platform or one policy from the other, and you could hardly distinguish one platform or one policy from the other. But the biggest failure of all – the Board of Elections. We should be outraged and embarrassed that the Board of Elections made mistake after mistake, took so long to tabulate votes, after all of these years and this being a Democratic town and touting ourselves as “We’re New York City.” The Board of Elections must be overhauled. We cannot continue to have a vibrant democracy, if our Board of Elections is incompetent and inefficient.

And what are the solutions to improving low voter turnout?

Well, I’m an old organizer, so I wouldn’t do this work if I didn’t think that hope springs eternal. But you can’t just hope, you actually have to do the work. And this is why I believe that we have to have better Democrats. Better Democrats that actually know what the power of their position actually is, know how to wield it, do not make promises that they will not work on and that they cannot keep. I can’t eat rhetoric. I need to have real work. And as for the abysmal voter turnout, how long are we going to keep saying this and just brush it off? We have low voter turnout because the voters are not being engaged. Money is not being spent on real voter education and real voter contact. We need to up voter turnout. I know in presidential (elections) you talk about long lines and Black voter suppression, but come on, we in New York City cannot accept low voter turnout. And I blame the Democrats, because this is a Democratic town, but I think the matching funds and RCV will help us. 2023 I’m very excited about because green card-holding immigrants, for once, will be able to vote in municipal elections. They pay their taxes; they do the right thing. And so, I’m hoping that you can help us get the postmortem out to everyone, so that they can see that at The Black Institute, that we really break this down. We come up with commonsense ways to improve because we’ve got to start getting ready for 2023 right now.

Let’s talk about improving the Board of Elections. It’s an institution. How long is that going to take? And how do we cope with the Board of Elections’ issues with primaries coming up?

Well, you know, sometimes you’ve got to have stringent rules, the City Council and the state working together needs to say, “This is how the Board of Elections shall function.” You need to actually spend money on real (voting) machines and real (election) technology; spend money on actually training people; and the way that people are appointed to the Board of Elections. Who appoints them? And when the Board of Elections fails, who do we hold accountable? Can anyone be fired for not doing their job? Can there be real accountability? There’s no accountability. No one is worried about their position or their job. There’s no review of their jobs. The whole Board of Elections messed up (and) we just let it go? No more! No. 1, we are paying. And so, therefore, people need to know, if you do not do your job, you need to be fired. If you are appointed by someone, there must be a review of the work performance, and that must be made public so that the public can see. When you do voter education, you need to know who are the Board of Elections’ representatives for your district. We don’t (currently) put that as part of voter education and voter engagement. And the other thing is, people running next year for office, even this year on the state level, if they do not have a Board of Elections’ reform policy, then I question you, then what are you really doing there? So, accountability from the appointees, real consequences – losing your job if you mess up, and in real voter engagement and education as to who represents them in the Board of Elections and real training in education for Board of Elections workers.

Tell me about boots-on-the ground campaigning as opposed to the increased use of political consultants over investments in field workers, as uncovered by the postmortem report.

That is a scandal, I think. And we point that out in the postmortem report. When you look at the expenditures in the report on Page 40, you can see campaign expenditures are overall by categories. Forty-five percent spent on campaign consulting. Nineteen percent spent trying to get money and personnel – that’s your field workers. That’s your folks, your phone banks and people answering the phone. So, something is wrong when you have consultants, and consultants are double-dipping. Because when you look at Page 18 of the report, when you look at campaign expenditures, consultants are (also) the ones that put together the campaign ads. When you’re talking about voter outreach, 60% television ads! So, you got a consultant, you’re paying them on one end, and then you are paying them to put together the TV ad and place it. So, the consultants are double- and triple-dipping. So, is there any wonder that we would have low voter turnout? When you don’t have boots on the ground, when you don’t have a robust field operation, you’re not assuring the quality. When I was being trained as an organizer, it was how many doors you knocked on a day, how many members you signed up, how many people you had to follow up. Numbers, numbers, numbers, because numbers control who wins or loses. Why shouldn’t the numbers control your field operation? A lot of times, the first people that they hire are consultants. So, there’s a double- and triple-dipping with consultants and lawyers. The 60% for television ads really hit me. So field, field, field, you know, that should be their first expenditure, and everything should come down after that.

Could you imagine what the field operations would look like if just half of that money spent on consultants went into people on the ground, reaching out to people, knocking on doors?

You don’t vote by TV, you know. You’re mailing your ballot. You do early voting, or you come in on Election Day. A lot of times, you might even get political mail and you might say, “huh” and you’ll toss it. When I was being trained as an organizer, we were trained to know that only 1% of any flyer gets through. But still that’s 1%, and it’s even less with television ads. People are just waiting for their show to come back on. But this should be a lesson for the 2023 elections, there should be a lesson (here) for the primaries that are coming up. Because I see the same pattern happening on the state level. And this should be a lesson nationally.

How much influence does the national Democratic Party have on New York politics? And are they aware that local Democrats may be taking New York’s Democratic stronghold status for granted and letting their power slip away from them?

There’s a lot of talk about national Democrats and national Republicans. And some people even said, “Oh, the Democrats better get prepared for a drubbing come November.” I disagree with that. I think the Democrats, if they tell their story and they actually do the right thing, I think the Democrats not only could hold on, but the Democrats could increase their numbers in the House and in the Senate. You know, I disagreed with this conventional wisdom that somehow or another, the Democrats are going to lose. If they listen to me, I could tell them how to win.

You mentioned there not being enough ways to get in contact with candidates’ campaigns. When you get to “contact us” on their websites, there are just blank fields to fill in – no email address, no phone number, nothing beyond that.

Nobody calls you. You were here during the 2021 cycle. Did you really know where all the different campaign offices were? No! Even when you say, “oh COVID, COVID,” get a storefront and festoon it, this is where our campaign office is, have a box outside the door, leave your message for me here. Something that connects with your district. And that’s what I mean. The websites didn’t have voter contact. The social media certainly didn’t because everybody wanted a click, or a like, or a retweet or whatever. And of course, there was this lack of field operations. But once again, I have to say, ranked-choice voting came to the rescue, and thank God for that. (But) if your voter cannot get in touch with a human being for your campaign, do you really want my vote?

How can we make improvements at the Board of Elections before we get into the next election cycle? Can that be done?

Well, you have state primaries this June, but what I would like to see in (the) City Council right now is a hearing on reforming the Board of Elections. Let’s just focus. Make sure that the next round of city elections actually runs well. We can take the time during the congressional and the state elections to have some hearings (to) put forward recommendations. But one, it has to be transparent. Two, I want to hold accountable the people who appointed these folks. Three, I want people to know that (the New York City Board of Elections’ commissioners) can be fired because I want a job performance review. And there needs to be deadlines. Early voting and mail-in ballots need to be counted first. You got them first; count them.

Why wait until the last minute? Why wait until after the election to count the votes?

Exactly right. Check, double-check. I want (a count of the early voting and mail-in ballots) verified, so that we know that people are doing their job. And if there is a snafu like we had in 2021, you’re gone! The City Council can’t just bemoan the Board of Elections. And, quite frankly, the state election site was very lacking this year. It took us a long time to find out, “OK, who made the ballot.” But unless there are consequences for the way that people do their job, nothing would change. So, what I would like to concentrate on is the policies that (we) need to start working on now, so we’ll be ready for the 2023 municipal elections.

Are there any other nuggets in the report that you want to highlight? 

I think we hit the highlights, and again, I want to emphasize, we also took a look at the racial breakdown of the candidates, and who actually won. So, on Page 8 of the report, you can see 24% of those that won were Hispanic, 28% were white, 36% were Black and 12% were AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander). So, we not only just look at dry numbers. I think the ethnicity and the results on Page 8, of course, Page 18, the expenditures, (and) as I said, Page 40, the expenses and, looking how well RCV actually works.

Who’s responsible for low voter turnout and who needs to do something about low voter turnout?

The candidates, the candidates, damn it! I mean, whose head should it fall on? Don’t tell me about voter apathy, don’t tell me about this, that and the other. If you are running for office, then it is your job to turn out the most voters. It is your job to knock on every door. It is your job to go to the senior centers. It is your job to get transportation to transport folks (to the polls). So, low voter turnout, it is on the candidates. But guess what? Here’s a little secret, a lot of candidates, and a lot of Democrats, they love low voter turnout. Just like they don’t like voter registration. We used to get slammed all the time for (doing) voter registration. Why? Because you actually have to do your work. There’s more people that you don’t control, and you have to engage them. So, low voter turnout, as far as I’m concerned, is always on the candidates and always on the incumbents.

Does the city have any part or any responsibility in low voter turnout?

Well, they all work together, right? So, the city should make it easier. The city should have things in different languages for translation, they should make sure that there’s a voter guide to send out to folks. That’s part of what the public advocate is there for. The public advocate should be the hotline or the place that you could go. I think there should be a public advocate storefront office in every single district. The public advocate should have 51 public advocate offices – one for each city council district – because, at least, that’s some place where you could go if you have questions or problems. The city has a role to play; the Board of Elections, it’s their job. So, they should lose their job if they don’t do it. Incumbents have franking privileges; they have mailing privileges. Don’t tell me about low voter turnout. That’s your job!

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