An exclusive interview with Louisiana’s Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile is one of Louisiana’s most notable and consequential native daughters, and although she lives and works in Washington D.C., her heart has always belonged to her home state. Among many other incredible accomplishments, Brazile became the first African-American woman to ever lead a national presidential campaign, serving as Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000. She has also served twice as the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, including a recent assignment during the 2016 election, an experience she chronicles in her controversial new memoir Hacks. Earlier today, I spoke with Brazile, who is celebrating her 58th birthday back home in New Orleans this weekend, about her passion for Louisiana, about Roy Moore’s quest to become the next senator in Alabama, about the frustrations she had with the Clinton campaign when she served as the interim chair of the DNC, about Russian interference in last year’s election, about her latest book, and about yard signs. I began our conversation with a question about former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and her response will be published later today, in full, as a part of a separate story. Aside from that, this is a complete transcript of our conversation:   Lamar White (LW): Donna, it’s a tremendous honor to speak with you on behalf of The Bayou Brief. How are you? Donna Brazile (DB): It’s my last day here on campus. I’ve had a great semester here at Harvard University, at the Shorenstein Center of Media, Politics, and Policy. I get to return to Washington D.C. tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to going back to teaching at Georgetown. LW: So, this question comes from one of our most talented writers at The Bayou Brief, a young man who loves to write about old things- that is, the history of Louisiana. His name is Mitch Rabalais of Abita Springs. He’s a student at Southeastern Louisiana University, and he asked me to ask you this: In 1987, you managed Mary Landrieu’s first statewide campaign, for state treasurer. It was one of the first major statewide campaigns in Louisiana in which the candidate was female. Given the attitudes of many voters in the state at the time, what unique challenges did that campaign have? DB: Mary ran at a time when voters were looking for someone who could not just run the state’s finances but also someone with experience. Although she was a very young woman at the time, people knew that she had lots of experience in state government, and they gave her a chance to lead. I think the most fulfilling part to me was learning how to mobilize people outside of the New Orleans regional area, areas where she was not as familiar because she didn’t have strong name recognition in the north in Shreveport and Monroe and also in the center of the state, in Alexandria. So, it posed some significant challenges, but she was able to overcome all of them. LW: Thanks so much, Donna. I have just a few more questions I’d like to get to, and they’re all about your book, Hacks, which I read, front to back, and thought was important and riveting, by the way. So, first, at a recent luncheon hosted by the Independent Women’s Organization in New Orleans, you spoke about the ways in which hackers infiltrated the DNC, and I think you went into greater detail, at times, than you did in your book. Would you mind sharing some of the things you said at that luncheon about Russian interference in our election? DB: One of the things I wanted to point out- not just in my book but elsewhere- is what exactly we were worried about. Because of the severity of the hacking and the persistence of the Russian intelligence services and their allies, we took steps to try to protect our data from being corrupted. We needed our data to target voters, to raise funds, as well as to communicate in the final weeks of the campaign. So, I like to tell people that in addition to the e-mails being leaked- sometimes we got spoof e-mails, I was concerned about the corruption of the data that would inhibit our ability to reach people at a crucial moment in the election cycle. So, I think it’s important to understand that we learn more and more about what’s happened, not just from the investigations on Capitol Hill, but also by Director Mueller. I’m hoping that we learn how and if that data was used in a way to compromise our election integrity. We do know that the Russians attempted to hack into 21 different state organizations, and what worries me is that with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the hacking of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, we may learn soon whether or not there was any help in the targeting of that data, the use of that data, or the corruption of that material. LW: So, the name of your book Hacks is sort of a double entendre. It has two meanings. On the one hand, it’s about Russian interference, and on the other hand, Hacks probably refers to a number of people who were involved in the political campaign. One character stuck out to me in particular in your book. It’s this young man named Brandon, who you referred to quite a bit, and I also thought he was one of the most fascinating characters in your book. First of all, who did he work for exactly? Did he work for the Clinton campaign, or did he work for the DNC? DB: He was actually paid from the Joint Victory Fund. Brandon Davis was hired months before I became chair of the party to lead the general election on behalf of the Joint Victory Fund. So he was never a member of the DNC staff. He had strange powers to control the party at a time I believe the party should have been exercising its own independence. Remember, we were fighting the Russians. And the party is not just responsible for the turnout for the electoral college. We had down ballot races across the country, including some Senatorial races that were not funded by the presidential nominee. So, I wanted to make sure there were sufficient resources for all of the candidates. In fact, when the election was over, I was able to send resources home because there was still a Senatorial race in Louisiana, and I wanted to contribute to the success of the mayoral race in Baton Rouge as well. LW: Yes, and I appreciate that. I know that the mayoral race in Baton Rouge was sort of overlooked by a lot of folks, even in the state of Louisiana. But back to Brandon. With the arrangement he had, when you were interim chair before, was there any analog to Brandon then? The idea of being employed by a joint fundraising committee seems like a relatively new development, and it seemed like no one really had firing power over this guy.    DB: No, he reported to Brooklyn. That’s why I called him the clerk. But this is not about individuals. It’s about the addendum to the joint fundraising agreement, which was made the chief of staff of the DNC, Amy Dacey, and Mr. Robby Mook, who was the campaign manager of the Clinton campaign. As I mentioned in the book, I found this arrangement to be unethical because it prevented me from doing my job, even when I went out and raised money. Finally, I had to go out and raise more money so that the DNC could compete everywhere and to provide resources for those down-ballot races. LW: You mention Robby Mook. I was also struck by your criticism of his strategy, which seemed to value metrics and data analysis over actual human interaction. I could sense your real frustration when you wrote about constantly negotiating with Brooklyn for funding outreach in minority communities. Hillary won the popular vote by nearly 3 million. In any other advanced democracy on the planet, the candidate who won by 3 million votes would be the real winner. Still, you’re from a state where yard signs are a way of life. Pundits now like to say, “Signs don’t vote. People vote.” But you made the case for yard signs, arguing that the Clinton campaign failed to utilize them effectively. Why? DB: I come from a time when if people put out signs, it was not just a sign of commitment but also that was a sign in the neighborhood that there was some form of grassroots activity. Perhaps the person who put up that yard sign was also the person responsible for going door-to-door, the person who was responsible for calling undecided voters, or the person who reminded voters to vote on election day. It’s a sign of the health of a campaign. It’s a sign of the vitality, visibility, and viability of a campaign, so I believe yard signs play a role. But look, they’re not the most important thing in an election. Clearly, I would list cybersecurity as more important than that, but I still believe it’s a sign that the campaign has active support in the area, especially in rural areas. When you go out to rural areas and communities and you see big signs, that’s a sign that somebody there takes interest in that election and in that campaign. LW: Expanding on that, do you think that maybe that gives other people permission to consider voting for a candidate they otherwise would not or that their support of a candidate is something shared by their neighbors? Everyone has their own way. Some people like to post pictures on Facebook. Others tweet out their support. But others are like me. They like to put out yard signs. There are many ways to show your support for a candidate. I just think it’s one that shouldn’t be forgotten. LW: In your book, you mention some radio ads on stations that reached minority communities in Florida that you were lobbying to purchase and that weren’t purchased. Even though the audience was limited, you said it was worth it because the people who listen to stations like this one listen to it all day long. How influential do you think decisions like these were in the end? Because obviously, although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, she lost some of the swing states by a really close margin. Do you think it made a difference? DB: Donald Trump wanted to challenge Secretary Clinton in parts of the country where Democrats have done well, and one of the areas he was trying to challenge us in was in the African-American community. He pointed out in August- I believe it was August 19th- “What the hell do you have to lose?” Well, I think you have to respond to a candidate who was quite effective in dominating the news media day by day. So I wanted to ensure those voters in Little Haiti and other places what Secretary Clinton was offering and what the senatorial candidates were offering, because in a close election, you have to go after every vote, not just the traditional people but the nontraditional people who need what I like to call “lead time” before they make up their mind on who to support. LW: Tomorrow there is an election in Alabama that many people are comparing to the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial election between John Bel Edwards and David Vitter. Obviously the moral issues are much more severe in Alabama, where there’s an accused child molester on the ballot. What do you make of this election? The latest polling has Doug Jones ahead by ten points. What do you think will happen on Tuesday? DB: No one can predict a race like this in Alabama, because we don’t have any recent data other than the presidential where Donald Trump, as you know, carried the state by a substantial margin. But Donald Trump didn’t compete with anyone. The Democrats didn’t play. The difference in Louisiana is that at least we’ve had Sen. Landrieu for a long time. We’ve had John Bel Edwards. We’ve fertilized the ground. We’ve had local elections. In Alabama, all they’ve had is for the last two decades are local elections, and I don’t want to make a prediction until the voters decide. I’m hoping that turnout will be above normal and that people will understand that Doug Jones is refreshing and that he is going to lead the entire state and not just one faction of the state. He’s a man of character, and hopefully, the voters of Alabama will see through all of the smoke and all of the bluster of Donald Trump and decide not to send someone who, at one point, was banned from the mall to the United States Senate. I think that would send an ugly message to the country and a terrible message to women, and besides that, I just think that Doug Jones is what Alabama needs. LW: Turning back to Louisiana for a moment. You spoke about the election of John Bel Edwards and how Democrats here fertilized the ground to make his victory possible, and I agree. But at the same time, there were other Democrats on the ballot, including Chris Tyson, an African-American candidate for Secretary of State who did not win. In fact, there has been no African-American elected to statewide office since Reconstruction and that was P.B.S. Pinchback, who was actually appointed.  What do you think the future of the Louisiana Democratic Party is? DB: I think the future is going to be bright. Now, we have a lot of work to do in the state, and it continues to have a significant red pocket. But I think it is important that we continue to elect good people, men and women of valor across our state. I’m hopeful for our future. I don’t have a shortlist yet for 2019 or beyond, but I’m just hoping that we are able to continue to celebrate our diversity, to encourage a new generation of Louisianians to run for office, and to hopefully embrace more than just conservatives. I think the party is strong; it’s vibrant. But I would hope that we continue to elect Democrats from the local sheriff’s office all the way up to the governor’s office, but we need to continue to branch out and embrace the diversity in our party, our state, and our country. LW: I have one final question. You’re from here, and there seems to be this strange concentration of political pundits who have Louisiana connections. Andrew Breitbart and Newt Gingrich went to school here. The editor of The New York Times is from here. So are Erick Erickson, Charles Blow, and Don Lemon. Oh, and so is James Carville, who says you’re like an aunt to his daughters. DB: I am. And you forgot Charlie Cook. LW: That’s right. Charlie Cook from Shreveport, Louisiana. DB: I love my state. I love everyone there. I learned recently that one of my great, great, great grandfathers might have been Congressman Thomas Butler from the Butler Greenwood Plantation in the Feliciana parishes. I’m proud of my state. I’m proud of the history that we’ve made, and I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. And I just hope that we continue to hurry history because we’re going to need Louisiana and Louisianians to become more innovative, to advance a new spirit of entrepreneurship, and I’m looking forward to coming home this weekend to celebrate my birthday. I was born in Charity Hospital 58 years ago this week. I’m proud of the work that we did on the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the new hospital that has come into existence. And I’m looking forward to coming home next year as well, not just for Mardi Gras but also for the 300th anniversary celebration of New Orleans and also the inaugural of our first female mayor, LaToya Cantrell. I’m excited about the future. LW: I was going to ask if you think there’s something in the water here in Louisiana that creates all of these political pundits. Is there something you learn about in Louisiana that you don’t learn about at a young age in other states? What is it?  DB: No, maybe it’s not the water. Maybe it’s the spices. Maybe it’s the trinity. Perhaps maybe it’s just the weather. We are better at forecasting the future than most people. The Bayou Brief is a non-profit news publication that relies 100% on donations from our readers. Help support independent journalism about the stories of Louisiana through a monthly or one-time donation by clicking here.