With a few days left in this contentious presidential cycle, Kamau Mandela Marshall continues to focus on engaging a diverse group of voters that will lead his candidate to victory. 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.
The Chicago native says two elements played large roles in his embrace of public service: His father’s and maternal grandparents’ work as ministers and coming of age within activist, multicultural communities in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Birmingham, 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 for an array of politicians such as Congressman the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Al Green (D-TX) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) as well as a speechwriter and adviser at the 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 is going to take a diverse coalition of voters to win this thing. On the primaries and that’s also within the general election as well. I think people got to see that when we won the primary and how people of color overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden, I think people are seeing what’s in front of them. They see that we currently have a president that has failed the American people. They don’t have a record to stand on when it comes to the Black community. They always say the Democratic party is a big tent party. So, I think that you will see all the diversity within our party.
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. And 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 listened, Joe Biden is a listener and Kamala Harris is a listener. So, once you listen, you capture those details and those things you need to do for the people. Engaging with different constituencies has been a key element for us because 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 has been a campaign effort, and it’s definitely great teamwork that has gotten us to this point. Not only are we a scrappy campaign but a starry one when it comes to identifying those influencers, whether it’s a celebrity who can make a large splash or a local activist. Again, I think that is important to reach people where they are, and identify people they trust, especially when it comes to their local community. 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. They were figuring 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. People realizing the moment we’re in right now, the leadership that we have to fill, and that our folks have to come together to get things done. [The R&B singer] Frank Beverly said it best, “We are one,” and when you are one, you get more done, period.
The campaign had a special focus on the challenges of small firms.
When it comes to the economics with all the different small businesses, they understand where we are now because they’ve been hit by COVID, but even before that they were not getting their due share with this current administration. So, we worked with those local leaders and talked to people on the ground that support those local businesses. That is a big key to all of this. It all starts locally and grows from there. We did that nationwide.
You have also focused on the devastation faced by African Americans in the current environment.
That was part of the plan for Black America. We talked about how we plan on ending deadly health disparities and [challenges to] economic mobility. We talked about expanding access to quality education and how we defend civil rights and voting rights…how we will try to expand access to $100 billion in low-interest loans to the Black and Brown communities…How we plan to create a $15,000 down-payment tax credit that Black home buyers are allowed to access when they make their purchase. It goes back to listening to the people. If you don’t listen to them, you’re not going to be able to accomplish what you need to accomplish.
As you began your engagement in this type of work, which political campaign did you find most transformational in your career?
I found that Barack Obama campaign was game-changing. I did work on his second campaign. I worked on his first, but I don’t really claim that one because I was a volunteer. However, that second one was my first real big-time thing. I didn’t even have a big role, but it was so important speaking to folks in the community.
Besides that, experience as far as presidential campaigns…Joe Biden. I have been on his campaign since the day we launched…even before that. He’s the one I believed in as a [presidential candidate] during the 2018 election cycle. I traveled around the United States during that cycle and everybody kept saying, “We know you’re going to go to a presidential campaign. Which campaign are you going to go to?” And I always would tell them: “I’m going to go with Joe Biden’s campaign.”
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.
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 am privileged to work with some great candidates that I helped get elected over the years. And 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 to one, get Joe Biden elected president and to make sure I help get other folks elected as well. Most of all, I want to do my job…my part as a citizen and also being productive as an effective and efficient communicator.