In the space of a week this July, one Black campaign staffer suffered a racist confrontation while canvassing in Snohomish County, and another Black candidate was shot with a BB gun while putting out yard signs in south King County.
These latest episodes of hostility on the campaign trail prompted the Democratic Party to acknowledge that it has no established protocols for dealing with these sorts of situations. According to several incumbent Black lawmakers, the Party needs to develop those procedures if it wants to recruit and support candidates of color.
For State House Rep. April Berg (D-Mill Creek), this conversation is long overdue. The latest incident involving her field director isn’t the first time her campaign has endured racist bullying. Earlier this year, someone defaced her campaign signs with Nazi symbols. During the 2020 cycle, Berg and her Black seatmate at the time, Sen. John Lovick, had their signs stolen, and a volunteer was assaulted in a confrontation with the man who was caught removing the signs.
In a phone interview, Berg said she called the cops to resolve the 2020 incident because she believes candidates of color need to report these experiences so others can learn from them.
In the past, she said, many candidates processed the trauma of racist confrontations on the campaign trail–such as getting chased by dogs in the street or having guns pulled on them at the door–by framing them as “badges of honor.”
Black candidates in Washington have faced these sorts of incidents for more than 100 years. In a Converge Media profile, Black Heritage Society of Washington State President Stephanie Johnson Toliver said Isham Norris, one of Seattle’s first Black candidates for city council, commonly encountered racially motivated harassment on the trail.
Today’s candidates of color will more likely encounter verbal and physical aggression than a mob of Klansmen bearing torches, but that doesn’t mean every canvassing interaction comes without risk.
That’s why campaigns train staff and volunteers to follow basic safety precautions when knocking doors in unfamiliar residential areas. Earlier this year, Senator Lovick provided such training to campaign managers for Democratic House and Senate candidates, drawing from his experience in the Washington State Patrol. The Washington State Democratic Party, the organization that handles most of the field outreach for the Party’s incumbents, insists on its volunteers always traveling in pairs for additional safety.
But fewer formal supports exist for the candidates themselves, which remains a significant challenge to recruitment, according to Rep. Berg. That said, she expressed optimism about the Party building effective emergency response protocols, as its leaders have taken more ownership of their recent failures to do so than they have in the past.
Adam Bartz, the executive director of the political organization that supports Democratic Senate candidates, was unsparing in his criticism of the Senate Democrats’ shortcomings on this issue. In a phone interview, he said that the limited number of competitive Senate races allows his staff to respond rapidly to emergencies on the campaign trail, but the reliance on that hands-on approach has led to a lack of formal reporting protocols for security concerns. If they had those procedures in place, he said, they might better understand how to reduce the frequency of hostile interactions.
Those procedures are even more badly needed on the House side, where the same number of permanent political staff serve four times the number of seats up for election each cycle. Add in the reality that many of those seats draw contested Democratic primaries, and you get an even worse systemic failure.
But unlike prior election cycles, where these incidents were treated as isolated emergencies for individual campaigns, Democratic House leadership is now joining the Senate in taking a systemic approach to addressing security concerns.
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Seattle), who chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said the Party should normalize the need for candidates of color to invest more in security measures, just as the Party encouraged candidates with kids to spend campaign contributions on childcare.
State Democrats have yet to roll out any new emergency response protocols or recruitment messaging, but the powers that be are still working on solutions with candidates.
Rep. Jamila Taylor (D-Federal Way), who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, and Senators Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) and Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) met with State Party Chair Tina Podlodowski on Tuesday morning to discuss short- and medium-term possibilities. As those plans develop, they’ve proposed a variety of solutions, such as paying for personal protective devices that Rep. Berg’s canvassers now carry and updating best practices to prohibit candidates from knocking doors by themselves.
They’re also exploring how to provide mental health counseling for candidates, though our employment-based health care system poses logistical challenges. Since candidates are not employees of their campaigns or the Party organizations, they can’t receive traditional benefits like health coverage through those entities.
Despite those challenges, the candidates I spoke with all expressed cautious optimism that the involvement of prominent legislators of color will finally get the Party to invest the resources necessary so that future candidates of color can feel as safe on the campaign trail as their white colleagues.