Beto O'Rourke hires Aisha McClendon as director of African American outreach

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep Beto ORourke speaks at the 2019 Essence Festival at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, July 6, 2019, in New Orleans.PlayAmy Harris/Invision/AP, FILE
WATCH News headlines today: Aug. 22, 2019

Beto O'Rourke's campaign announced on Wednesday that it's hired Aisha McClendon as national director of African American outreach amid increased efforts to reach out to the pivotal minority voting bloc.

The fellow Texas native is a seasoned Democratic political strategist who worked in the Clinton White House and has more than two decades of experience. McClendon stepped down as chief of staff to state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Texas, to join O'Rourke's 2020 presidential bid.

"I totally believe that Beto is the best candidate and the best person to be the next president of the United States," McClendon said. "As a Texan, I've watched him with my own eyes, and I totally believe in him. The things that he's aligned with are things that I believe in."

Black women are increasingly at the center of O'Rourke's presidential bid -- now with five of them in prominent positions in his campaign, working at the helm of influence, leading his political strategy.

McClendon is directing African American outreach, Ofirah Yheskel is working as deputy communications director of states, Chrystian Woods is national director of outreach and Lauren Harper, the state director for South Carolina, works alongside Robyn Patterson, the campaign's communications director in the Palmetto State.

The movements come in a year where issues of diversity and inclusion come to the forefront.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 55% of eligible black women voters cast ballots in November 2018, with the demographic group proving to be one of the largest in terms of turnout.

O'Rourke's campaign joins a number of other presidential candidates who are leaning on the expertise of African American women to guide their campaigns, as diversity plays a significant role in voter outreach after exit polls in the 2018 midterms revealed black woman to be key voting bloc.

"Beto O'Rourke is not the only campaign who recognizes that they won't have momentum without black women and that they need people on high level staff to connect them and be bridges to [them]," said Aimee Allison, founder of She The People. "[Candidates] need to know how to reach them. What's the language? What are the policies? How are they reaching that core constituency."

Presidential front-runners like former Vice President Joe Biden enlisted the expertise of black women very early in their campaign, hiring prominent African American senior strategist Symone Sanders as his senior adviser. Bernie Sanders hired Nina Turner as a national campaign co-chair. Kamala Harris, the only black woman running in 2020, enlisted her sister, Maya Harris, as her campaign chair, and often connects with members of the historically black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, which she joined while she attended Howard University, the renowned HBCU.

At a moment when four high-profile minority politicians are at the center of political conversation, these women are working behind the scenes in a presidential campaign that's seeking to push that conversation forward.

"The campaigns are trying to figure out how to reach the key networks that have been crucial in terms of reaching black voters -- the Deltas, or other kinds of sororities or HBCUs. I think that's why you've seen a number of the candidates, including Sanders and Warren speaking at HBCUs. That's a critical network, a network that Kamala Harris already knew," Allison said.

"My observation is that the campaigns who started much earlier, with a set of detailed policy, speaking to the highest priority issues for black women are the one who are have seen a lot of growth in the polls," said Allison, pointing to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's steady rise in the polls brought on, in part, by her specific policies that target issues concerning black women.

Currently, Biden leads the pack with 41% support among Democratic and Democratic-leaning black voters, according to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll. Sen. Bernie Sanders sat at 23%.

Harris and Warren are making up ground with black voters, according to the poll, seeing support at 11% and 4%, respectively.

McClendon's announcement comes as O'Rourke fine tunes his message to African American voters, having more and more nuanced discussions about racial and economic disparities on the trail, all of which could reflect an acute awareness of the concerns from minorities on the ground in key states.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto ORourke gestures during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, June 26, 2019, in Miami. Wilfredo Lee/AP, FILE
Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke gestures during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, June 26, 2019, in Miami.

Over the last three months, O'Rourke has visited historically black communities, hosting roundtables often led by black female voices on the issues of criminal justice reform, climate change and voter suppression in communities --- infusing what he learns about the disparities plaguing the black communities into his larger campaign message.

Voters in South Carolina saw this first hand in North Charleston, South Carolina, when O'Rourke sat down with black affinity group leaders at criminal justice roundtable hours before BET's Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum where he was scheduled to speak. The former Texas Congressman took notes as he received insight from men and women about their oppressive experiences as it relates to gun violence and police brutality.

"Safety is something that is not just given to people in this community nowadays," a female roundtable speaker explained to O'Rourke. "The feeling of safety, feeling as though that you will be okay and that you will be able to live once you walk out of a space is not something that is privileged to this community on a day to day basis."

O'Rourke took that insight shared from that roundtable conversation and repurposed it in an attempt to speak directly to black voters during his time on stage at the Black Economics Alliance Presidential Forum.

"We were just at a roundtable in North Charleston, a young woman talked about organizing safe spaces for black men to congregate to have conversations, and then to make sure that they're safe on their way home, safe from police violence, safe from a criminal justice system that has incarcerated more people here than any country on the face of the planet -- safe when it comes to environmental justice," O'Rourke said on stage to moderator Soledad O'Brien.

In Beaufort, South Carolina, he leaned on the insight of preservationist Marquetta Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet, the elected chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation, who gave him a toured of the church where Harriet Tubman lived, just before he held a community roundtable discussion on climate change, voting rights and economic mobility.

"White Americans do not know this story," O'Rourke admitted, explaining how stories of Tubman were not taught to him in his El Paso high school.

Goodwine told ABC News O'Rourke reached out to her directly, which is part of why she made it a priority for them to meet.

"We really focused on the culture of Gullah Geechee, and we did in a more intimate setting so he could really hear us and we could really hear him," she said.

O'Rourke's campaign stops are coupled with policies and rhetoric that speaks to black female issues, from deep disparities in equal pay and access to capital, to . the the disproportionate African American maternal mortality rates, to the rise in murder rate among black transgender women.

Ian Wilhite, O'Rourke's director of African American messaging, told ABC News the candidate’s polices will be informed by the ideas and experiences of American voters he meets on ground, including women of color, as the policies were for his Senate bid.

"We cannot just pay lip service to the problems facing women and communities of color who too often have been written off or taken for granted,” said Wilhite. “Beto is committed to addressing [social] inequities and bringing the voices, experiences and ideas of black women into the solutions we need to move our country forward," he said.

Amid his stubborn lag in national polls, and a noticeable loss of momentum proven in his underwhelming fundraising in the second fiscal quarter of the campaign season raising only $3.7 million compared to the $6 million he raised in the first day of his bid, O'Rourke's outreach to African American women could be crucial to regaining traction in the 2020 race.

"My goal is to get him out of in front of women of color. Once people get to know him, they definitely love him so that what we plan to do," McClendon said. "I want America to meet the person that I know, and I want them to see him for the person that I see, and that's just doing what he does best, which is getting him out in front of people and having conversations."