By Adam James
Jehmu Greene practices her craft in what I call the Belly of the Beast. Most people just call it Fox News. After some rescheduling , I was able to sit down over the phone with her to talk politics. I had two main goals: 1) Resist talking about the division in the social media wing of the Democratic Party and the left-wing (aka Hillary crowd vs. Bernie crowd) and 2) Resist talking about Donald Trump because Trump may fuel activism, individual candidates will have to win votes. For the most part we were able to do this but two things happened we couldn’t ignore completely: 1) Disgraced former General Michael Flynn (a tardily declared foreign agent) became a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation. 2) The in-fighting on the left (fueled by a media company paid 3 million dollars by a Republican investor) spilled over and resulted in Jehmu coining a new term that attracted angry responses like money attracts a Trump cabinet: “misogyny-adjacent.”
Where Flynn is concerned, like me, Greene is “cautiously optimistic, that after a lifetime of subverting the law with the help of massive, legal teams [Trump] as found a foe in both our democracy and Robert Mueller.” As far as her dust up with Sanders’ supporters, it’s no surprise that she stood by her “misogyny-adjacent” tweet. I asked for a definition and for broader interpretation. Pretty sure it won’t satisfy the people who were angered by it but it’s not the job of everyone to carve out safe spaces. There are uncomfortable subjects that need talking about. One of those subjects is the Democratic Party and where it needs to be in 2018. It is in this context I wanted to talk to someone who was a candidate to run the DNC. Here is my interview with Jehmu Greene on that subject. It’s been edited lightly for length and clarity and the full discussion on misogyny-adjacent, follows.
AJ: Do you have confidence that the new DNC has the ability to provide effective support to local candidates while having the humility to stay out of the way of the local staff and candidate herself/himself who know their communities best? I asked this because the DNC has a reputation for trying to move in and take over in ways that are counterproductive at times.
JEHMU: Ultimately I do have confidence the DNC is going to find its role to be supportive and provide the necessary resources for state and local parties and the needs of local candidates.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that early in my career I was one of the people at the DNC that would go into a local race and run roughshod over candidates or [local] parties. Even while participating in that, I didn’t think that approach was effective. I think there’s a huge misunderstanding about what the DNC is. A lot of people think of it solely as this bogeyman entity, but ultimately the DNC is the people who work there.
And so my confidence in the DNC’s ability to provide the effective support to local candidates and, as you said, have the humility to stay out of the way is in how Chairman Perez is approaching the people resources of the DNC. Under his leadership there appears to be a real appreciation for prioritizing talent and moving away from some of the toxic relationship-based personnel decision making. I believe overall that people who go into public service go into this type of work with, whether it’s working for the national party or working at state and local parties, are driven by a passion for humanity. But there is a real need within these networks for greater expertise, training that will get us to that expertise and equitable processes that allow for talent to actually rise up versus the kinds of barriers that have typically been in place through bureaucracy and even patronage at times. And I’m confident because I think Chairman Perez is going to be effective in drastically chipping away at some of those realities, even though they’ve been in place for decades and exist not just at the national level but throughout all infrastructure of party politics where people’s livelihoods are at stake and there’s a lot of money and power that people want to hold onto. So the ability to provide the support you asked about is less about the boogeyman entity – or even DNC members – and more about the people that the chairman and certainly Jess [O’Connell] as CEO have been able to bring in to answer the call for resources that states and local parties have and people who will prioritize those resources to organizing efforts vs media consultants.
I think as much as the DNC can, through a drastic culture shift, move from a control mindset to empowerment; that is where we will find our success. And that empowerment has to be coupled with organizing, communication and financial training, Decision making power needs to rest more in the hands of the local community. But for any of that to happen there has to be a shift in how the DNC sees itself in the entire matrix of what makes up the Democratic Party because ultimately the DNC as an “institution” is not the Democratic Party. And I think people confuse that. The Democratic Party is bigger than the DNC.
AJ:I saw the ad you shared from Dana Nessel (running for AG in MI) and was blown away. (in a good way) If people are looking for candor and authenticity, it doesn’t get any clearer than that. I take it from your share that you approve?
JEHMU: I don’t know Dana (yet), but I love her. I love her for that ad-in so many ways. I think that whether it’s in her race for attorney general in Michigan or the legislative races in rural areas in Oklahoma, the number one thing that we have to make sure our candidates are empowered with is authenticity. When it comes to authenticity language is certainly a big part of it, and that’s going to be different for every candidate and every community. The language that is accepted certainly has changed [post Trump]. Each candidate is going to have to find that [ability to communicate in their own authentic way].
So, I am a founding board member of Vote, Run, Lead. We train barrier breaking women to run for office. We are a non-partisan operation to our core because we believe in women. We trust them to make the right choices for themselves and their families and that includes the choice of political affiliation. What women bring to democracy is exactly what is needed now. Simply put, women do government better. Through studies we know women tend to sponsor more legislation, bring more resources back to their communities, are more open to working in creative ways whether that means crossing the aisle or finding common ground through coalition building. There all of these different ways that women bring their leadership skills to the table when it comes to elected office that are sorely, desperately needed in our politics right now. So I trust women and as a part of Vote Run Lead’s training, we prioritize that they bring their authentic self. So, I certainly approve of Dana’s message and I hope that it is only the beginning of what we are about to see from the unprecedented numbers of women who have stood up and signed up and made a decision and told their friends and their family and their bosses that they’re running for office. And they are ready to “run as you are” which is what our philosophy is. This is, I think, the real revolution. When we get to gender parity in elective office, that will be the real revolution in government.
AJ: Politics is an ugly business. Some of the most effective politicians play dirty, they’re frequently called “ruthless” and just as often admired. Specifically in Democratic primary races, do you see a need for Democrats to adopt an 11th Commandment (ala Ronald Reagan) to never attack a fellow Democrat? I’m seen some really personal stuff including attacks on family members that should have been out of bounds.
JEHMU: I hear what you’re saying. Democrats, as a priority, [should] keep their eyes on the ball and understand what the ultimate, most important goal is-which is that win on Election Day and how your actions as an opponent can either help or hinder the ultimate victory we’re going for. But let me put that to the side and say, every candidate has the responsibility to connect with and inspire their voters. We live in this political world where if you were to compare it to pie, two Democrats in a primary situation, seem to think there is only one piece of the pie and that’s what they’re fighting over. I think the more that we can get candidates to understand: look at the whole pie and go after the pieces that aren’t getting any attention. And by bringing your most authentic self to a campaign, to the issues confronting your community, you’ll win if you inspire and connect with more voters. Too often in primaries and caucuses, candidates fall into the trap of focusing solely on frequent voters and participants. Yes, there are financial challenges to bringing in new voters but if they bring their authentic selves to the table, and prioritize connecting with and inspiring new voters they can expand the primary electorate and win.
AJ: And when a political opponent brings in challenges that a candidate’s family faces like drug addiction? Or other sensitive issues? Is that tolerable?
A candidate who is bringing her authentic self to the table and has that reality in her family, you know what that makes her, in my mind, a better candidate to be able to fight [for example] this opioid crisis that we’re going through as a country. So, a lot of times candidates ask themselves, ‘What do I have to hide about myself?’ I think we have to look at it more like; what do your experiences reveal about yourself that make you uniquely qualified for this position? This idea that the pursuit of perfection from a leadership standpoint where there’s not going to be challenges families have had to overcome or individuals who have crossed the line legally and how does a family deal with that and the impact…these are all things that make for a better leader. So if a candidate is understanding of that, shows her leadership through the sharing of her story and brings their authentic self in that way to connect with and inspire the most number of voters then that’s how they’re going to win. Certainly keeping your eye on, as a Democrat (Big D Democrat), win or lose -in a primary- that that you want a Democrat to be ultimately successful I think it’s important. But I think they have to start with the idea that they can grow the number of people who are participating in this beautiful conversation of democracy that happens in primaries and caucuses.
AJ: Being the party out of power is resulting in a lot of grief for Democrats from the rank and file. It didn’t work that way for the GOP in the Obama years. Republicans seemed to revel in their ability to attack wildly and obstruct in unprecedented ways. Are you happy with how House and Senate Dems are using their minority status? -A second part of that question is about making empty promises: part of the way Republicans made hay with big promises that they’re struggling to deliver on. Is that a danger for Dems today?
JEHMU: There’s a lot to unpack there. To be clear, I believe Trump is a clear and present danger to our democracy so I am a proud member of the resistance. However, at my core, I embrace compromise and cooperation and I don’t see those as bad words. And I think that we need more of that in our politics on the left and the right. Ultimately, I’m in this, and I hope that our elected officials, our leadership, our community as Democratic voters are in this for positive impact.
And it goes back to the conversation we had (when we first met) about going on Fox News versus going in front of an audience that agrees with me. I’m focused on impact. Impact, progress means that along the way that you actually do have to have a strategy that’s going to lead to an actual accomplishment. If that’s not part of the equation then I don’t have time for it. So there is that challenge around these empty promises that some candidates have found a lot of personal branding success with but little or no legislative success or impact. But as someone who prioritizes results, when I choose candidates to support I prioritize the results that they’ve been able to get in whatever capacity they’ve been in a leadership position, not just from an elected official position. I want to invest in people who are not going to just talk about something but who are actually going to be able to get something done. Otherwise, all of this is a waste of our fucking time and we should go home to our families and just embrace the joy of missing out.
AJ: How do you sell incremental change-which is the most likely accomplishment one can achieve in representative government?
JEHMU: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question: how do you sell incremental change? Well, some of the best advertisers who have been successful at doing that are right here in this country. There are people who sell, not even incremental change, they sell at times basically nothing – successfully, and on a daily basis. So it’s not an impossible feat. The question of how, I do think there’s a lack of appreciation for strategy on the left. That might be greater appreciated on the right. Both from a short-term and long term basis. Our approach to strategy, if it solely focuses in on the big promise, the big vision, that can eventually come back and bite us in the ass if there is no “there” there. And we don’t have to fall into that trap if from a strategic standpoint we also answer strategically all of the small steps we will need to take to get to the final solution. What strategically do we need to do to be able to “sell” change. And certainly a part of what we need to do is actually deliver results and celebrate our victories.
I think a lot of times we’re not wrong about our messages but the order in which we communicate them a lot of times is what’s most important. I learned that from my initial media training. When I go on in front of an older conservative audience as a young-looking Black woman who is a Democrat…(I may not be younger, I just happen to look younger)., the first thing I have to do is connect with the audience. Whatever the topic or the issues that we’re talking about, if I don’t put myself into their circle, if I don’t connect with them first before bullet points on policy…none of that is going to be able to break through “my otherness.” So, I think strategically we make the mistake of leading with facts, figures and percentages versus first connecting with the hearts and values of the audience.
Selling incremental change? I now want to make that a chapter in the book that I will write one day, but that’s not the message that you want the audience to know, that you’re addressing – in this case not audience, but voters. They want to know how a policy impacts their life in a real, authentic sense. I [understand] that the selling of the kind of pie-in-the-sky ideas does harm to us. Sometimes it’s not immediate but it will come back to harm us eventually if it was never achievable to begin with. That is what, I think, a lot of amateurs do who don’t want to take the time to put the work in. That’s the strategy that they’re going to agree with. Strategy is not just about the immediate reaction, it’s about what that ultimate impact is- [the accomplishments that directly impact lives].
AJ: Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book discusses the changes in the Democratic Party that led to the 1968 election (during Vietnam War era). Angry young people, led by the likes of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, tired of the status quo, endless war, entrenched interests. Is it time to throw out public servants like Pelosi, Schumer, Sanders, etc.? These folks getting up there in age, been at it a long time-do we need to replace everyone with a “fresh face” for the sake of change?
I know this is a yes or no question but I do feel for you because I’m not going to answer it as a yes or no. (Interviewer’s note: a simple “yes or no” would have resulted in a more concise but short-sighted answer. What follows is a real look at the dangers we face in transitioning to new leadership whenever it becomes appropriate and a different perspective on how Democratic candidates should look at opportunities to serve in legislatures. Every Democratic representative and Senator should read this.) I think our Democratic leadership has done a piss poor, pathetic job of succession planning and you see the same thing in corporate America. There’re some parallels to founder’s syndrome with some of these politicians blows your mind when you realize we’re actually talking about our democracy, our country and our communities. They work for us. But some of these people do have the equivalent of founder’s syndrome and I think that is going to be really harmful to Democrats.
And we have to 1) Understand that today and 2) Do everything that we can to mitigate it and turn around. The great thing is we’ve got this maniac in the White House that has created this incredible opportunity of a surge in our pipeline of candidates and talent and expertise and so the universe is on our side. We fucked up because we weren’t empowering the next generation of leadership but now given the circumstances of our politics in America, we do have an opportunity to make some quick fixes.
That being said, just the other day I said very specifically on the air, so you should know, that it is time for Nancy Pelosi to move out of leadership. And that’s a hard thing for me to say because I’ve been asked that question a lot of times on Fox News and I’ve always defended her. Clearly I have a very strong commitment to women’s leadership and even taking my women’s leadership hat off, she is a badass when it comes to actually being able to wield the levers of power within Congress and get to that actual impact that I was talking about earlier. I recognize her skill. I recognize her game. I don’t think we’ve had a lot of people within Democratic leadership that have that legislative game. But that’s not the only part of this equation. There are these other forces that are now of greater importance and we need leadership that understands these seismic cultural shifts and can strategically respond to them. To many, it seems like our current leadership is being dragged into reality while still kicking and fighting to remain in the past.
I was very disappointed when coming out of the 2016 election and the first female nominee for any major political party and also understanding the role that women play as the backbone of the party – as voters and activists – that when Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders had an opportunity to weigh in on who should be the anointed leader of the Democratic Party [indicating that it would be] they were very short-sighted. They made that decision at the exact same time as record numbers of women were standing up and raising their hand and saying that they were going to take on more political leadership responsibilities and run for office. So that to me is a personal reflection of the disconnect between our leadership and this moment and the opportunity and potential that it represents. I hope that they are able to get more counsel or more insight or come to it on their own in a way to be able to connect with and reflect what is actually happening in the country. I’m not optimistic. I’m not even cautiously optimistic about it just on the literal side of this. Staying as far away from ageism as possible but also understanding that when you have, look when you have the average age of Democratic House leadership being 76, that’s irresponsible.
That’s where in corporate America, from a founder’s syndrome standpoint, that is where a board of directors or advisers steps in and says, “No, we can’t have that.” And so they’re not self policing from a succession standpoint. And they’re not understanding that the next generation – and there’s a lot of talk about Millennials and while I’m confident that we’re all going to be OK because of the perspective that Millennials bring to the issues I care most about – what about the generation before Millennials and the doors for leadership that have been shut because some elected officials see their position as a lifetime appointment. This doesn’t just relate to Pelosi, Schumer etc. it also relates to Democratic Party officials and back to the original question about the DNC. DNC members also suffer from this affliction. Like I said, this is all about people resources. When whatever position that you are holding, you hold on to it until it’s going to be written up in your obituary then you have failed the next generation and I take that very seriously. So I think there is a lot of failure on our side when it comes to giving leadership opportunities to the people who will be carrying the mantle – to help finish the race that they started. Politics is a never-ending relay – you have to pass the baton – and they don’t seem to get that and that pisses me off. So we’re not going to be able to hold hands and sing a song to get this done. It is going to take some pushing out the door. And I’m okay with that.
Jehmu coined a new term on social media and much to the consternation of his followers, Bernie Sanders found himself in the cross-hairs. “Her (Joy Reid from MSNBC AMJoy) agenda is clear.” Jehmu said to criticism directed at the liberal TV host, “She’s not a fan of Bernie’s well-documented misogyny-adjacent behavior…” Not sure what that is? Neither was I, so I asked. The answer is complicated and while Bernie may have been in the cross-hairs because of who she was responding to, Greene casts a wide net.
AJ: Let’s start with clarifying if you stand by the use of that term?
JEHMU: Yes I do stand by it. And I think that the majority of political leadership in this country given the reality that women make up only 20 percent. So, when I say majority talking about the perspective that men bring to this. But I think the majority of them, on the left and the right, are misogyny-adjacent.
AJ: Well, you’re coining a new term here so how would you define it?
JEHMU: I would define it in a few different ways. It is related to even, you know, white privilege and a benefit of that privilege as a benefit of misogyny and the patriarchy in our culture and certainly in our institutions and our leadership from all different industries. The beneficiaries of that benefit, like Bernie Sanders and others, within both parties don’t necessarily have an understanding of their benefit and where they do understand it they don’t confront it aggressively and full force as blatantly as they do other issues.
Since that comment was first talked about toward Bernie Sanders as it relates to him: There are a lot of things that he is very full throated about and I certainly have not heard from him before about patriarchy and even how it has benefited his career.(Interviewer’s note: Here is a well sourced contemporaneous article written, to a degree, on this subject without the benefit of hindsight) But putting that to the side, you know, I look at his behavior as a leader and a leader who happens to be male, and I know that we live in a society in our culture as it is today that does not allow for a woman to behave in that same rude, dismissive and aggressive manner.
Specifically…when my flight was delayed for several hours at LaGuardia one day this summer and Senator Sanders happens to sit down at the gate that I’m sitting at-and I also happened to have my Hillary hat on it. I watched his interaction with people, he was by himself, no staff whatsoever, and I watched his interactions with the small number of people who came up. I attempted to have a conversation with him. I reminded him that I had run for DNC chair on a platform that included getting rid of superdelegates. He grunted an incomprehensible reply.
I asked him for his opinion on the need for Democrats to “clean our house” of sexism and racism. Another incomprehensible grunt. I asked him if any of my ideas in the DNC Chair race resonated with him. No grunt, silence this time. I finished up by asking him for a photo. I gestured to the person in front of us and asked for help taking the picture. This is when he said something I could comprehend. He yelled, “Just take the picture yourself!” I gently responded that I was awful at taking selfies, smiled, and posted the picture on social media without sharing my anger at feeling diminished by his actions or embarrassment that I didn’t “roar” back in the moment.
His behavior was abhorrent for a politician who goes on every stage possible to talk about how awful the DNC is and when sitting next to the only black woman who ran for DNC Chair he didn’t have the time, inclination, or just decency to have a conversation or simply say that he was too exhausted, not interested, distracted or whatever. His inability to engage and the comparison of how he dismissively interacted with women who came up to him versus men who came up to him – and his greater capacity to engage with them- is to me a direct reflection of his benefiting from the misogyny in our culture.
AJ: Okay, so, being as careful as I can be to not feed the trolls, the comments that seemed more legitimate to your tweet seemed to make two points I’d like to give you a chance to respond to. First, any man in politics would fall into this category so singling out Senator Sanders is going to inflame his social media supporters and the second part is the use of “well-documented,” can you speak more to the use of that phrase?
JEHMU: Let me be very clear here. Well documented, I would say is his behavior through the 2016 primary and his interaction, reflection of, and his approach to his race against Hillary Clinton. I do believe that many decisions that he and his advisers made in that campaign to be misogyny-adjacent. He certainly understands our misogyny saturated culture-I don’t think he’s a dumb man. I think he understands the benefit of sexism that came his way in 2016 and his natural demeanor-personality or whatever, certainly is authentic, but don’t get it twisted. If Bernie Sanders had been running against a man in 2016 his behavior would have been drastically different.
You can support him and his issues and policies he has introduced whether achievable or not to the national stage. But to think that the strategy that was adopted and embraced didn’t intentionally amplify sexism, and this is hard because we had a conversation earlier about not solely focusing on the 2016 lens when talking about issues that need to be addressed within the party and unity and all of that but I am reflecting on this as a very specific issue in this conversation. Anyone who thinks that the campaign that he ran against a woman was the same campaign that he would have run against a man is delusional.
And some of that campaigning is certainly driven by who he is as an individual and what he brings to the table but also some of it was driven by his team [Jeff Weaver and Tad Devine]. He allowed his campaign team to make strategic decisions based on the fact that they were running against a woman versus running against a man that to me reflects misogyny. It’s certainly an understanding of the role that misogyny and patriarchy play into leadership opportunities and our country as a whole. So, I don’t think these people are dumb. I think they tapped into it intentionally to further their goals. And for me that is unacceptable.
AJ: So, they intentionally took advantage of something that already exists which explains the “adjacent” part. So what I’m hearing from you is some hesitation about making any kind of declaration that any of those folks in particular that we mentioned are misogynists, but because they use that intentionally used that sexist opportunity, it becomes misogyny-adjacent?
JEHMU: Well, no. I’m not hesitant on this. And I’ll broaden this out from Bernie Sanders. [The next example] happens to be of another Vermonter. When I first met Howard Dean, my first [official] meeting with Howard Dean, when I was president of Rock the Vote was heartbreaking in some ways and very revealing.
So, the meeting was with me and my political director and the female head of an environmental organization and the two men in the conversation were Howard Dean and my colleague – but an employee- as I was head of the organization. And the other woman was also the head of her organization. And we had a very detailed conversation where every question that was asked to him by the two women was answered by him to the subordinate in the meeting.
AJ: I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve been there when accompanying my wife at meetings where I was a guest.
JEHMU: And so, you’re sitting there and you’re like, “Okay, I just asked you a question and you’re answering to him. But guess what. He reports to me.” And women deal with that every single fucking day of our professional lives in this world. And when I say that I sat and watched [Bernie Sanders’] interactions with men and women and then had my personal interaction with him and how rude he was and how aggressive he was and how dismissive he was, and I’m sorry, Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party and every opportunity he gets he goes on television and talks about how awful this party is and [at that airport] he was sitting next to the only Black woman that was on that stage running for leadership in the DNC race and his interaction with me was insulting, was misogynistic and was a reflection.
And I was not surprised by this. There’s no surprise. And this isn’t just a Bernie Sanders problem. And that’s why I brought in Howard. It’s not just something that we can point fingers to on the right because this exists within our own house and we’ve got guilty and complicit white male leaders within the party. And, you know wherever Bernie stands since he’s not a Democrat but he certainly takes the leadership position from the left, who benefit from this, actively benefit from it, absolutely reflect the culture and embrace it. Now perhaps that’s not their behavior 100 percent of the time. But it does come out in moments where maybe they’re feeling not as watched but I think in his case, we saw it reflected throughout the 2016 election. And that’s the well documented part of this.
AJ: I wish that Twitter would have given you the space to say this the way that you said it now. Well documented certainly fits. Bernie never took advantage of hit McCain moment where he stood up against the Birther smear-Sanders never stood up to the misogyny he was benefiting from-that was very effective silencing Clinton supporters, by standing on a stage and calling an accomplished political leader, admired around the world, “unqualified” to be president-but, of course he was qualified. The insults to the party that is home to women’s rights and civil rights advocates and who’s backbone is indeed made of Black women. It sure sounds like a documented pattern. Twitter is such a limiting format to have these types of nuanced conversations.
JEHMU: Yes, totally. And that’s why I said, at one point yesterday I was like, “Yeah, I will talk about this in detail but I’m certainly not going to do it on Twitter. Thank you and have a nice life.” They’re not going to define for me how I communicate. And I’m certainly not going to pick the least effectual platform in which to communicate something that has to be understood from a nuanced standpoint.
But that community thinks they can bully people into silence or agreeing with them and, you know, I am just not that person. The idea that I will be bullied out of communicating a complicated, nuanced and contrary opinion is ludicrous. And I also look too, from a leadership standpoint and hold up a greater responsibility to the Bernie Sanders’ of the world to the Howard Dean’s of the world and other white male leaders who are on my side on many issues, I hold them to a higher standard in which to address these issues from which they benefit from. And I will certainly call them out if they actively, strategically use inequities to lift themselves up and amplify their voices. That is unacceptable. That to me…2016…it’s well documented that [Sanders] did that.
Jehmu Greene is an award-winning progressive media and advocacy strategist and recent candidate DNC Chair. She is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Athena Center for Leadership Development at Barnard College. As a Fox News Political Analyst, Jehmu promotes progressive policies on the network. She co-founded Define American, an initiative to elevate the immigration reform conversation and is a founding board member of VoteRunLead. She previously served as president of WakaWaka, a global social enterprise; president of the Women’s Media Center; president of Rock the Vote; and women’s outreach director and Southern political director at the DNC. She has worked on and advised numerous candidate campaigns and was an advisor for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Bio from VoteRunLead.org Follow Jehmu on Twitter @Jehmu