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Donna Brazile, 2004
WITH ELANA BERKOWITZ
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RICHARD KERN
A sign outside her office says, "The Diva is in." The strong-minded, passionate political strategist Donna Brazile spoke with Elana Berkowitz in Washington, D.C.

ELANA: You've played key roles in three presidential campaigns. How do you feel about being on the sidelines for this year's race?
DONNA: The good news is that Al Gore cured me. Imagine being on a roller coaster for twenty years, working on campaigns in more than thirty-two states, organizing and mobilizing people to vote and get involved in the political process. Then imagine, one day, that roller coaster comes to a halt, but not at the White House. It comes to a halt in Florida.
ELANA: That must have been devastating.
DONNA: It took all my passion —the "I can get on crappy two-legged airplanes and eat cold dead pizza every day" attitude —and practically killed it. Florida hurt like a wound.
ELANA: Clearly, it still haunts you.
DONNA: I have deep regrets. I live with the fact that many Americans, possibly tens of thousands, left the polls that day hoping and praying that their votes would be counted, but, of course, they weren't.
ELANA: You have spoken out about how some African American voters were even prevented from casting their ballots.
DONNA: Let's talk about one person I know who had trouble voting —my sister. She had to produce not one, not two, but three forms of ID and had to insist on casting her ballot. My little niece stood in line for hours and was almost turned away. The 2000 election exposed some ugly history in our country.
The fact is, people have been intimidated at polling places for years. I hope that in 2004 we will be able to correct some of the errors that we made. This time, people will not be purged or turned away. No voters will be left behind.
ELANA: In your recently published memoir, you describe growing up in a family of nine kids in Kenner, Louisiana, working on your first political campaign when you were just nine years old. What inspired you to get involved at such a young age?
DONNA: I grew up in an era when the American people, especially minorities and women, wanted change. You had ongoing cultural and political developments taking place prompted by the Civil Rights movement, the women's movement, and the peace movement. I started reading the newspaper when I was five, and I still read two or three newspapers a day. I was just in tune with my surroundings. The Vietnam War was going on, Martin Luther King was assassinated. I didn't want to play with my Barbie doll, and I didn't care about Ken. All I cared about was my seat in the struggle.
ELANA: You wanted to be part of the revolution.
DONNA: That's right. You go to church and they tell you to do good and help others, and then you go home and they tell you to do good and help others —but then you have to decide what to do. Politics was something to do —and it could have an immediate impact, not just on me, but on my family and my community. I thought, "Hell, this is better than playing with Barbie."
ELANA: So you organized the neighborhood kids to help you with everything from voter registration to landscaping.
DONNA: I had a natural ability to rally people, especially children my own age. Kids would come to my house at seven-thirty in the morning and ask my mother, "Miss Jean, is Donna up?" Of course I was up. I was up at five-thirty. I would look at the other kids and ask what kind of tools they had. Like, you have a wagon? OK, we'll gather bottles for recycling. I was always the banker, too. Every Friday I would pay all the kids, and they could do whatever the hell they pleased with their money. By the time I was thirteen, I ran the recreation division of Jefferson Parish.
ELANA: How did you fit in with the rest of your family?
DONNA: My oldest sisters were perfect. They had perfect hair, perfect everything. They would match down to their shoes. I had nappy hair, an awkward body. I was like, I have to do something else. I was motivated to be different in part because I was different.
ELANA: You defined your own goals.
DONNA: I was such an outgoing and ambitious kid that I would do just about anything that I was asked to do. I'll tell you what I didn't do —I never sat on my ass. I never cried. At the end of the day, I'd count up my pennies and my nickels. If my mother needed money for the bus until she and my daddy got paid, I would loan her some. It felt good that I could make money and help them out. Because of my faith and my imagination, I was able to enjoy my childhood, even though it was tough.
ELANA: In a field dominated by white men, you've never tried to fit in to get ahead. Throughout your career you've made it a point to speak openly about race.
DONNA: When you start at the bottom of American life, when you grow up poor and black and female in the Deep South and you're able to work your way up from poverty and gain a voice in the political process, you should be able to say what it felt like to do it. I know people who were born on first base, and they never had to work to get to third. They got to second and third and back home without a sweat. But many of us have had to develop our craft, our expertise, and along the way we've been dismissed, disrespected, and disenfranchised. I don't have a problem speaking out about it. I believe I am just as talented and gifted as the next of them. I don't discriminate, and I don't want to be discriminated against.
ELANA: Even as Al Gore's campaign manager, you experienced instances of discrimination.
DONNA: On the campaign trail, every staff person was given an identification pin to wear. But instead of looking at my pin, the Secret Service men tended to look at my black skin and say, "Where you going?" I'm like, "Uh... I work for Al Gore." One time in particular, when we were in Los Angeles for a big televised presidential debate, I arrived at Gore's hotel from Washington State just as he was leaving for rehearsal. I knew that the elevator would be tied up, so I thought I'd just go down the stairs. Little did I know that the Secret Service and the Los Angeles police were in the stairwell trying to secure the building. Girl, they drew guns on me and threw them in my face. My pin, my ID, nothing worked. I'm sure it was my black skin, because every other credential said I was who I was. They finally released me once Gore had left the building. That was probably one of the only times aside from November 7, 2000 that I cried.
ELANA: You've spoken about problems with racism within the Democratic Party. Yet you've remained a loyal Democrat.
DONNA: I've chosen to be a Democrat because I believe that over the last twenty years the Democratic Party has stood up for the inclusion of every American in political life. It has stood up for values that I care deeply about, like affirmative action and a woman's right to choose. Am I sometimes disappointed with the Democratic Party? Yes. Do they know it? Absolutely. But I wouldn't last a day in the Republican Party, with my pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-gay rights, pro-environment values and belief system. I would be marginalized. Their tent is not as big as they say it is.
ELANA: Early on, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was your political mentor.
DONNA: I consider Reverend Jackson to be my political father. He gave birth to my participation in politics at the national level. Reverend added some logs to the fire that was already in my belly. I liked his program and his energy.
ELANA: When you started working with him in 1983, you were both involved with the fight to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday.
DONNA: Yes, but we didn't really break bread together until I worked on his presidential campaign in 1984. When Reverend wanted to start the revolution and be the first black president, I said, "Hell, I'll back that up." I'll be for the first woman president, too. When she announces her candidacy, I'm going over. Remember, I've always gravitated toward those who wanted to make things happen, and that's what Reverend wanted to do.
campaign?
DONNA: Reverend would send me into states like Georgia and Louisiana and say, "Here's a hundred buttons, go and get out the vote." So I had to sell a hundred buttons to get a hundred dollars to buy a poster to help get out the vote. In Reverend Jackson's words, we had a poor campaign but a rich message. We didn't have the resources that the Mondale campaign had. But we had a vision that the time had come to integrate, expand, and change American politics.
ELANA: You're now Chair of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute. What kind of work are you doing in preparation for the November election?
DONNA: After the 2000 campaign was over, I decided that I no longer wanted to be a campaign manager. I wanted to help clean up the electoral process. We're like a Third World country when it comes to some of our election practices. The Voting Rights Institute is asking both Congress and state officials to give local election administrators the resources they need. We're asking for updated equipment. We can't rely on those notorious antiquated punch machines that, as we all learned in 2000, produce chads.
ELANA: There are new electronic voting machines in place in California and Maryland that leave no paper trail. Are we potentially facing another disaster like the one we had in Florida?
DONNA: At the state and local levels, we need to find a way to make sure that these machines are tamperproof. We need to train local election officials and poll watchers to secure our electoral system. Look, Congress has allocated more money to finance the upcoming Iraqi elections than it has for the American elections. There's something wrong with that.
ELANA: What other electoral changes are you calling for?
DONNA: We need to make voting more accessible. I would give people not just one day but perhaps ten days to cast their ballots. I would also give ex-felons back their voting rights if they've served their time, they're paying taxes, and they're good citizens.
ELANA: During the 2000 election, you kept a crate of soil in your office. You told people that it would be the only dirt they'd see in Al Gore's campaign. Is it possible to conduct a presidential race without going negative?
DONNA: It's hard. The current political environment is volatile because the stakes are so high. Every two years we say, "This is the most important election of our lifetime." But 2004 really is the mother of all elections. The Republicans want it all. The Democrats need to get their foot back in the door. It's going to be very intense —it is not for the faint-hearted. I told Mary Beth Cahill, John Kerry's campaign manager, "You ever got death threats? Been cussed out? Been called some things? Get ready, because it's going to happen."
ELANA: Some people believe that a positive message is the only way to get voters inspired.
DONNA: You have to do what you have to do. A campaign is about defining who you are —your vision and your opponent's vision. If you're not out front defining your vision, your opponent will spend gobs of money to define it for you.