Gore Campaign Has ‘Fighter’ in Its Corner


Donna Brazile was 9 years old when she waged her first political campaign in a poverty-blighted parish outside New Orleans. Thirty-one years later, as manager of Al Gore’s presidential bid, she recalls that youthful baptism in door-to-door persuasion:

“I would say, ‘Miz Yancy, you gotta support the council member because he’s going to pave the roads, he’s going to give us plumbing.’ ”

In truth, she mostly cared about getting a new playground. But to broaden her candidate’s appeal, Brazile understood the need to address more mundane concerns, like flush toilets and passable roads.


Now this lifelong political organizer--the first African American woman to run a major presidential campaign--has brought the same focus, drive and single-minded determination to Gore’s rocky White House run.

At the same time, she has brought a less welcome measure of controversy, sometimes overshadowing the candidate with her penchant to speak more like the outside agitator she was than the top-tier campaign insider she has become.

In the latest flap, Brazile outraged Republicans by questioning the party’s commitment to blacks and mocking two of the party’s African American role models: Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.) and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Avowed Fighter Makes No Apology

But Brazile makes no apologies for her pugnacious attitude and sledgehammer sound bites. “I’m a fighter,” she says, in a way that invests the word with the sanctity of priesthood. “Al Gore’s a fighter too.”

Before her promotion, Gore’s campaign operated like a royal court, with lavish overhead, back-stabbing intrigues and a haughty air of entitlement. Elevated from the middle ranks last fall, Brazile slashed salaries--including her own--severed staff and supervised a move from the high-rise comfort of K Street, Washington’s gilded lobbying ghetto, to the low-slung edge of downtown Nashville.

More important, she helped oversee Gore’s transformation from regal vice president, highhandedly campaigning on the notion that he deserved the Democratic nomination, into a rabid competitor who has blistered rival Bill Bradley in his effort to seize the party mantle.


She also helped craft a new message, in its way as politically prosaic as flush toilets and passable roads: Gore as old-fangled Democrat, savior of Social Security and Medicare. If that troubled more centrist New Democrats, it also helped broaden Gore’s appeal among the rank-and-file voters his campaign has targeted.

They make an unlikely pair: he of the princely pedigree, a senator’s son groomed for greatness, she born in Charity Hospital, New Orleans, politicized by the Black Power manifestoes she read behind her scolding mother’s back. “She told me ‘Never again,’ ” Brazile remembered of the whipping she got when her mom found “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” under a mattress. “She said it would make me angry.”

Brazile was the third of nine children, born into stone poverty in Kenner, La. Her mother was a maid; her father worked odd jobs, which kept him away every day but Sunday. There was no running hot water. A 59-cent can of tuna was a luxury. Ice cream was served once a month, on the 25th, and handouts were the only thing that made Christmas possible. Brazile was a teenager before she ever set foot in a restaurant.

Health care was a greater luxury still. Home remedies had to suffice: a swig of castor oil “to clean us out before the winter,” wet tobacco to treat a bee sting. Instead of bandages, cuts were bound with spider webs and treated with turpentine and peroxide.

A younger sister repeatedly passed out from a hole in her heart, undiagnosed for years, until she finally went to grammar school and her condition was discovered by a school nurse.

With that background, issues like child poverty, affordable health care and aid to the working poor are no mere abstractions.


“In the consulting world you often get a lot of people who’ve spent most of their lives going from Ivy League schools into politics and then the rewards of professional consulting,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who has known Brazile since they worked for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) in the 1988 presidential campaign. “But for Donna, politics isn’t an academic pursuit. It grows out of real-life experience.”

Robert Shrum, a Gore media strategist, agreed that Brazile’s “uniqueness, the fact she didn’t come from the standard place,” brings a welcome perspective to a campaign still heavily populated with Beltway regulars. “She runs the most non-b.s. morning staff meetings I’ve ever seen,” Shrum added. “People say what they’re up to, then get back to work. She’s into results, not people sitting around talking.”

For Brazile, politics was a ladder out. She was always glib, the one dispatched to the store to seek credit each month when there was no more cash. She possessed “an excellent, excellent mind,” by her own estimation, and obviously suffered no lack of self-esteem. She could be ruthless too.

As a girl, she helped supplement the family income through small enterprises: tending gardens, selling worms to fishermen along the Mississippi, recycling bottles and cans. “I hired my brothers and sisters, until one day they complained to my mother I worked ‘em too hard,” she recounts. So she fired them.

Her “marching genes,” as she calls them, came not from her parents--they were “docile colored people.” Rather, she soaked up the stories of old folks in the neighborhood, who recounted the lives of their slave relatives. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which she read to her grandmother each morning along with the Bible, provided fleeting accounts of the civil rights and antiwar movements. She supplemented those with writings sneaked home from the public library.

Scooting about on her bicycle, Brazile prevailed in that first City Council campaign, securing the neighborhood playground she coveted. Her path was set. At age 16, she was youth coordinator for the Carter-Mondale ticket in Jefferson Parish, La., even though she was too young to vote.


After graduating from Louisiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Brazile traveled to Washington to help organize the 20th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 march. She worked in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, then for Gephardt before joining Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

Eventually, a habit of shooting from the lip resulted in the worst fix of her career.

Riding the press bus one day from New Haven to New York, Brazile lashed out at GOP nominee George Bush, accusing him of waging a racist campaign and urging reporters to investigate unproved allegations of an extramarital affair. By nightfall, she was out of a job. She used her last paycheck to bury her mother, who died weeks later.

To repent, the devoutly Catholic Brazile moved into a Washington homeless shelter, where she volunteered for nine months. “Clearly, I made a mistake,” she says, “and I tried to do penance afterward as a way of acknowledging I did something wrong.”

In 1990, she returned to politics as campaign manager for Eleanor Holmes Norton, who won election to Congress from the District of Columbia. Brazile became her chief of staff and stayed on Capitol Hill--with breaks to work on national campaigns--until joining the Gore camp as deputy political director. She was promoted to campaign manager in late September.

If Brazile--and Gore--have forgiven her 12-year-old transgression, others haven’t. To Republicans, she’s a gutter-fighter, “the smear queen,” in the words of the Web’s Matt Drudge. In an interview with the National Review, a still-angry son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said Brazile embodies the “slash-and-burn, zero-sum politics” he abhors.

Gore Stands Firm Despite Critics

Gore still stands by her, even as some Republicans call on him to fire her for the remarks she made to in late December: “The Republicans bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no program, no policy. . . . They’d rather take pictures with black children than feed them.”


In response to critics, Brazile hefts a bag of potting soil she keeps in her cramped office at the dingy Gore headquarters. “I plant seeds of hope,” she says, “and from those seeds we harvest votes.”

She remains characteristically blunt and still loves to talk, spinning stories at length in a languid drawl that stretches a word like “kid” into kee-yid. If there is a concession, it is the press aide she turns to several times to ask, should this be off the record? Is it OK to say that for attribution?

In November, she gave still another provocative interview to the Washington Post, in which she decried the “white-boy” attitude that pervades American politics and condemned those campaign consultants (“whores”) who are simply out to make money. She won’t go there now.

But it clearly bothers her that those statements seem to incite a different, more incendiary response than, say, the trash talk of a James Carville, her friend and fellow Democratic strategist.

“I think there’s been a little bit of a double standard,” one high-up campaign official said, that extends to whispered suggestions that Brazile’s appointment was a calculated act of political symbolism more than a merit appointment. In the end, he said, “She’ll be judged by exactly the same standard as others, which is whether she succeeds.”

Victory would cap an improbable journey from hard-time Louisiana, but Brazile insists she plans to keep walking, away from campaigns, away from politics, once this election is over.


“Having spent 30 years doing this, I want to see what’s on the other side of the mountain,” she says. “I want to know what it’s like to go home at 5 o’clock . . . have dinner with someone before 7.

“I want to see my family more. I want to become a human being again.”


This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. Brazile was born in Charity Hospital, New Orleans, not “a charity hospital.”

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