“We are the party of opportunity for all,” declared Seema Nanda in an exclusive conversation with me late last week. As head of the Democratic National Committee, a post that she holds as we head into the final year and a half before a crucial national election, she is busy planning party strategy at many levels. Her voice did not waver – there was clarity and a sense of clear purpose as she outlined the party position on various issues as we chatted.
After the unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, the question of what the overall party message will be in the coming months is a burning question in my mind. And, her answer was clear and unequivocal in its message of inclusivity.
“We have a message that resonates with all Americans – truth, opportunity, justice for all people, affordable healthcare and protecting all immigrants.” A positive message that aims to connect with all voters across the political spectrum. Her message was hopeful and inclusive – so I paused and asked her about her thoughts on the Republican message. Here, her answer was again clear and straightforward. “Hateful rhetoric has no place in our party; in fact, no party should appeal to our fear. When one group is attacked, we need to remember that no one is protected. This message stokes people’s fears about all sorts of immigrants.”
Seema Nanda pictured front row, middle
Seema says that she is so heartened with the woke community of South Asians working all over the country on behalf of Democratic candidates. “What I saw in Michigan shortly before the midterm elections resonated with me deeply. I was campaigning for candidates up and down the ballot. South asian community members were actively engaged in campaigning – many had never been politically engaged, but now they were signing up for shifts to knock on neighbors’ doors. They are also signing up to run for office at so many levels – from city councils to school boards to congressional seats. And, even if the South Asian candidate does not end up winning the primary, large numbers of community members are stepping up and doing their part.” This, she said, was a “positive development like none other.”
Also, as voters, she said, “Asian-Americans can ensure a critical margin for victory in countless races in the 2020 elections. They voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the midterm election in 2018. We need to get the message out to all Asian Americans that we are indeed the party of opportunity; we are a pro-business party,” she declared.
Seema Nanda pictured second from left
When I asked her about the slate of candidates who have launched primary presidential campaigns in the Democratic party, she proudly said, “We have an embarrassment of riches with fantastic candidates on our side. At the DNC, my job is to make sure that the American people hear what they stand for, loud and clear. They are talking about issues that Americans truly care about – healthcare, the environment, gun violence – these are the issues that we should all care about. The fact that we have so many candidates is a very healthy process for the party.”
In focus groups, Americans continue to point out healthcare as being a crucial issue for them. “The availability of affordable healthcare threatens the economic security of millions of people, and the Republican party has been chipping away at the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without having an alternative plan in place.” Moving to issue based policymaking, I ask her about the setback because of the defeat of the new Green Deal. “In fact, the failure of the new Green deal is not really a failure, because we are the only party that is even talking about climate change – the other party is not even at the table. They are denying the findings of climate science.”
Moving to the hot button issue that fills our media channels day in an day out – she says, “Immigration – we have always lead on immigration, and lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform, and our efforts have been scuttled by the Republicans. The President has used his large bully pulpit to confuse and mislead the American public. Our asylum policies comply with international law. Instead, today those seeking asylum are being treated in a despicable and inhumane manner.” When I pushed her saying that the obfuscation of issues has definitely led to a sea change in opinions of what immigrants contribute in our country, she said, “I agree with you – there are concerted efforts to confuse the issue. But, we are standing by the side of immigrants – we continue to ask about the children in detention. Even lawful immigration has been targeted. For instance, family based immigration which is perfectly legal is now being referred to as ‘chain migration’ an absolutely disgusting term. We need to unite around these issues, not be divided.”
As for nuts and bolts strategies in the coming months, the Rust Belt states are being organized differently this time. “We are on the ground organizing earlier than we did the last time around. One of the challenges we face when we are the opposition party is that after the nominating convention, we only have 5 to 6 months of national campaigning time before we go to the polls. This time, starting this summer, we are training 1000 young people in a special program, and once the nominee is decided, we will be able to ramp up dramatically soon to reach all segments of the population with our message. We are also campaigning for voter access all over the country, including on college campuses so that we hear from all segments, including young voters. Our challenge will be to counteract untruths from entering the election debate. We are on the lookout in cyberspace and we will counteract immediately that appears as lies to discredit our candidates and our policies.”
And, so ends my chat with Seema Nanda – with her articulating a clear, positive message – a message of inclusivity and of opportunity. As the weeks and months roll on, her ability to serve as the backbone in organizing a successful campaign on behalf of the Demoacratic party is sure to be tested at many levels. The American people will be watching the campaign and the party as they take the message of inclusivity and opportunity out to voters.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.