Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Sen. Joe Donnelly says he has black and Indian American staffers, ‘but’ they’re terrific

October 31, 2018 at 12:30 PM

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At a debate on Oct. 30, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) said he has African American and Indian American staffers, "but" they do an amazing job.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), a conservative Democrat in one of the tightest reelection battles in the country, made a cringeworthy and puzzling statement about some minorities on his staff during a debate Tuesday night.

To begin, here’s a quick vocab refresher. The definition of the word “but,” according to Google, is “to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned."

So it was strange when Donnelly, in what seemed like a genuine effort to compliment his aides, said this when asked how he would bring diversity into his staffing:

“Our state director is Indian American, but he does an amazing job. Our director of all constituent services, she’s African American, but she does an even more incredible job than you could ever imagine.”

Mr. Senator, but, what?

Donnelly followed that bizarre phrasing with a sentiment about inclusiveness and diversity.

“It isn’t their race or their religion. It’s the incredible person that they are,” he said. “But at the same time they have to have a chance, they have to have an opportunity, and that’s my responsibility. And I’ve done it in every office I’ve had and I’ve done it in every campaign I’ve had because my campaigns and our Senate office should reflect the face of Indiana.”

But (correct usage here, Senator), it was overshadowed by what he said first, which suggested that these staffers did a good job despite their race.

In a statement to the Fix, Donnelly claimed a conjunction mix up, saying he “meant to say ‘and’ instead of ‘but’.”

“That would have communicated what I have tried to do my entire life: that I make a habit to seek out and promote people of color for both my campaign and official staff,” he said.

The senator’s gaffe was bad in a way that could make a political observer nostalgic, remembering the good old days when a slip of the tongue or a strange choice of wording could dog a candidate for a long time or, in some cases, forever.

No one, for example, will ever forget Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment during the 2012 presidential race to show he had sought to hire female employees.

A less-remembered gaffe came from then-Sen. Joe Biden in 2006, when, in trying to connect with an Indian American voter, he said, “In Delaware, the largest growth of population is Indian Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”

These are the things “Veep” writers' dreams are made of — tone-deaf statements probably meant well but totally offensive.

(This post has been updated.)

Also, to be fair, the Libertarian candidate’s answer at the debate wasn’t exactly artful either:

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Independent Indiana Senate candidate Lucy Brenton on Oct. 30 said "people of color don't want to be given some sort of bone because of the color of their skin."

Colby Itkowitz currently covers politics and Congress for The Washington Post. She previously covered health policy, anchored the 'Inspired Life' blog and co-wrote the 'In the Loop' column. She joined the Post in March 2014.

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