PHILADELPHIA — Donna Brazile moved through the crowd, glass of water in hand. She prefers champagne or Prosecco but was feeling a little under the weather. A small crowd clustered around her in the Down Town Club, where she and four of her closest friends were hosting a midday party Tuesday.
“Your section is right here,” an aide shouted to her as Cameo’s 1986 funk hit “Candy” blared.
Brazile — who was formed as a political player by her experience in Democratic politics on the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s 1984 campaign for president, and launched to fame as Al Gore’s 2000 campaign manager — is a celebrity within her political party. This week, when the party needed someone to quickly step in and clean up the mess left by Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s email scandal, Brazile was asked to do the job.
Now, at 56, her hair is silver, but she is seemingly always on the move. She maneuvered to the VIP sofa set aside for her, then spotted former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter in the crowd and gave him a thumbs-up. Soon, she was headed to the microphone. Didn’t matter whether she was sick: That wouldn’t stop her from preaching a little and telling a little truth, things she’s well known for in circles like these. As she took the mic, the crowd of 350 turned her way.
“Black girl magic!” someone called out.
Indeed, everything about Brazile’s manner speaks to her rise as a black woman in politics. There’s her lilting drawl and sister-girl storytelling cadences, hallmarks of her native Louisiana. There’s her candid and cutting political commentary, and her choice of friends.
She is part of a sisterhood that calls itself “The Colored Girls,” because they are black and they are women and they are powerful enough to call themselves whatever they want. (Along with the new interim party chair, there is Leah Daughtry, chief executive of the party’s convention; Yolanda Caraway, who is running the podium operations here; Minyon Moore, a top aide to Hillary Clinton; and Tina Flournoy, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.)
Brazile also says whatever she wants. And she did that here.
Some of the black women she came up with in party politics no longer like to identify themselves as “Colored Girls,” she said pointedly. “Now they are colorblind. They want to be neutral. I’m never going to be neutral.”
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According to the Brazile legend, she got her start at age 9 campaigning for paved roads and a playground in her Kenner, La., neighborhood.
In her 20s, she joined Jackson’s campaign, which she said helped to diversify Democratic Party operations. “What I love about Reverend, this country preacher from South Carolina, is he gave us women a seat at the table and we didn’t have to bring our own folding chairs,” she said.
Jackson returns the praise. Brazile “mastered the skills of organizing the party,” he said, and her rapid rise “shows growth and maturity.” He added: “It is the time for black women to assert leadership roles and use the sum total of their survival skills and vision in the political process.”
In 1988, Brazile and Moore were working for Michael Dukakis. When lower-level staff were relegated to a lower floor in campaign headquarters, the two women protested by taking over empty office space on the ninth floor. Their sign on the door: “The Colored Girls ... We Shall Not Be Moved.”
“That night we got together, black, brown, gay, and we said, ‘You know what, Rosa [Parks], we ain’t doing that. Harriet [Tubman], we ain’t going there. Sojourner [Truth], this ain’t us. Shirley [Chisholm].’ We called out every name and went on up to the ninth floor.”
Brazile was later fired from the campaign for airing rumors about George H.W. Bush’s personal life around reporters; friends said she recognized that she crossed the line, and that she fell on her sword. But she continued to rise within the party. For a time, she served was a top aide to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, acting as the D.C. lawmaker’s chief political adviser, public spokeswoman and community liaison.
She entered the political elite in 1999 when Al Gore hired her as his campaign manager — the first black woman to hold such a high position in a major national party’s campaign. Gore lost the close race in an outcome decided by the Supreme Court, and Brazile spent a year rehashing the campaign’s missteps — notably, the lack of focus on Southern states that Gore should have won — but quickly got back in the game.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who spoke Tuesday at Brazile’s “Colored Girls” luncheon at the Down Town Club, recalled a phone call he received from Moore after he announced that he would run for president. She suggested that he take the ladies to dinner.
“Donna was discussing whether a very senior member of Congress ... was going to get slapped or not,” Dean said. “We had had a certain amount of Prosecco, and Donna got up and actually acted out what happened in this disagreement she had with a senior member of Congress.”
This is Brazile’s second time serving as interim chair of the Democratic Party. In 2011, she took over for a month after Timothy M. Kaine, now the party’s vice-presidential nominee, decided to run for the Senate.
She believes the party is strongest when it speaks to its base of loyalists: union members, ethnic minorities, environmentalists, and gays and lesbians. In her first hours on the job, she has tried to be a unifying figure. One of her first steps was to apologize to Bernie Sanders’s supporters outraged by leaked emails that suggested a preference for Clinton through the primary race.
So far, the reviews have been good. “It’s about damn time,” said pollster Cornell Belcher.
Jotaka Eaddy, a Democrat who has worked as an adviser to NAACP leaders, said she looks up to Brazile and has watched admiringly as Brazile has been whisked around from meeting to meeting this week. She’s “running the whole show,” Eaddy said. “The Colored Girls have been an inspiration and example in political-movement-building.”