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Taylor-Ryan Nedd participated in SiD during her final semester at U-M. She had a unique internship with the City of Detroit Tax Department. After graduating, she was hired by the Department for a limited contract before being hired by Bernie Sanders campaign in December 2015. The following interview was conducted by Craig Regester, SiD Associate Director, on Friday, December 11, 2020.
CR: Before we start the interview, how are you holding up in this pandemic?
TRN: Well, after being all over the country for the Bernie campaign, I've been in New Jersey for the past six months or so. And it was Covid-19 central for a while there. I guess I don't feel as anxious now, because they kind of shut down very early on. I don't know too many people personally out here. So I didn't feel as personally affected.
CR: How are your family and close friends doing?
TRN: I have a lot of friends in New York. I have a cousin who is a healthcare worker in Queens who had Covid-19 and he's still having a lot of complications. Also, a good friend of mine passed away early on, Michigan State Representative, Isaac Robinson. I had another friend who was in an abusive marriage and she had to find a way to get out in this crazy period. There are so many issues that have been really highlighted in this pandemic; the only silver lining is I think it has made some public officials realize that they weren’t doing as well as they thought.
CR: I’m getting old (almost 50!), so remind me when you did Semester in Detroit.
TRN: Spring 2015 during my final year at U-M. Compared to most of my peers, I had a rather unique internship in the City of Detroit’s Tax Department. I was working on a project trying to correct people's addresses in order to increase the city’s tax revenues. A few months after graduating, I ended up getting hired to do the same work for the Duggan administration.
Then, a funny thing happened after a few months in the job. A co-worker and I were sitting there kind of going through all these files and somehow or another uncovered tax returns for the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, Fiat-Chrysler), and we saw that what they were paying really wasn’t proportional to the average Detroiter. So we asked ourselves: why are we going after “Jesse” who owes $200 in taxes when, meanwhile, just up the street at GM Renaissance center, they're not paying what they should.
So this realization all kind of segues into these headlines I was reading about in late fall 2015 about this senator from Vermont (Bernie Sanders) who was challenging Hilary Clinton for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. And the more I read, and from watching the debates, I realized, “this guy is making a lot of sense.
CR: Tell us the story of how you first got hired by the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign.
TRN: Well, I was online looking for jobs because I wasn’t sure if my contract with the City was going to be continued, and I found a “field organizer” position with the Bernie campaign. Honestly, I didn't even know what a field organizer was. I didn't know if I was qualified or not, but I wrote up my cover letter and sent in my resume. About a week later, I got a call and I was just so shocked. Of course, I wasn't expecting to just move across the country to Vegas. I didn’t even really know much about Bernie, but this was around when he was gaining traction in his candidacy.
CR: Why did they send you first to Nevada?
TRN: For demographic reasons, I think. There was only one other black woman working for the campaign at that time. They didn’t want to drop me in the middle of Iowa or New Hampshire.
CR: What were the first weeks of the job like in Nevada?
TRN: I had driven across the country with my friend and I remember we got to Nevada around 4 or 5am and I called my supervisor to find out where the office was. He tells me to take a few hours to rest and to show up around 8am. So, I get there and by the end of the week, the State Director quits. Before I knew it, I was working nearly seven days a week, 12-hour days. However, because we were in Vegas, where everything is open 24 hours a day, we could still have a life after working on that campaign. They have 24-hour bars, nail salons, you name it.
CR: That 2016 Bernie campaign was so different than the second campaign this past year. Looking back, how would you sum up your experience during Bernie’s first run at the presidency?
That first campaign had the feel of running while putting our shoes on. To this day, there’s still a lot of animosity between people from the Bernie and Hillary campaigns. Not necessarily me, because I have friends who worked for both campaigns. But I do think one reason for the animosity is how some folks in Hillary’s campaign scapegoated Bernie after Trump won. I think that it definitely was a good introduction to politics because I had to learn a lot really fast.
CR: What did you do after Hillary won the nomination?
I was hired to be the field director for Nanette Diaz Barragan’s successful 2016 campaign for congress in California’s 44th District. The district is predominantly Latinx; however, Congresswoman Barragan was the first-ever Latina to represent that district - and she’s been re-elected twice since that campaign. I think that experience was the introduction to my interest in data because we were so low staff. I had a dual role in that campaign as both data director and field director.
My experience with Bernie introduced me to the power of text canvassing, and I brought this into Barragan’s campaign. And we really used this approach for Spanish outreach, that was really our bread and butter. It was the Spanish calls and the texting in Spanish. And, until then, I don't think I realized just how beneficial it is for people to be able to be involved in the Democratic process; having people speak to them in a way that they understand.
CR: A few years later Bernie reaches out to you for his second run. How did that happen?
TRN: Well, in March of 2019, I was at the Brooklyn rally where Bernie announced his second fun for the presidency. I saw an old friend who was working the rally and realized that the only Bernie staff there were from the Advance team (the people who coordinate all of the logistics for candidate speaking engagements). I talked with him later and learned that the campaign was hiring a lot of former field organizers to the Advance team. So I applied and was offered the job.
CR: What were some of the main differences between Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns?
TRN: Aside from having a whole lot more money and staff, one of the starkest internal differences - and this isn’t easy to say or to hear - is that in 2016 we eventually had an entire dedicated African-American outreach team. That team didn’t exist in the early stages of the 2020 campaign. In fact, it was decided higher-up in the campaign to focus strategic efforts and resources more on Latino and Muslim communities.
CR: I have to ask a specific follow-up question because what you just said seems to run counter to the general narrative of Bernie’s 2020 campaign, which was that he was doing a better job the second time around connecting with Black voters. Would you disagree?
TRN: Personally, I think Bernie himself was better the second time around. He went through a journey in the first campaign that helped him to understand - more clearly and directly - where Black people are coming from. But, by itself, this change didn't have enough teeth because, internally, those who were making the staffing decisions believed they could win the Democratic primary without actively engaging with Black people. I saw this problem, too, with how staffing decisions were made in the campaign.
CR: Do you have any other reflections to share on the 2020 campaign?
TRN: It’s interesting to consider how much resources the campaign put into bringing major American bands into our rallies, like the Strokes, Vampire Weekend and Portugal The Man. Behind the scenes, this was a huge drain on our limited time, energy and resources as these big bands typically have substantial financial riders.This created some really bizarre and ugly tensions at times: you have these white guys in the basement with this catered meal, and, meanwhile, top women of color surrogates are eating Domino’s pizza. I understand that all of this was manufactured to motivate and to attract young people, but it didn’t benefit who we needed to reach out to.
CR: Well, we all know how this story ends: after the lopsided victory in South Carolina, Biden goes on to eventually win the nomination. And, while some still wish to deny reality, Biden will be inaugurated on January 20, 2021. From your perspective, as someone who was deeply involved in both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, what other critical lessons are there to be learned?
TRN: If there's going to be a progressive presidential nominee some day, we need to have much more discussion around progressivism and race. I think that there were very crucial takeaways that weren’t really discussed from the 2016 campaign. And even though I know tons of people who tried really hard to have such conversations, this problem became apparent this year after the races in Southern states. This whole notion that older black voters are somehow undereducated is highly problematic. That kind of language and mentality are very, very disappointing and just need to be nipped in the bud. People don't understand. And I've seen a lot of my black male counterparts go through this often when they work with white men. Their seniority or their authority are not respected. So, the fact that Biden was on the biggest stage supporting and being a good teammate with the first black President spoke volumes for older black people who have been in Obama’s shoes and have had the opposite experience.
There were issues with how the campaign related to Black communities that made very apparent all of the work that hadn't been done. I remember the last rally in Michigan. I was asked by one of my colleagues at the last minute - they were kind of panicking in Detroit - for a list of family members or just, essentially, any black people to give them to be on the VIP list so they had some black people there. And I replied, absolutely not, my family and friends are not props.
CR: Where do you see the next few years of the Democratic Party. What does the future of the party look like to you?
TRN: Unlike in 2016, we’re now in a moment when a lot of the weaknesses that progressives have been pointing out in our system for decades are being brought to the forefront. People who were apprehensive before about something like Medicare For All are now changing their minds. I think if anything's going to change their opinion it’s our current situation with the pandemic. The case is a lot stronger now and a lot more digestible for more people. So I hope that is the direction that we're heading towards.
Biden and his team are aware of all this as well. This isn't 2008 anymore, or 2012; people are a lot more critical and able to follow the money a lot more easily. And I think he's aware that he's under a lot of scrutiny. Also, I believe they're really committed, though I’m still cautious, to at least have some black representation in the executive leadership. I’m not saying that this is automatically going to guarantee all my interests are spoken for but I’m glad they're recognizing our group for the part we had in the victory.
CR: For those folks out there, like you, who were really inspired by Bernie to get involved in electoral politics, what would you encourage them to do now?
TRN: Definitely help out with the two senate races in Georgia! Of course, don't come down to Georgia in-person! There are many folks and organizations doing remote volunteering. You can check out this website for more information.
CR: What about after the Georgia senate runoff elections on January 5th?
TRN: After January 5, I think we need to pressure Congress and the Senate. I’ve come to hate labeling these issues as progressive because I think they're logical, like Medicare for All or student loan forgiveness. But I think we need to be wise in how we approach these progressive goals. It shouldn't be exclusionary or a purity test because I don't think that we have the luxury of that at this point. Thousands of people are literally dying every single day just from Covid-19; a 9/11 tragedy every single day! This is really, really something we need right now and we need to come up with smart ways to fight for it.
CR: Are there organizations you would recommend our readers consider engaging?
TRN: Yes, I have a friend who works for Color of Change. They've been doing a lot of really great work. They have different departments that deal with defending democracy, criminal justice reform, and economic quality. Their work is focused towards the black community and they have focused a lot on police brutality this year. They have connections with organizations across the country. Locally, Detroit Action is amazing. They've been doing a ton of community outreach and Zoom town halls and getting people activated for future elections at the city and state levels. (Editor note: another SiD alumnus, Alejandro Navarrete, currently works for Detroit Action as their Data Manager.)
CR: What you are up to now?
TRN: I’m working on a project for the State of California called the Social Bridging Project. We are doing outreach to over 25 counties in the state to encourage people to have disaster readiness plans in place. We recently expanded to include Spanish language outreach calls. We’ve had just over 60,000 conversations in the past few months. We provide disaster readiness guides to residents with all the information they would need in an emergency: hotline information, packing for their “go-bag”, and much more. We also give tons of referrals for food and housing assistance, as well as wellness calls to the thousands of people who are living alone. This work is actually very similar to my campaign experience. We’re trying to develop this model to potentially use in other states as well.
CR: Thank you for this excellent interview - you’ve provided such deep insight into the electoral arena of the past few years and future challenges. Final question: would you ever consider running for political office?
TRN: I’m in Jersey now so who knows. I’m trying to get my mother to run for office. But people don’t really understand how hard it is to be a candidate. It really opens yourself up to judgment.