O'Rourke brings back a key aide, hoping to recapture magic with black voters

Brittany Shepherd
National Politics Reporter
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke at the South Carolina Democratic Party state convention in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

MIAMI — In his race last year to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke saw remarkable support from African-Americans in Texas. Statewide 89 percent of black voters — including 94 percent of back women — supported O’Rourke’s bid.

Now, as he struggles to gain traction for his presidential bid, O’Rourke has brought onboard one of the architects of that impressive showing, Ian Wilhite, most recently a spokesperson for the LGBT nonprofit Lambda Legal. Wilhite will serve in dual campaign roles: deputy national press secretary and director of African American messaging. Wilhite will be returning to familiar territory, as he held a similar title — communications director for African American outreach — for O’Rourke’s Senate campaign.

“Beto’s vision, dedication, and willingness to speak up for all Americans is what drew so many of us to him to him over the years,” said Wilhite in an emailed statement. “So proud to once again work for a candidate who has solutions for some of the greatest challenges we face while bringing people together and refusing to let our differences divide us.”

O’Rourke’s relationship with the black community in his home state may be hard to replicate on a national stage crowded with candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, who has solid support from African-Americans, especially older ones, and Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker, who, as black candidates themselves, speak to the experiences of African-Americans in ways many other top Democrats cannot.

Challenging odds are not stopping O’Rourke, who, just concluding a swing through the crucial early primary state of South Carolina, is building his national profile with a handful of staff additions to his policy shop. An augmented team, assembled after criticism that O’Rourke’s campaign had more style than substance, will tackle issues such as climate change, reproductive rights and more, according to a Politico report.

O’Rourke has taken a strong stand on one flagpole issue for black voters: slavery reparations. In a recent visit with the Gullah Geechee Nation, an enclave of descendants of African-American slaves centered on the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, O’Rourke offered that the path to a successful reparations policy “comes through telling, learning and sharing this American story with everyone.” Some other candidates, notably frontrunner Biden, have been less forthright on the question, which is likely to play out on the debate stage later this week.

“As you saw yesterday in South Carolina, Beto is relentlessly working to reach voters — especially those often written off or taken for granted during election years,” said campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon in a statement. “And we are so happy to have Ian back on the team to continue the outreach that was started during the Senate campaign.”

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