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Among Democratic presidential campaigns, a more visible Latino presence



At the Kamala Harris campaign, Juan Rodriguez is steering operations as campaign manager. Chuck Rocha weighs in on a variety of issues as a senior adviser for Bernie Sanders. At Julián Castro’s campaign, Natalie Montelongo is the national political director, while in Joe Biden’s camp, Laura Jimenez oversees Latinx outreach and is one of five Latino senior staff members.

With some 32 million Latinos eligible to vote in 2020, there’s an increased Latino presence in the campaign staffs of Democratic presidential hopefuls, not only in jobs focused on Latino media and voters but in some senior staffing positions.

It’s a start, according to those who say past campaigns missed the mark on grasping the diversity and breadth of the Hispanic electorate and the experience and perspective that Latino staffers can offer.

“It’s what so many of us have been striving for in this space for so long, to not be seen as just the brown people who do things with brown people,” said Rocha, who took a break from his political consulting firm to work on the Sanders campaign.

Chuck Rocha, senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders campaign.Courtesy of the Bernie Sanders Campaign

Amanda Rentería, the first Latina to serve as a chief of staff in the U.S. Senate and Hillary Clinton’s national political director in her 2016 campaign, said campaigns are doing “absolutely better” in hiring Latinos in this cycle.

The numbers show that the Democratic Party’s investment in training and efforts to get diverse voices in the arena are beginning to pay off, she said.

Another factor is the large number of candidates running, including several women and two African Americans. With so many campaigns recognizing the need to hire Latinos, campaigns have had to reach to the state level to hire staff, Rentería said.

Rodriguez was Harris’ campaign manager for her Senate race in California. Cynthia Cano, who was Beto O’Rourke’s road manager, now holds the title of senior adviser in his presidential campaign, said Claudia Tristán, director of Latinx messaging.

Montelongo, who headed up Nevada and Colorado operations for Clinton in 2016, is Castro’s national political director.

“We are not even in the general election yet, and candidates are boasting about their Latino staff, which is a good sign,” said Gabriela Domenzain, former deputy campaign manager for Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign and national director of Hispanic press for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

“Usually, Latinos are hired in the last four months of the campaign, just to do the get-out-the-vote,” Domenzain said.

Montelongo said Latinos in senior roles with the ability to hire are helping to diversify staff. “It’s a trickle-down effect,” she said.

Montelongo credits Emmy Ruiz, a senior adviser for Harris, with putting diverse staffers in bigger roles during the 2016 Clinton campaign. Ruiz served as Obama’s Nevada state director in the 2012 general election and Clinton’s Nevada and Colorado state director in 2016.

Montelongo had been an organizer in Nevada and quit her job to work on the Clinton campaign. By election time, she was Ruiz’s political director, she said.

Expanding Latino outreach

The diversity can bring unique — and effective — approaches to campaigns’ Latino outreach efforts. Montelongo and Vanessa Valdivia, communications director and deputy press secretary for Spanish language media on Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign, harnessed their understanding of the role Latina mothers, wives and others play in influencing their families and communities.

In an office in Las Vegas, Montelongo and Valdivia started “Mujeres in Politics,” a Latina-to-Latina tool to build support for Clinton in 2016 and turn out more Hispanic female voters. (Mujeres is the Spanish word for women.) In 2018, 43 percent of Hispanic women voted compared to 37 percent of Hispanic men, according to the Census Bureau.

The tool worked so well, the Clinton campaign used it nationally, and this year, the Democratic National Committee has adopted the model for its Latino outreach, dubbing it Mujeres Mobilize.

For this election cycle, Valdivia said, Latino outreach has included education campaigns in states like Nevada to explain caucuses, a process that has been historically more difficult than primaries for minorities, young people and non-English speakers, she said.

Belen Sisa, Latino press secretary for the Sanders campaign, said the campaign has more than 70 Latinos on staff at every level of the campaign, including some who have DACA status, the Obama-era program that allows young immigrants without legal status to remain in the country without fear of deportation.

Elizabeth Warren recently named Jonathan Jayes-Green, a DACA recipient and one of the co-founders of the UndocuBlack Network, as the campaign’s Latinx outreach director.

The O’Rourke campaign said about 15 percent of its staff are Latino. Marisol Samayoa, deputy press secretary for Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said nearly 50 staffers “identify as Latinx.”

Registered Latino voters polled after the September Democratic debate in Houston for Univision showed 21 percent planned to vote for Sanders at the time and 19 percent for Biden. Warren followed with 15 percent, Castro 13 percent and O’Rourke 11 percent. The rest were in single digits.

Among people polled in Spanish, Sanders and Castro did best, at 28 percent and 24 percent respectively. That sample was less than 100 people.

Keeping the pressure on

The differences in preferences of Spanish dominant and English dominant Latino voters haven’t always received focused attention in campaigns.

Rosa Mendoza, head of analytics for Harris and a native of Venezuela, said some campaigns have or have had Latinos as their “tokenized Hispanic Spanish speaker,” whose role is to review work after it was done.

But one-size-fit-all messages aimed at Hispanic voters miss the mark for a number of reasons, among them the marked cultural, regional, socio-economic and political differences among the nation’s Latino voters.

Having initial input from bilingual and bicultural staffers from different Hispanic backgrounds and parts of the U.S. is key to a campaign’s advertising, outreach and strategy when it comes to Latino voters.

At the Biden campaign, “it’s been inspiring and touching to see so many Latinos be in a position of influence,” said Jimenez, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic and worked in Florida for Clinton in 2016 as well as for Democrat Andrew Gillum’s bid for governor.

But Latinos’ increased visibility at the campaign level, say veteran strategists, is still a work in progress.

Larry Gonzalez, a principal with the Raben Group lobbying firm in Washington, said his firm keeps tabs on Latino staffers and others working on campaigns, and he’s also part of an ad hoc group of Latino lobbyists who press to boost the number of Hispanics on congressional staffs.

Early in his political career, Gonzalez was campaign manager for an Illinois state legislator, but he said that was a rare role for a Latino.

And while he said it is good to see more Latinos fashioning strategy and making crucial decisions for presidential candidates, Gonzalez said campaigns can do better at putting more Latinos in higher profile positions, such as campaign director or national treasurer.

“Often Latinos were only called into the room when they wanted to talk about how to reach Latinos,” he said. “When we are part of that full conversation, not only the Latino stuff, that’s when Latinos will be fully integrated into the campaign infrastructure.”

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Senior Trump admin official Mina Chang resigns after embellishing resumé



WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration official Mina Chang resigned from her job at the State Department two and a half hours after NBC News went to her spokesperson to ask about newly discovered false claims she had made about her charity work.

NBC News had previously reported that Chang, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, had embellished her resume with misleading claims about her educational achievements and the scope of her nonprofit’s work — even posting a fake cover of Time magazine with her face on it.

“It is essential that my resignation be seen as a protest and not as surrender because I will not surrender my commitment to serve, my fidelity to the truth, or my love of country,” Chang wrote in her resignation letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Indeed, I intend to fight for those things as a citizen in the days and years to come.”

Chang said she had been “unfairly maligned, unprotected by my superiors, and exposed to a media with an insatiable desire for gossip and scandal, genuine or otherwise.”

Chang’s resignation was first reported by Politico.

NBC News had reported that Chang, who assumed her post in April, invented a role on a United Nations panel, claimed she had addressed both the Democratic and the Republican national conventions, and implied she had testified before Congress.

She was being considered for an even bigger government job, one with a budget of more than $1 billion, until Congress started asking questions about her resume.

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The newly discovered false claims include misrepresenting a trip to Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission, listing an academic who says he never worked for her nonprofit as an employee, claiming a nonexistent degree from the University of Hawaii, inflating an award and claiming to be an “ambassador” for the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO.

Chang had portrayed the 2015 trip to Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission for her nonprofit, but a defense contractor footed the bill and no aid was delivered, according to documents from the company and a former employee.

Mina Chang and unnamed others in Afghanistan in a photo from the Facebook page of Automotive Management Services (AMS), a defense contractor operating in Afghanistan.via Facebook

After the Afghanistan trip, Chang posted photos of herself meeting a group of Afghan women in a room. In a video posted on her charity’s website, she refers to the photo and says the Afghan women are “in hiding” at a secret location.

“This is in Afghanistan, I am sitting with women in our program, they are living in hiding. I can only say they are right outside of the Kabul area,” Chang said in an interview posted on her nonprofit’s website.

But the women were not part of any program run by her charity, Linking the World. They were wives of local employees of the defense contractor that paid for her trip, Automotive Management Services, and they were not in hiding, a former employee said.

“They were photo-ops,” the former employee said of Chang’s trip to Afghanistan and another to Iraq.

Company documents obtained by NBC News show Chang was asked to help the firm manage an association of Afghan wives, whose spouses worked for the company. The plan would free up AMS to “focus on our commercial prospects,” according to a document outlining the project. AMS, which helped Afghan security forces maintain a fleet of armored vehicles, paid for Chang’s airfare and accommodation, according to documents and the former employees.

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On her charity’s website, Chang posted photos from the Afghanistan trip, without indicating that the defense contractor bankrolled the visit and that her NGO conducted no aid work during the trip.

In an email to NBC News, Chang said her organization was helping the defense contractor “create shared value” in Afghanistan. “Our work was not ‘humanitarian aid,’ it was to help a company with critical presence on the ground incorporate [creating shared value] into their business model.”

Chang also continued to claim the women were “in hiding,” saying “it’s irresponsible for anyone to share someone’s identity who says they’re hiding from the Taliban.” However, the pictures of the women Chang shared with an interviewer show the women’s faces.

Ian Dailey, Linking the World’s chief of staff, did not respond to a request for comment about the AMS sponsorship of Chang’s trip to Afghanistan.

The data scientist

In promotional material for Linking the World, under the heading “Who We Are,” the group lists a “chief data scientist,” Michel Leonard, an adjunct professor at New York University and Columbia University.

But Leonard told NBC News that “I was never an employee of this organization.” He said he had never seen the document touting his expertise, didn’t initially recognize the name of the charity and performed no work for it.

Dailey of Linking the World told NBC News in an email, “Linking the World is a volunteer-based organization, so no persons addressed on our site were employees. At the time, Mr. Leonard was employed by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and I was personally working with him on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two organizations, to share data, skills and analyzes (sic). However, Mr. Leonard left USIP before that MOU was completed.”

In her email to NBC News, Chang also said that Leonard was a volunteer like other advisers.

Michel Leonard from the “Linking the World” website, archived on Oct. 7, 2016.Linking the World

In numerous bios, including one when she was a fellow at the New America think tank in Washington, Chang said she had served as a “cross cultural ambassador” for UNESCO.

But Chang does not appear on a list of ambassadors for UNESCO. Spokesman Roni Amelan said the organization does not have a “cross-cultural ambassador” category.

Chang told NBC she was named cross-cultural ambassador at a club promoting UNESCO’s work at Sorbonne University in France in 2015. Her bios did not mention the title was conferred by a university club rather than UNESCO itself.

Chang has cited winning a “CBS Humanitarian of the Year Women That Soar” award in 2012. In fact, it was a local award in Dallas and the event was broadcast by a local CBS affiliate.

“It’s not a CBS award. It aired on a CBS station,” said Lori Conrad, market communications director for the CBS Corporation.

A spokesperson for the Women That Soar event did not respond to a request for comment but Chang’s bio has been removed from the organization’s website.

Facebook banner picture for defense contractor Automotive Management Services(AMS) featuring Mina Chang.via Facebook

In a profile published in 2012 with DFWChild, a Dallas publication, Chang is described as having earned a degree in international development from the University of Hawaii.

A transcript of DFWChild’s interview with Chang, provided to NBC News by the magazine, shows the reporter asking, “So where’d you go to school?”

Chang answers, “It was in the University of Hawaii. They have a program just for … essentially mission … missions work. … They teach you about aid practices, the different methodologies, and how to stay safe in a disaster zone.”

A University of Hawaii spokesperson says the school does not have a Mina Chang of her age in their records, and that the university does not offer a “degree in international development.”

The magazine Monday published an editor’s note, saying the article was based on false information from Chang.

“As other falsehoods and misleading statements come to light, we’ve made the decision to preserve the text as it was originally published in May 2012. We stand by our reporting at the time, and we want this article to serve as a snapshot of the narrative Ms. Chang promoted then.”

Chang denies that she exaggerated her resume or the extent of her charity’s work.

In a statement issued through a spokesman, Chang said that she had been vetted by the FBI and the State Department’s diplomatic security service for her current job as well as the post she was nominated for at USAID and received a “top-secret” security clearance.

After the NBC report last week, the State Department reviewed her application materials again and found she had “in no way misled officials during the investigation,” Chang’s statement said.

The State Department has declined to comment on her case.

Chang was not allowed by the State Department to respond to NBC News’ requests for comment before the report was published last week, her statement said.

Chang insisted it was her decision to withdraw her nomination in September for a senior post at USAID. “She voluntarily elected to withdraw her nomination because after working with her team at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, she became excited by the team’s talent and potential and the impact they could have together,” the statement said.

As for the fake Time magazine cover, “Ms. Chang was not responsible for the creation of the Time magazine cover, nor promoted it,” the statement said.

NBC discovered the fake TIME cover from watching a video that was posted on her charity website.

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Russian web trolls boo Biden, often boost Gabbard, report finds



WASHINGTON — Among Democrats running for president, Tulsi Gabbard is popular with Russian propagandists, while Joe Biden draws the most criticism, according to a new analysis.

Mentions of Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, by English-language Russian propaganda outlets were 46 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable, a research team from the Foreign Policy Research Institute found after analyzing more than 1,700 news stories put out by Sputnik and Russia Today, or RT. She was the only Democratic candidate with more favorable than unfavorable mentions.

References to the former vice president, by contrast, were 3 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable. The rest were neutral.

For Russia thus far, Biden is to 2020 what Hillary Clinton was to 2016, the researchers found.

“When I watched Russian state-sponsored content and social media trolling headed into election 2016, it was overwhelmingly negative toward Hillary Clinton. The same could be said today of former Vice President Biden,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and NBC News contributor who led the effort.

U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard greets supporters after filing her declaration of candidacy papers to appear on the 2020 New Hampshire primary election ballot at the State House in Concord, N.H. on Nov. 5, 2019.Mike Segar / Reuters

“RT and Sputnik content in total volume is exceptionally higher for Vice President Biden, more so than normal U.S. election coverage. … Russia often amplifies President Trump’s disparagement of Biden, and this adds to the negative coverage overall.”

For its report, the nonpartisan Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Foreign Influence Election 2020 Project assembled a research team to analyze what Kremlin state-sponsored news outlets say about the 2020 U.S. election and the presidential candidates.

The team analyzed Russia Today and Sputnik News articles from Jan. 1 to Nov. 10, 2019 that pertained to the 2020 presidential election, including 705 RT stories and 1,006 Sputnik News stories.

Those 1,711 stories hosted 2,772 mentions of either the president, Republican candidates or Democratic candidates for president in 2020.

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More than half of those mentions referenced President Donald Trump, which the team said will be analyzed in a separate upcoming release. Mentions were evaluated as “neutral,” “favorable” of the candidate or “unfavorable” of the candidate.

The team also logged an additional 319 mentions of former presidents and presidential candidates, which will be analyzed later, they said.

Why Gabbard?

There are a number of reasons many Russian propagandists express support for Gabbard, Watts said.

“Gabbard is saying everything Russia wants Americans to hear,” he said. “She’s a U.S. Army officer, and combat veteran claiming — incorrectly — that the U.S. backs al Qaeda. She calls the U.S. an imperialist power that should withdraw from the world. Her anti-war stance as a military member and shaming of U.S. establishment leaders is a wonderful vehicle for the Kremlin to divide the political left and pit populists against the establishment.”

Gabbard spokesman Mark Bergman responded in a statement to NBC News: “The warmongering foreign policy establishment in the media has been using this same smear since the day Congresswoman Gabbard announced her candidacy. This is nothing new. As the first female combat veteran ever to run for the presidency, the American people know that Tulsi has always and will always fight for the interests of the American people.”

NBC News reported in February that Gabbard was a favorite among English language Russian propaganda sites. On Twitter, Gabbard accused NBC of seeking to “to smear any adversary of the establishment wing of the Democratic Party — whether on the left or the right — as a stooge or asset of the Kremlin.'”

In another tweet, Gabbard added, “As commander-in-chief, I will work to end the new cold war, nuclear arms race and slide into nuclear war. That is why the neocon/neolib warmongers will do anything to stop me.”

Mike Carpenter, a former Pentagon official and Russia expert who advises the Biden campaign informally, told NBC News the Russians “clearly see Biden as a voice that has stood up to Russian aggression. Clearly they want to take Biden down. I think their preferred candidate is Donald Trump but they are willing to support especially candidates on the far left.”

Carpenter said Russian propagandists have helped fuel two of the conspiracy theories behind the current impeachment investigation, namely that Ukraine had a role in hacking the Democrats in 2016 and that Biden acted improperly when he carried out U.S. policy in helping secure the removal of a prosecutor the State Department believed was corrupt.

“I see Russia as at a minimum playing an important role to propagate these conspiracies,” he said.

Russian propaganda mentions of the other Democratic candidates have been mostly neutral, the study found, although the sites have begun to criticize Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as she has risen in the polls.

After the breadth of Russian influence operations during the 2016 election became clear, researchers began to try to track Russian bots and trolls on Twitter and other social media platforms.

In response, experts say, Russian and other foreign actors have taken steps to further obscure and disguise their activity, making it extremely difficult to track foreign bots and trolls. One measurement tool, a web site known as Hamilton 68 hosted by the German Marshall Fund, changed its focus to monitor overt Russian state-funded media, just as the Foreign Policy Research Institute is doing.

“Much of the bot and troll activity out there is unattributed,” Watts said. “We don’t know what is Russian or not Russian, and when researchers mistakenly attribute the free speech of Americans as a secret Russian bot, it degrades electorate confidence in researchers’ ability to detect Russian influence or that it even exists. Improper attribution also makes Russia seem more powerful than they really are.”

Therefore, Watts said, it makes sense to pay close attention to what the Russians and other foreign governments are saying in the open, in state-funded media.

“If you read Russia, Iran and China’s propaganda, they’ll tell you where to start digging,” he said.

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As the Democratic debate draws attention to Georgia, Stacey Abrams fights for voters’ rights



Stacey Abrams won’t be on the debate stage when the Democratic presidential candidates face off in Atlanta on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be playing a role in the 2020 elections.

Since Abrams’ loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the Georgia governor’s race last year, she’s worked to combat voter suppression, which Abrams alleges cost her the race. Ahead of the presidential election next year, Abrams is using her political action committee, Fair Fight, to repair what she believes to be a broken voting system in her state.

“My reaction to the mismanagement and the malfeasance was to think about what could I do, not simply about my election, because that was over, but what work could I still do that would address the challenges that so many Georgians faced in that process?” Abrams told NBC News.

She launched Fair Fight to educate voters about their rights. It’s an effort focused on making it easier for youth and minority groups to vote and, ultimately, Fair Fight organizers hope the participation of these groups will help elect a Democratic president next November.

“We want to ensure that every voter who has the right to vote in Georgia has the ability to leverage that right. That means: ‘Can they register and stay on the rolls? Can they cast a ballot? And can that ballot be counted?'” Abrams said.

In Georgia, state officials announced ahead of the 2020 election that they will be removing about 315,000 eligible voters from the rolls due to inactivity, about 4 percent of registered voters in the state, according to the secretary of state’s office.

This trend can also be found nationwide. About 17 million voters were purged nationwide from voter registration rolls from 2016 to 2018, according to June data released by the Federal Election Assistance Commission.

Abrams said that during the 2018 election, youth and minority voters faced challenges while trying to vote. That included, she said, the closing of polling locations where they feel comfortable voting such as museums and moving them to police departments; not being registered due to voter roll purges; and absentee ballot miscounting. Kemp and his campaign denied intentional voter suppression after the election.

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Abrams, who has previously toyed with the idea of running for the Senate and the presidency, said she plans to attend MSNBC’s debate on Wednesday night at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.

“We’ve been lobbying very hard for Georgia to be an instrumental part … and to be seen as the battleground state that we are,” Abrams said.

A poll conducted by NBC News/Survey Monkey in July 2019 found that in Georgia less than half of those surveyed, 48 percent, approved of the job President Donald Trump was doing. Since 1992, Georgia has swung red in presidential elections. However, data collected by Fair Fight shows that many of the newly registered voters who chose to identify their race on their registration forms over the past 11 months are minorities or under 30, two groups that tend to vote Democratic.

“More than 300,000 voters have registered for the first time from Election Day 2018 until mid-August 2019. Of those new voters, 47 percent are minorities and 45 percent are under the age of 30,” according to Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo.

Fair Fight organized a group called Fair Fight U that targets college campuses around Georgia to encourage students to vote — a demographic that tends to not have a high participation rate in elections.

Emma Morris, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Georgia and the chapter manager for Fair Fight U on the school’s campus, got involved with the organization after she said many of her friends were prevented from voting in 2018 due to canceled voter registrations and unprocessed absentee ballots.

Morris said she is working with Fair Fight to prevent those issues from happening again and to “ensure a fair election.”

Fair Fight also has expanded its reach from the campus to young voter organizations.

Melissa Wolfe, a sophomore at Valdosta State in Georgia, is an active member of the Young Democrats of Georgia, which works with the state Democratic Party.

Wolfe said that with the help of the ACLU, the organization secured a polling location on campus — one that falls in Lowndes County, an area that typically favors Republican candidates.

“Kids will be able to vote. They won’t have to walk two miles to an unsafe area where there’s limited public transportation,” Wolfe said.

Another issue voters in the state face is “purging” from the voter registration rolls, which removes people who are inactive for several years.

“We think it’s unlawful that you lose your right to vote simply because you don’t use it,” Abrams said.

Bianca Keaton, the Gwinnett County Democratic Party chair, is working with Fair Fight’s Democracy Warriors to limit voter purging.

Keaton said she encourages minority voters who have not actively voted in recent years to check their status regularly by looking online.

Fair Fight is also working to make sure absentee ballots are counted, and Abrams wants residents to feel confident those votes will be counted during the 2020 race. In the meantime, Abrams is expanding Fair Fight beyond Georgia, as she tailors programs in swing states, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the hopes of eliminating voter suppression.

“We want to make certain that the very effective and very efficient process remains open to as many people as possible,” she said. “We have a changing electorate and we’re going to be working hard to make certain they know their rights and they are able to execute those rights and participate in the 2020 election.”

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