Why you should care
Because the Republican Party isn’t the only one that needs a unifier.
In this special election series, OZY looks at Hillary Clinton — both her past and what she may encounter as she battles for the White House. We also look at what could become her most influential domestic policies, explore the global issues that could disrupt her campaign and consider what her record in Haiti tells us.
It was just after a bitter, disappointing primary season, and Marlon Marshall could have packed up his bags. The prolific grassroots organizer had done the whole sweat-blood-tears thing and still, his candidate — the one who reminded him of his mother — had lost big. And yet, less than a week after his top pick was left in the dust, he found himself in an unusual position: arm-in-arm with the team that had just beat him. “We are one party now,” he and his state co-organizer, Buffy Wicks, told the hundreds of volunteers and staffers gathered in that Missouri auditorium. It was time to unite the Democratic Party.
That message, delivered eight years ago, resonates with some today — during a Democratic primary that’s been even more divisive for the party base than expected. At the blurry center of it all stands Marshall, who may be uniquely suited to shift between what seems to be two disparate ideological worlds.
Though he failed in helping Clinton secure her first run at presidency, Marshall assisted Barack Obama in getting elected president — twice — before becoming a top White House deputy and returning to Clinton as a key operative in her current, second attempt. He now holds the highest position of any African-American campaign operative, and has been credited in part for the former secretary of state’s success with Black voters. But can he tackle the next big challenge and ensure his boss clinches the nomination while also attracting those who are faithful to Bernie Sanders? It won’t be easy: A third of them said in a March poll that they couldn’t see themselves voting for Clinton in November.
Marshall has built a reputation as a consensus-builder in a season dominated by dividers.
Today, a bespectacled Marshall, who manages staff across all 50 states, is office-casual in a lanyard-touting, white button-down shirt. He’s clean-shaven, though not long ago he sported a beard with enough creative shape to stir social media. “The plan was that I would cut it off when we were the presumptive nominee,” he says, laughing. His team is on track to do just that, which is why his deputy sheared it off — in front of their colleagues — when Clinton swept all five Mega Tuesday states last week and amassed a substantial delegate lead over the senator from Vermont. “I’m in a good mood,” Marshall says.
But in certain ways, the new look marks another shift — a time when reuniting the party before the general election has become all the more crucial as a wave of support for Donald Trump continues to rise. The billionaire real estate mogul has mobilized a force of new voters that is shaking the very core of the Republican Party. And while the hand-wringing on this side of the aisle is tamer, it’s still troubling to some because of a stark divide that seems to stem from racial ties. Consider that, so far, African-American voters have sided more than 2-to-1 with Clinton, who’s campaigned on a pragmatic center-left platform, while white, far-left progressives tend to flock to Sanders. The party is also split by age, with energetic youth feeling the Bern, and elders espousing their support for the former first lady.
As those fault lines widen, the rank and file have taken to seeing the other side as a real and vocal enemy, which is where Marshall is hoping to step in. He’s walked a line since his childhood in St. Louis, where he attended a swanky, suburban grade school, before switching to a more diverse public high school where his father was custodian. His mom, an inner-city schoolteacher, had to buy her own class equipment, and he saw both sides of America’s often color-coded education system. “I struggled for a while to figure out my identity in regards to race,” he says, a clarity he wouldn’t attain until he joined student government in college and led a diversity task force.
The communications major went on to manage get-out-the-vote efforts for John Kerry in 2004, where he met his wife, Stacy; their love story of crisscrossing paths from the trail got a shout-out in a recent Clinton fundraising email. “She helps to ground me,” he says. But for those who have worked with him, Marshall’s the calming force in a buffeting campaign. “He remains cool, especially in those moments where you’re in the foxhole,” says Wicks, who, with Marshall, led Obama’s Missouri efforts in the 2008 general election.
From organizing events in Ferguson to addressing racial outcry at the University of Missouri, Marshall has built a reputation as a consensus-builder in a season dominated by dividers. “He showed leadership during a dark period,” says Jon Carson, a past colleague and co-chair of the board at Organizing for Action, Obama’s former campaign vehicle and current agenda advocate. In the wake of the Charleston shooting, it was Marshall whom Clinton reached out to for help crafting her response. “This generation will not be shackled by fear and hate,” she said, in a forceful and memorable declaration that pundits praised as her “race speech.” She would later go on to win the South Carolina primary — by more than 50 percentage points.
Those kinds of unifying skills will be needed again very soon. While Clinton is likely to win the nomination, barring a last-minute scandal or voting outlier, she’ll need Marshall’s help to harness the kind of enthusiasm that Sanders has engendered in order to beat a Republican — no easy task considering her disconnect with young, often first-time, voters.
But Carson sees Marshall as “a key figure in bringing the family back together.” And for his part, Marshall isn’t sweating it, even though some newly mobilized converts of this election cycle may not show up at the polls for what they perceive is a candidacy that’ll be more of the same. “With Trump potentially being the nominee,” Marshall says, “that would motivate me to vote.”