The Woman Behind Elizabeth Warren’s Rise

Rebecca Pearcey, senior adviser to Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, backstage at a town hall in Iowa.

Source Kathryn Gamble for OZY

Why you should care

Because she's at the forefront of a rising tide of women of color guiding Democratic presidential campaigns.

Who Cares: OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why. Who Cares: OZY's 2020 election coverage focuses on who votes and why.

Rebecca Pearcey walked into the meeting, tossed a baggie on the table and turned to her boss, Jessica Post: “Here’s your husband’s pants,” she told Post, then the executive director (now president) of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

The pair are close friends, and Post’s husband had left his zip-off slacks by a fire pit the night before, so the situation isn’t quite as scandalous as it sounds. But Pearcey’s dry humor and quirky style continue in her role as national political director and senior adviser to Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Pearcey still is known in Washington for showing up to suit-and-tie affairs in bright pink galoshes, or carrying color-coded notebooks from meeting to meeting.

“She isn’t afraid to be herself or lead with her sense of humor,” Post says, and yet, “what underpins her is this deep, strategic mind … and an absolutely incredible political instinct.”

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Rebecca Pearcey with Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a town hall in Grinnell, Iowa.

Source Kathryn Gamble for OZY

That skill set drives Pearcey as she leads Warren’s political efforts across all 50 states. Having already visited 27 states with the candidate herself, Pearcey is overseeing a flood-all-zones strategy that has Warren surging in the polls and seen by many as the Democratic front-runner — despite a few tricky moments, including accusations that she misrepresented her Native American heritage and the recent rocky launch of her much-anticipated Medicare for All plan.

“It’s OK to swim in the chaos as long as you keep your head above water,” Pearcey says, a lesson she learned from her favorite political tome, What It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer, which she carries — all 1,072 pages of it — whatever state she’s in.

I’ve been mistaken for my candidate’s driver.

Rebecca pearcey

Pearcey stands at the vanguard of the rising tide of women of color in Democratic politics, as seven of the top 10 presidential candidates have a woman of color as their national political director. And African American supporters of Warren have grown, with recent national polls showing her capturing around 20 percent of the Black vote — an important, albeit difficult, task, considering former Vice President Joe Biden’s early dominance with the key base demographic.

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, says her organization’s recent town halls full of African American voters have overwhelmingly backed Warren — whose policies (from calling out “red-lining” in her housing plan to mentioning violence against trans Black women) have “this really critical racial justice lens within them,” Shropshire says. (Black PAC has not endorsed in the primary.) Maurice Mitchell, head of the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Warren, agrees: “Even down to the language of a ‘just transition’ — that was language developed by these climate justice organizations, namely Black, Latino and indigenous organizations.”

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A town hall crowd assembles to hear Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Grinnell, Iowa.

Source Kathryn Gamble for OZY

Certainly, there is no road to the nomination without bringing Black voters to the table. Yet talk to Pearcey, and she, like her candidate, broadens the narrative. The Warren strategy has centered around daunting town halls — where Warren takes every selfie and answers every question — and policies “that were personal to people in ways that they can digest,” Pearcey says.

Her reasons for looking broader are personal: Black women like herself are often pigeonholed as just dealing with race issues. “We see it happening to peers and younger operatives too. I’ve been mistaken for my candidate’s driver,” she says.

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Rebecca Pearcey with Ted Strickland on a bus tour in Marion, Ohio, in 2006.

Source Kathryn Gamble for OZY

While it’s easy (perhaps, lazy) to credit Pearcey for Warren’s rise with African American voters, the 40-year-old strategist’s real test will be with another key demographic: working-class Midwesterners (both White and otherwise) who backed Barack Obama but didn’t support Hillary Clinton in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, helping hand Donald Trump the presidency in 2016.

In fact, her Midwest experience is Pearcey’s secret weapon. After all, this is a Black woman from Oregon — a shy, young-for-her-grade high school cheerleader while growing up in the mostly White city of Salem — whose big break came as a regional field director for the Dick Gephardt campaign in Iowa in 2003. She helped elect Congressman Ted Strickland governor of Ohio in 2006 with an unconventional strategy of spending a lot of time in rural Ohio. Not to win the region, mind you, but just “to lose by less,” as Pearcey puts it.

In the end, Strickland converted places that presidential candidate John Kerry had struggled in two years prior — winning 72 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including many former Republican strongholds. “That race taught me that if we’re not going everywhere, we’re probably doing it wrong,” Pearcey says, noting that Warren has campaigned in such unlikely places as Alabama and Tennessee during her rise up the polls.

Pearcey later was political director for the Ohio Democratic Party and the Obama 2008 campaign in Ohio. Then in 2012, she helped John Gregg outperform Obama in Indiana while serving as campaign manager, getting the Democratic governor candidate within 3 percentage points of beating Mike Pence in the conservative Midwestern state.

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Pearcey with her high school cheerleading squad in Salem, Oregon, in 1994.

“She’s great at driving a culture. Somebody recently said to me that at the Elizabeth Warren campaign, everybody is happy. I have no doubt candidates drive things. But I think Rebecca does as well,” says Karin Johanson, a principal at Progressive Facilitators and mentor. “Nobody said, ‘Go run an underdog gubernatorial race,’” Johanson adds, suggesting Pearcey wasn’t afraid to take an unconventional path.

Of course, Pearcey will need to continue growing support from voters of color for Warren to emerge from the crowded primary. “There is a long way to go for Warren,” says former Florida state director for Obama Steve Schale, arguing that Biden, whom he supports, is the only candidate “that has a coalition that looks anything like the actual Democratic Party.” And to be clear, early polls show that Democrats will likely have trouble winning in Pearcey’s old campaigning grounds of Indiana and Ohio in 2020. To wit, when Strickland came out of retirement to run for Senate in 2016, with Pearcey as his campaign manager, the former governor lost by double-digits.

Still, states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania? Those could be Pearcey’s bread and butter come Election Day. “She has this deep knowledge of … the coalition that has built up the party and what really motivates voters,” Post says. And if her guiding hand leads to a Warren presidency, nobody will be mistaking this political heavyweight for anybody’s driver.

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Pearcey, second from right, with other staffers from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign.

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