Interview With Addisu Demissie: Senior Adviser to Joe Biden

Addisu Demissie currently serves as Senior Advisor to U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden, and is responsible for organizing the nominating convention for the Democratic Party that is scheduled to open on August 17th, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo: 50+1 Strategies)

Tadias Magazine

By Tadias Staff

Updated: August 10th, 2020

Interview With Addisu Demissie: Senior Adviser to Joe Biden

New York (TADIAS) — As the Democratic Party prepares to officially nominate Joe Biden as its candidate to become the next President of the United States, veteran campaign strategist Addisu Demissie is the person in charge of putting together the nominating convention that kicks off on August 17th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The convention — one of the most anticipated American political events during a presidential election season — promises to be nothing but traditional this year amid the growing Coronavirus pandemic, which makes Addisu’s role all the more challenging and historic.

“My job is essentially to produce the convention,” Addisu told Tadias in a recent interview. “I do everything from the program, to the budget management, to fundraising, to political relations with members of Congress or with Governors or what have you.” He added: “It’s kind of a little bit of everything. No one day is like any other, that’s for sure. We’re trying to produce a convention in the midst of a pandemic. It’s gonna be nothing like anything anyone has ever done before, but we have a mission – and that is to present Joe Biden to the country. He is somebody who has been in public life for 40 years, but still people need a better sense of who he is and what he’s fighting for.”

Addisu, who is also a Principal & Co-Founder of 50+1 Strategies, a California-based consulting firm, comes armed with years of campaign experience including managing Senator Cory Booker’s 2013 Senate campaign and more recently his presidential campaign, as well as Gavin Newsom’s 2018 campaign for California governor, and working as National Director of Voter Outreach for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Addisu’s first got involved in politics when he joined Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign prior to attending law school.

“I went back to school thinking I’d be leaving campaigns and go back to my original path, which was to be a civil rights lawyer, but I discovered that I missed the campaign,” Addisu said. “So all during law school I worked on campaigns. And then I graduated in 2008 and basically it was ‘do I go become a lawyer or do I go back into politics’ and I decided to go back to politics. Friends that I had worked with on campaigns starting in 2003 connected me and I ended up working on Obama presidential campaign’s as Get-Out-The-Vote Director in Ohio. That was really the fork in the road for me in terms of my career path.”

Below is our full interview with Addisu Demissie:

TADIAS: Please tell us a bit about yourself, where you grew up and were raised, your focus in school and college.

Addisu Demissie: I was born in Windsor in Ontario, Canada. My mother’s side is Black American and my grandmother is Black Canadian. My father’s side is Ethiopian. My dad came to Windsor to attend college and met my mother. I was raised in Toronto until the age of 11 and then became a U.S. citizen and moved to Atlanta, which became my first home in America. For high school I attended a boarding school in Massachusetts and then attended Yale for undergraduate studies. I grew up steeped in Ethiopian culture as well as American and Canadian. I’m Canadian by birth, American by choice and Ethiopian by ethnicity, history and tradition.

TADIAS: What were some early experiences that made you decide that you wanted to study political science in college, go to law school and then become active in state and national political campaigns?

Addisu: I actually started out as pre-med student in college. I was into math and sciences my whole schooling years, but I took a law class about civil rights during my sophomore year in college and I found myself liking it a lot more than I did my science classes. In my junior year I started asking myself “am I doing math and science because I’ve been doing it for 12 years or do I actually want to be a doctor or scientist?” I realized that I didn’t really want it anymore and basically took political science courses through my junior and senior years to get a political science degree. When I graduated from college I moved to Washington D.C. to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. That was my first job out of college and it started me on my path in politics.

I ended up in Washington because I had taken a class in the fall semester of my senior year with a Connecticut Supreme Court Justice named Flemming Norcott, who taught a civil rights law course about Blacks and the law, which was seminal in my life and I wanted to work for the NAACP legal defense fund. By spring semester of my senior year I found a job opening at LDF and while I didn’t get the job that I had applied for in New York I received an offer from the Executive Director to work in Washington D.C.

TADIAS: You’ve worked on several presidential campaigns as well as served as Political Director of the Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America project in 2009. What are some of the memorable highlights and lessons learned?

Addisu: I worked for the 2004 Kerry campaign before going to law school. I went back to school thinking I’d be leaving campaigns and go back to my original path, which was to be a civil rights lawyer, but I discovered that I missed campaign. So all during law school I worked on campaigns. And then I graduated in 2008 and basically it was ‘do I go become a lawyer or do I go back into politics’ and I decided to go back to politics. Friends that I had worked with on campaigns starting in 2003 connected me and I ended up becoming Obama campaign’s Get-Out-The-Vote Director in Ohio. That was really the fork in the road for me in terms of my career path.

TADIAS: As Principal of 50+1 Strategies you successfully led as Campaign Manager for Cory Booker and Gavin Newsom’s campaigns among other candidates. Can you share more about what motivated you to found your own organization?

Addisu: I started my own organization in 2011. I was getting married and my wife wanted to move to California, so I left Washington D.C. in 2010, and in the middle of 2011 I decided to start my own firm and figure out how I was going to continue working in politics and campaigns without having to keep flying to different places around the country to run campaigns. I started seeking out clients and doing it on my own. I currently have two big clients — one is the upcoming Democratic Convention and working for Biden’s campaign and the other is a new organization called More Than a Vote.

TADIAS: You are now Senior Advisor for presidential candidate Joe Biden and working on the 2020 Democratic Convention. Can you tell us more about your current work?

Addisu: My job is essentially to produce the convention, which starts on August 17th. I do everything from the program, to the budget management, to fundraising, to political relations with members of Congress or with Governors or what have you. It’s kind of a little bit of everything. No one day is like any other that’s for sure. We’re trying to produce a convention in the midst of a pandemic. It’s gonna be nothing like anything anyone has ever done before, but we have a mission – and that is to present Joe Biden to the country. He is somebody who has been in public life for 40 years, but still people need a better sense of who he is and what he’s fighting for. The job of the convention, every year, and especially this year, is to communicate that to the country and to the world. And I’m in charge of helping to make that happen.

TADIAS: You’ve also focused on fighting voter suppression with the organization More Than a Vote. Can you share more about their focus and how others can get more informed and involved?

Addisu: This is my other big client, and once the convention ends, it will be my main client as I want to put a lot of work into it for obvious reasons. I got connected through people I know who put me in touch with Maverick Carter who runs James LeBron’s organization as well as Adam Mendelsohn who is his Communications Advisor. And they had been talking about this idea with LeBron and others to have a coalition of athletes that can engage politically. They wanted someone to help lead the organization and I feel that I am the right person because you need someone who understands politics and understands campaigns and at the same time it’s as much a cultural movement as it is a political one. We’re trying to use culturally relevant figures to create politically relevant content that’s authentic, that’s grounded and real and raw. We got it off the ground in June, largely to be honest because of the murder of George Floyd and Breona Taylor and others, which galvanized athletes to action and wanted to put their voices together and lift it up, in this moment and beyond, on behalf of black people in America. So that is what we are doing. We’re building an organization just like any other, any union or political organization that exists out there to advocate for people – these are just people who have as big a platform as anyone and as loud a voice as anybody to make change. And they are ready to use it, and I’m ready to help them do it.

TADIAS: Who are the mentors who have inspired and encouraged you to blaze your trail?

Addisu: My dad obviously. He died five and half years ago. He was always supportive and proud of what I was doing. I would say he was initially confused when I switched my major from biochemistry to political science in college, and very confused when I decided to move to Iowa to work for John Kerry. I was gonna be a doctor, and then I scrapped that. And then I got a law degree and he was like “phew, he’s back on track.” Then I went back to politics and he was like “what the hell are you doing?” But I think once he saw me work for Obama and go to the White House and run Corey Booker’s campaign for Senate (the first one I ran) – he was like ‘okay I get that this is an actual career and actual profession and I appreciate it,’ and he was always great and definitely encouraging and supportive.

Professionally, Ben Jealous helped me get my first job on the Kerry campaign, and has been someone that I’ve stayed in touch with and has been helpful to me. I definitely look up to him as a justice warrior and he is a great guy. Terry McAulife, Former Governor of Virginia, who was my boss in 2004, taught me a lot about politics and about how to treat people and how to be a leader when he was the DNC Chair and I was his assistant. He has really been a great mentor to me. Corey Booker is certainly on that list too. He’s someone I look up to as a person of character. He’s a real mentor. I’ve ran his campaign for Senate and President, and he’s somebody who models good behavior as a public figure and somebody who has not compromised his values or his character to get to very high places in politics. There is this public image, and sometimes a private one as well, about the need to be a backstabbing, manipulative person to get ahead in politics and I actually don’t believe that. And Corey and Terry are proof of that. They’re just good people..people of high character, and good moral values who are in it for the right reasons. I’d like to think of myself as that and I’ve also tried to model myself after the way they conduct themselves and I definitely look up to both of them.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve had many people open doors for me like Elaine Jones when she was head of NAACP legal defense fund. My whole career wouldn’t have happened without her if she hadn’t spotted me and said, “you know what, you should go to Washington. You’ll be really good at this if you just get the opportunity.” I think I was 20 years old when I interviewed with her. Leslie Proll, who was also my boss at LDF, is someone that I still keep in touch with and who remains a big champion for me. To have people want to help you at a young age and see something in you, and want to lift you up, and put you in positions to succeed is a pretty cool thing. I’ve been lucky to have that at basically every stage of my career.

TADIAS: What do you like most about your work? What are the challenges?

Addisu: As I’ve gotten older what I really like about it is that every day I feel like I’m making a difference, which I know sounds trite, but every time I’ve tried to go into a profession or a job that doesn’t have a mission-driven basis then I fail. Money is not enough of a motivator for me, prestige is not a big enough motivator for me. I need mission. I need purpose in my professional work – what gets me up in the morning is doing mission-based work. I work 16 to17 hours a day right now because I got these two huge projects that I’m leading, but I don’t care because I love it. I feel like I’m changing the world. And when I see people like Corey introduce legislation or Gavin do something great here in California I’m like “you know what? I helped to put them there.” When Barack Obama got elected and passed the Affordable Care Act I may have had a very small piece in the broad scheme of things in doing it but I know that I did something that helped move the ball forward and that is what motivates me.

I think the challenge of this work is, first of all, there are very long and difficult hours and most of it is not glamourous. It’s very hard relational work that you put a lot of labor into, and so you’re really tired on a physical and emotional level if you do this work every day. It’s also slow, you don’t get everything that you want. You know, this moment even now that we’re in with George Floyd and the BLM movement gaining power, rightly so, it feels like I’ve seen this movie before and I’m thinking ‘is this gonna be the time where it has a different ending or not?’ I don’t know. But you gotta have hope that it is. Every once in a while you get your Affordable Care Acts, but more often than not you get nothing. And you gotta remember those wins, so that the losses that we had in 2016 or the one I had with Corey’s presidential campaign don’t land so hard, because you lose more often than you win or you get half wins. Pure victories are very rare. Election night 2008 was one of the greatest nights of my life, but I don’t think I’ve had that feeling in politics more than five times. That sort of ‘we did it’ pure, joy, bliss and feeling like we accomplished exactly what we set out to accomplish – it doesn’t happen very often. You’re reaching for that every day but in 20 years it has come five times – that’s few and far between. Oftentimes you have little wins that accumulate, and you gotta celebrate those, and ultimately something good happens at the end of the rainbow.

TADIAS: Your mission and work and the choices you made – your story is a brand new story for us. What advice would you give the young generation. What message would you share with them in terms of moving from being “interested in politics and political campaigns” to actually doing the footwork. Not just getting engaged themselves but getting communities mobilized?

Addisu: I think the key thing that I’ve learned in both doing it and now being in senior roles is how important ‘just doing it’ is. The people who stand out, and grow, and who succeed and ascend in this business, it’s a meritocracy. Hard work and throwing yourself into it and not looking for glory is what really pays off. And also, start your own thing. We’ve seen with the March for our Lives, the Women’s March that a lot of it is grassroots-driven. It’s just people saying “I’m sick of it, I’m doing it myself. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll figure it out while I go along.”

The entrepreneurial spirit in our community, and many others, is there when it comes to business, but it’s not there when it comes to politics. Both Yohannes [Abraham] and I, we both started at the bottom. We didn’t try to jump in at the middle, or get jobs that have fancy titles. We were field organizers, which is the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to campaigns, but you gotta start there. Everybody starts there, that’s how you learn. That’s how you meet people. That’s how you grow your network. That’s how you get into positions that we are in right now after years of toiling. And you can’t rush that process. It happens fast if you let it happen but if you force it, it doesn’t happen. Think about Yohannes he went from being a field organizer in Iowa in 2007 to running the transition in 2020. That’s not that long, and frankly four years ago he was running the biggest office in the White House. That’s what you can actually do in this business. But you gotta start somewhere and learn it.

Related:

Biden Selects Yohannes Abraham as Member of Transition Team

Interview: Helen Amelga, California Senate Field Rep & Founder of Ethiopian Democratic Club of LA

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