“Having gone through it, a presidential [campaign] is literally building the plane while you’re flying it at the same time. You never have all the resources you need when you need them. You have to be resourceful.”
Following the 2020 political season, Karen Andre is taking a well-deserved breath. She coordinated efforts in the Biden for President campaign as senior advisor for Florida and senior advisor for National Faith Outreach. Her next chapter begins in the new Biden-Harris administration with a role as special assistant to the president for presidential personnel.
The Haitian American born in New York and raised in Florida had been a state-level political operative in various roles since 2004. She was a senior adviser to Andrew Gillum leading up to his 2018 Democratic primary win for Florida governor. She was even a presidential appointee in the Obama White House. But after some time in private business and sitting out the 2016 race, she realized that the 2020 election might be the most consequential in her lifetime. Duty called her back to Florida.
We spoke with Andre and some of her organizing allies about their 2020 campaign work in Florida, a convoluted state with a liberal-leaning south and conservative-rooted north. We discussed where Caribbean Americans fit into their efforts — as targets and leaders — as well as the experience of helping to shape a historic election.
Managing Power and Responsibility
Looking back, the disappointing result of the election in Florida wasn’t a surprise to Andre. There are lessons learned in each cycle that the Democratic party at large has not retained. Clearest among these for her is that outreach to Black and minority communities, the party’s most reliable base, seems like an afterthought each election season. If you only call when you need something, how strong can the relationship really become?
“There are some in the state that still don’t get it in terms of investments that they need to make in our communities,” said Andre, who got into politics to positively influence lawmakers. “The local operatives [do], but when we’re on a presidential campaign, which is now a national entity, that’s like a mother with 50 children.”
With so many groups competing for attention, it can be difficult to be heard.
Given the duty of staffing the entire Florida operation, Andre handpicked cohorts for Caribbean voter outreach. Thamar Harrigan, Biden for America’s director of Haitian outreach in Florida, for example, fit snugly into her role connecting with her own community. Andre tasked Sophia Nelson, a Jamaican living in South Florida, with reaching Anglo-Caribbean voters.
It’s these well-connected warriors that made the best inroads. But they, too, recognized glaring strategic communication issues. In this cycle, Nelson said targeted minority outreach started just about a month before Election Day.
“Campaigns have to do better,” she said. “These communities want to be engaged but the engagement started too late.”
While Andre agrees, her opinion mirrors her thoughts on general market communication. “It’s very much a two-way street.”
She points to people like Miami developer and policy advocate Barron Channer and Lauderdale Lakes Mayor Hazelle Rogers. They “win,” she said, because they lead the charge.
“The people who advocate the most effectively don’t wait for the campaign to come calling. They decide who they like [and] engage them.”
Channer, CEO of Woodwater Group, a private investment firm with holdings in real estate and technology, is vocal about a proactive approach to politics.
“Support [should] be focused on helping those that embrace your core agenda and can be trusted to do so after they have won,” he said.
He advocates for establishing paths of least resistance into Caribbean communities. “Collective advocacy would bring more power to the individual agendas of those from Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and so on.”
Harrigan said optimistically that in this cycle she observed steps being taken in the right direction and saw that representation matters.
“The Biden-Harris campaign built a team of staffers that looked like our communities,” she said. “The reason we saw commitments to the Haitian community, a first for any campaign — ever — was a direct reflection of the number of [Haitians] on the campaign.”
Black Girl Magic
The 2020 election cycle placed Andre squarely in the midst of an epic convergence of feminine energy. The influence of women “was magic,” she reflected.
“I’m a big history buff,” she said. “And it was thrilling to be at the intersection of these historic moments.”
Andre remembered the “thrill” of meeting Harris in person. But her first interaction with the vice presidential candidate was a surprise assignment from Harris’ chief of staff Karine Jean Pierre, a fellow Haitian American.
With only a few minutes notice, “I get a text from Karine one morning saying you’re about to get an invite to brief the senator — Excuse me?!” Andre shared, jokingly.
Inside the campaign, she was energized. From Jamaican-Indian-American Kamala Harris being elected vice president and political powerhouse Jean Pierre being chosen to lead an all-female senior communications team for the White House to the women building campaign connections in Florida — Andre described a synergistic and supportive cadre.
“People assume that women, or Black women, in power can’t get along, and when I tell you — it’s been nothing but a love fest.”
For Harrigan, Florida’s crew, in particular, comprised amazing women from the Caribbean community materially contributing to the broad conversation. And none from within that group was more well regarded than Andre herself.
“She’s always everyone’s fiercest advocate,” Harrigan said. “She works hard, but still manages, in the midst of it all, to remember to bring others into the room. She is a teacher, mentor, sponsor and champion to many. Ask anyone in the civil engagement / political supply chain and they have their own Karen Andre story where she opened a door for them.”
“The political world is cutthroat, so teamwork, at times, is viewed more so as, ‘How does this benefit me?’” she said. “I am happy that was not the climate that Karen fostered. [She] was the needed voice, a champion and steady leader.”
A Mission Driven Life
The service-minded description of Andre by Harrigan and Nelson reflects her personal mission statement.
Her motto is, “I am because we are.”
“No matter how high I go, if it’s just me up there, it’s no fun,” Andre said.
Even her entree into politics was mission-driven.
“As an attorney who went off to law school with dreams of being a forceful advocate for social change, I realized — It’s these people that sit in these seats of power making these laws that may not always reflect the best decisions for us,” Andre said. “So I decided to help elect better lawmakers.”
The Democratic party became a natural home for Andre based on its stated values, including “protecting the rights of the least among us, the most marginalized, the voiceless.” They are ideals reflected in many Christian Caribbean homes. For Andre, they aligned with her personal faith and the values of her Haitian mother, a political activist in both Haiti and Haitian American communities.
“There are parts of my Haitian Heritage that I think are universal to the African diaspora,” she said. “A fierce sense of pride and independence, feeling empowered to create my own destiny, a sense of devotion to uplifting for the better.”
These qualities have served her well, both in her political and private career.
Until her role in the new administration pulls her back to Washington from South Florida, Andre said, she’s enjoying low-key days, island-colored sundresses, comfortable sandals and the occasional rum punch.