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Trey Baker, Biden’s top aide on Black voters, talks lessons as he exits White House

Black voters delivered the 2020 election for President Joe Biden. During the Democratic Primary, his candidacy was flagging until South Carolina voters turned out in droves for the former Vice President. He racked up delegates across the South and never looked back.

At the center of that campaign strategy was Trey Baker, Biden’s National Director for African American Engagement. Baker grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, which he credits with instilling in him at a young age an understanding of how civil rights, power and politics intersect.

“I identified that so many of the oppressive things, so much of the institutional, systemic racism that you can see play itself out in Mississippi, in order to get to the heart of it, you have to know the laws and know how to deal with the rules, especially in order to change them,” Baker told Reckon in an interview.

While at Tougaloo College, Baker met Congressman Bennie Thompson. He eventually joined Thompson’s team as legislative counsel before becoming city manager of his hometown of Grenada. While there, he helped pass a two-cent sales tax to enable the construction of a sports complex, built a community safe room with a FEMA grant, implemented body cams for Grenada police officers, and built other infrastructure projects.

Baker said it was that local experience that helped drive Biden’s campaign strategy, treating every race like it was a mayor’s race. Baker joined the administration as Senior Advisor for Public Engagement, helping to implement many of the policies and promises Biden had made to Black voters during the campaign.

After two years in the administration, he’s leaving to enter private practice with Barnes & Thornburg, a national law firm.

He sat down with Reckon for an informal exit interview, reflecting on his time in the Biden Administration and assessing the president’s track record on topics like student loans, inflation, policing and voting rights. Despite Biden’s low approval ratings, Baker argues that “the president has had probably the most successful legislative agenda in a generation,” while acknowledging that there remains work to be done.

He also addressed what it’s been like to see his mentor, and fellow Mississippian, Rep. Bennie Thompson, overseeing the January 6 Committee hearings.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: Congressman Bennie Thompson has had a moment in the spotlight for the past couple of years with the January 6 committee. So tell me what it’s been like to see him in that role and to see somebody from Mississippi in that role.

Trey Baker: I think it is such a great story to see [someone] from Bolton, Mississippi who went to the Bolton Colored School, who had to deal with so much in the ‘60s and ‘70s in terms of that domestic terrorism that was playing itself out at that time, to then be the person to take this very recent instance of what turned out to be domestic terrorism and be the person to track it down with this committee. So it is really apropos and a full circle moment for him.

I’m really happy to see him get this national spotlight, because he actually doesn’t. He leans away from it and he leans into the work. But I think to see him highlighted in this way is really good. I think it’s good for Mississippi so that people know the kind of leaders that we have in Mississippi. But it’s also good for him because I think he deserves to be put in this spotlight, because he’s done the work so much, and he’s been in the background of lifting other people up for so long. So I mean, it really shows everyone what we all know about the man, which is just the phenomenal leader that he is.

Reckon: I think it is the common narrative that African American voters, especially Black women in the South during the 2020 primaries delivered the election to Biden. South Carolina was where he turned things around and never stopped from that point. What was it about Biden? What was it about the Biden campaign that resonated with Black voters that delivered him the election? Because he didn’t necessarily have the best track record historically on race.

Baker: Yeah, I think I would push back a little bit on historically having a good track record. He had been someone who was historically known in the community, in South Carolina, having a large presence there. Someone who in the Wilmington, Delaware area, where he got his start, he became a lifetime member of the NAACP at a very young age and has worked within those communities. You look back on the Mother Emanuel shooting in South Carolina when he was Vice President, and he really leaned into that community and that church family in a way where there was a real sense of connection, and sympathy, and empathy at what was happening.

And so I think there are points, and I recognize this and I had to contend with it during the campaign, there are some larger issues around [Biden’s previous] policy, most importantly, the Crime Bill of ‘94—and people can make distinctions about what the clarion call was for it then.

But I think that there was a history there, one. Two, there was a sense in his policies that those things that he may not have gotten all the way right in previous policies that he would help to undo. Which actually, we just did with some of the policies that we had on policing, including changing the crack and powder cocaine differential that was in the ‘94 Crime Bill, and in putting back in place some of those community policing efforts.

But I think also when you look at our strategy, we used a localized approach to the outreach. So essentially we were going into each community and basically running for mayor of that community, right? And we took, step by step, each of those issues. The Black community in Las Vegas is far different than the Black community in Mississippi, which is far different than the Black community in Iowa, which may not have huge numbers, but the community was there. And so we tried to localize the approach, make sure we were speaking to the issues of each of those communities.

And the other thing that we did, that I think other campaigns missed the mark, we did a lot of the fundamentals. Other campaigns took for granted some of those simple things, going where voters are, going to churches, going to community associations, going to the neighborhoods in favor of something that was more of an approach around television ads or social media. And our voters are in those places, in those churches. When we were forced to change that dynamic with the COVID pandemic, what we were able to do was flex a muscle that we didn’t know we had in creating social and virtual spaces that played that same role. And I think that’s where we were really successful.

Reckon: Well, let’s fast forward. Biden wins and you step into a role at the White House doing similar outreach.

Baker: Yep.

Reckon: Obviously, Biden’s approval ratings dipped among all groups over the last few years, as often happens with presidents going into their midterms. But we did see his approval dip slightly with Black voters. Do you think that he has delivered on the promises that he made to Black voters in 2020? Certainly, we can say definitively he delivered on putting a Black woman on the Supreme Court.

Baker: Mm-hmm.

Reckon: But let’s look at this week’s prime example of tuition forgiveness. Biden did deliver on his promise in terms of delivering $10,000 worth of student loan debt forgiveness, but I believe he also had pledged full forgiveness for graduates of HBCUs. Is that correct? Am I remembering that correctly?

Baker: Yeah. Yeah, I think that was a part of it.

Reckon: And so walk me through some of the policies that you think that he has delivered on that may have fallen through the cracks, and then also one that you think he still has work to do in the next two years.

Baker: Yeah. So I have the distinction of being able to say I was there to be a part of the “Lift Every Voice” plan for Black America during the campaign, and then also get an opportunity to execute on it here. So I think you’re right, he’s hit the mark on a number of things and there’s still work to do on others. So that is admittedly true.

Starting first with what has been successful, we can take Ketanji Brown Jackson, and that promise that was made and was kept in a big way. But not only her sitting on the Supreme Court, but having nominated and confirmed nine Black women to the Circuit Court of Appeals. There had only been eight Black women on the Circuit Court of Appeals in the nation’s history. So presidents 1 through45, there had only been eight, and in 18 months, he has delivered the nine, and so I think that’s something that we have to really make sure that people understand.

We talked about economic mobility for the Black community during the campaign, and the American Rescue Plan, delivering checks in pockets, delivering shots in arms to help people get back to business. But there’s also a lot in the way of actual funding that went to Black-owned businesses. I’m thinking about the navigator programs from SBA to help Black businesses. Two organizations, the National Urban League and the US Black Chamber received funding for them to be able to have a navigator program to get resources directly into these communities. You also look at making the Minority Business Development Agency permanent through the bipartisan infrastructure law. Those things are going to help on the economic front.

The educational things that were promised, just in the first 18 months, there’s been more than $5.6 billion for HBCUs that have been a part of legislation—more than any administration ever—despite some of the misinformation that was going on. And so that promise to HBCUs was delivered in a big way, including reestablishing different portions of the White House HBCU initiative. So some of those things were a part of that initial programming.

The things that are large and looming of course are voting rights, and police reform, as well as the student loan debt. But as you said, the student loan portion has been done. But in addition to just that 10,000, I do just want to make note of the billions of dollars in other kinds of student loan forgiveness, including that to those [who attended] for-profit colleges, including that for people with disabilities, for veterans, including having a lot of changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that’s going to help tons of Black citizens be able to lock into that public service loan forgiveness. So we have all of that in play.

Reckon: I mean, this is, of course, an unprecedented amount of loan forgiveness, I’ll acknowledge that. But there’s also the argument that this is really just putting a band-aid on the problem of runaway college and university costs, and that it’s only going to be a few years before we’re right back at the same amount of student loan debt that we were at before. Maybe it’s different people than it is now. But do you know of a plan, of efforts in the works to address that more structural problem of how expensive college has gotten in the United States?

Baker: Yeah. I mean, this goes to wanting to do more as a part of what was the Build Back Better plan. There was, on both ends of the K-12 spectrum, two more years of pre-K and two years post-high school education. If we were able to do that, if we were able to get that done through some version of Build Back Better, I think that is something that’s still being pushed, and I think that would go a long way to helping people.

But what I anticipate that we will see is a number of these continual efforts to take specific communities, specific schools, and either forgive the debt or do more to make it affordable. The Pell Grant has increased since we’ve been here.

And so I think you’ll find if it’s not some kind of whole policy or plan that takes care of everything, which I don’t anticipate, I think you will continue to see changes in places where we can get it done. So the Pell Grant, places where we can come to some kind of agreement. And so I don’t know that there’s going to be some holistic fix all of a sudden, but I think the administration is going to continue to try to push toward affordability in those places where we can get it done.

Reckon: And it sounds like that, if I’m understanding what you’re saying correctly, more of that could have been done on the legislative side if there had been the legislative will to get that passed.

Baker: Absolutely.

Reckon: But a lot of it can’t be done as far as an Executive Order. Okay, well, let’s talk about policing.

Baker: Absolutely. And that’s a great segue into the conversation about both voting rights and police reform. There were laws sitting out there. There were laws sitting out there that were passed by the House of representatives, both the George Floyd Justice in Policing and John Lewis Voting Rights Act were there for the passing. But for not being able to get it done in the Senate, those things would be law right now and we would be having a much different conversation about the President’s track record as it relates to these things that were promised to the Black community.

And so any of this not getting done was not a lack of will from the President. He was sitting there in the Oval Office at the Resolute Desk with his pen in hand ready to sign both of those pieces of legislation.

But since it wasn’t done on the Congressional side, specifically on the Senate side, Executive Orders have been passed both in the policing space, which I talked about the EO that was passed to help with community policing to give resources to help with creating a national database of bad actors so that we can keep these bad acting police out of police departments. Then there was an Executive Order done, or multiple Executive Orders as it relates to voting, but those only had federal application. It did some things that are good giving federal employees the ability to have a day off to vote, having registration at any federal building, making tribal lands be more accessible for voting.

And so I think through Executive Order, the President and the Vice President have done absolutely all that they can to get towards those promises. And then they also legislatively worked very hard to get both George Floyd Justice in policing, which was very close, and also John Lewis Voting Rights very close to passage. So while those things have, more or less, fallen short, it was by no means by a lack of effort in the Biden administration. I can personally attest to the effort that the President gave to those things, and he’s going to continue to do it.

Reckon: Biden did not campaign on any form of defunding the police. I don’t want to frame it in a way where he did. But it does seem like there was a national appetite for police reform, and some of his response has instead been increased funding for police.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that some of these increased funds towards police are more to creating things like this database. But what’s the thought process behind putting more cops on the street if we have not yet figured out how to better regulate policing in America?

Baker: Yeah. You know, I definitely understand the activist point of view on policing, and particularly around interactions with community. But as a former city manager, someone who had to put police on the street, someone who signed off on every police hire that we had, I understand how capacity and having more police will give you the ability to do certain things.

In Grenada, our police had to cover so much ground that it was hard to set up the foot patrols, and community policing efforts, and all of the auxiliary efforts that put the police in position where they know the community and, thus, are less likely to make the mistakes that we see happening across the country.

And in many ways, that’s a lack of capacity, and you end up having police just in police cars going back and forth from call to call instead of doing any community policing that’s going to have them embedded in the community. And so in a very direct way, there is a need there.

I can see where there isn’t an appetite nationally. But from the point of view of someone who had to put folks on the streets every day, I believe that there is a need for additional capacity. And there’s also a need for additional training, which is what this does. It gives the ability to have additional training. It gives the ability for communities to get their police mental health training. And that’s extremely important to being able to have a police force that gets it, doesn’t get burned out, doesn’t make the mistakes that you see get made with tired, mentally strained police.

So though it may not be this appetite out here for it, there is a very good, very practical reason for giving more resources.

At the same time, there has to be additional accountability, and that’s also what the president’s Executive Order did. It made police more accountable by creating this national database. And so I think that’s the way I square that circle. Really getting more capacity, being able to train better police will give us the ability to not see the mistakes made that are. Having a database that can tell us who the bad actors are helps us. And so this additional funding that goes to police is I think ultimately will be more helpful.

And then some of this funding is being used to divert to different types of programs, more social welfare programs instead of just straight up policing, which is another thing that the president understands. And then we also have to take accountability over the way that this additional funding is being executed on the back end.

Reckon: A lot of the stuff that you’ve outlined, relief for Black businesses. I mean, relief for all businesses, not just Black businesses, relief during the pandemic. And certainly, some of those relief checks were distributed by the Trump administration, as well. But the stop and the reset of the economy in the last few years has certainly led to inflation.

How much of that is attributable to the Biden administration, and how much of that is attributable to Trump administration, how much to that is attributable to Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine, and all of these things, I’ll leave that up to the economists to decide. But there’s no argument that higher prices, especially in places that you and I hold dear like Alabama and Mississippi where we also have taxes on groceries, are disproportionately hurting a lot of the people in places we care about. And so I know that the bill was called the Inflation Reduction Act, but what are some tangible ways that we can see benefits? Is the Biden administration doing enough to address those pocketbook issues for people who are seeing their grocery prices rise?

Baker: Yeah. So I think the first thing, and this isn’t a part of the Inflation Reduction Act, but we’ve already seen gas prices go down because of the President’s efforts to increase production work with our partners and then also go straight to producers and push back against what’s essentially greed. So we’ve seen gas prices drop over the last month, which is a good thing, and that’s a direct result of the work that the president is doing.

Another, when you look at the Inflation Reduction Act, the first thing that I think about is drug prices, and prescription drug prices, and giving Medicare the ability to negotiate for these certain prices. That’s going to be immediately helpful. I think about my mom, and her having to get her prescriptions filled. It’s going to be of immediate help to her. Being able to reform taxes in a way that’s going to take your highest earners and be able to get a more balanced tax from them. Also having the subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, those tweaks to Obamacare are really going to help folks.

And so you’ll start to see over time that prices for everyday things will make a bounce back. I think what we’re seeing on the inflation side is still the hangover from COVID-19, and that’s really going to be a matter of time, more than the policies that can be put into play on those.

But we also need to get congressional help around the things that we can do. We were able to get it done this time through the Inflation Reduction Act, but that’s going to be specific to certain industries. It’s not just prescription drug costs. It’s going to be helping with climate resiliency, it’s going to help create new, clean jobs. But I think it’ll still be some time as we’re bouncing back from COVID-19 till people are back on line that we’ll see some of these prices go down. And so I think that’s just a matter of time that we will get to that.

What we can’t legislate away from is greed, and people taking advantage of the moment. And so we just have to work our way around whatever fixes that we can make on the competitive structure. The CHIPS and Science Act which was passed is a way of making us more competitive here for anything that has certain microchips in them, and being able to produce that here, which will ultimately bring down costs for anything from your refrigerator to your telephone.

So there are ways there. But quite frankly, it’s hard to do everything at one time, and I think each of these initiatives is very helpful. I’ll say overall that the president has had probably the most successful legislative agenda in a generation at least. And so he’ll continue to try but each and each and everything can’t be fixed immediately and he knows that. But he’s making every effort possible to make sure that people know that the things that are around their community and their houses are the things that he values and what are important.

Reckon: I’ll wrap up with a lighter question. So you’re leaving the administration. Tell me about what drove that decision. And then tell me about what’s something that we haven’t discussed today that, when you think back on your time in the administration, will be one of the first things that you think of and that you hope that the American public remembers?

Baker: Between the campaign and the administration, I’ve been in this mix for almost four years now, and so thought it was a good time to transition out and look at how I can continue to be helpful in the space, and continue to work with the administration and with government. And as I talk to different people, something that I have that’s unique is I have worked at just about every level of government. I’ve been in local government. I have been a staffer on Capitol Hill and helped in the Legislative Branch. I have a very immediate experience in the Executive Branch and directly with the president.

And so this was a skillset that it has value in the world, and I’m able to help a broad swath of people to be able to access government and to be able to work through it. And so I looked out at people who were doing this kind of work, and Barnes & Thornburg has a good history of having done that. They’ve done work on both the Republican and Democratic sides, so it’s a bipartisan operation.

I was told a long time ago by a very wise mentor of mine that the people who are most remembered in this world are the people who build things. And so throughout my career, I’ve been working to build things. I built in Grenada, like physical structures. I built things that will be there longer than I’ll be here. I built an engagement program and a community through the campaign that I took into the administration. And in this case, I want to build a practice that is able to service folks, whether it’s local, state, federal, and really be able to help our clients to work through a lot of what I was able to help put in place through the American Rescue Plan and bipartisan infrastructure law, and how they can utilize all these things. So Barnes & Thornburg provided that as an outlet. In looking at their partnership, they’ve got a lot of folks who have experience and who have practices that I’d be able to build off of for my own.

And there comes a time in the administration where it is just time to cycle out, get some fresh blood in. As we ramp up towards the midterms, you got to make a decision to be in or be out, and I wanted to try my hand at the private sector and do some of this work, and but at the same time, stay connected in DC to the community that I’ve built here.

Reckon: You sound like you are somebody who might be running for office. Is that something that we should expect?

Baker: I think that’s a very time and place situation. It’s got to be the right time, where the people call you to do it. But it’s not something that I would rule out at all.

Reckon: And so tell me about what you’ll think of when you look back at your time in the administration?

I feel like a lot of people don’t necessarily get close to the president or the vice President. And it is really cool to be from Grenada, Mississippi and have a relationship with the President of the United States. I still don’t think I get it. I think I’ll get it after I don’t have access. But my mom has gotten to meet the president, both of my sisters have met the president. My mom and my sisters have also met the vice president, and got to come to her house for Juneteenth, which the process of making that a federal holiday was something that I was heavily involved in.

And I guess the thing that I’d like to get across is that, from a personal standpoint, I really think Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the president and vice president, are genuinely good people who want to help. Like that’s what I saw up close. They’re very concerned about wanting to make things better for people in this country and using their office to do that. I found that to be genuine. I found they push their staffs to think with that mindset, with that heart for service. And it’s not just talk. It’s not just lip service that’s being paid.

When I was sick once, the President picked up the phone, and called my mama, and assured her that they were taking care of me. And so and he did that while we were in Tulsa commemorating the 100th year since the Tulsa massacres, where he was the first president to actually give recognition to what had happened and then also call out systemic racism for what it is.

And so that was a very human moment interspersed with something that was so historic. And in this moment, he was thinking about my well-being, and my family. But I find that to be his approach to everything. And so just like I take a localized approach from my time in Grenada, I think they take a very personal approach and really care about what people are doing.

John Hammontree

John Hammontree | jhammontree@reckonmedia.com

John Hammontree is a co-founder of Reckon. He currently serves as Executive Producer of Reckon Radio, host of the Reckon Interview podcast, and author of The Conversation, a weekly newsletter that digs into ideas, perspectives and people that you're not likely to find in other media.

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