“Our state director is Indian-American, but he does an amazing job."


What: It was a softball question. But Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana managed to strike out spectacularly.  


In the final debate of a tightly contested race for US Senate, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the incumbent was asked: "If elected, how will you commit to bring diversity into your leadership and senior staffing, including women, African-Americans, and other underrepresented groups?"

​​Donnelly responded in part by touting the performance of minorities on his staff, but in a way that suggested their success came despite their ethnicity. 


“Our state director is Indian-American, but he does an amazing job," he said. "Our director of all constituent services, she’s African-American, but she does an even more incredible job than you could ever imagine.”


Donnelly then concluded with a hard-to-follow treatise on diversity and inclusion. 


“It isn’t their race or their religion. It’s the incredible person that they are,” he said. “But at the same time they have to have a chance, they have to have an opportunity, and that’s my responsibility. And I’ve done it in every office I’ve had and I’ve done it in every campaign I’ve had because my campaigns and our Senate office should reflect the face of Indiana.”


The answer was widely mocked on Twitter, where it drew comparisons to iconically lame boss Michael Scott's handling of "Diversity Day" on NBC's "The Office."

"Come on. Stir the pot. Stir the melting pot, Pam," Michael memorably urges receptionist Pam Beesly in the 2005 episode. "Let's do it. Let's get ugly. Let's get real!" 

Like his Republican opponent, Mike Braun, Donnelly, a conservative Democrat, tried to tie himself to President Donald Trump, voicing support for a wall on the US-Mexico border and saying he would consider legislation to end birthright citizenship. However, he warned that Braun would cut Indianans Social Security and Medicare entitlements. 


Braun sought to portray himself as an “outsider” businessman, much like the president. 

Why: While some wrote off Donnelly's words as a mostly harmless gaffe, a number of conservatives saw a double standard.


They predicted that a Republican candidate would have been skewered for the same comments, with some ​noting that Hillary Clinton had gotten away with an edgy joke about African-Americans during a public interview on Friday. 

Left largely unsaid was that Donnelly played into the notion, common among conservatives, that Democratic rhetoric about diversity is often a kind of patronizing tokenism. 


To be fair: Candidate Lucy Brenton didn't exactly hit a home run with her answer, either, averring that as a libertarian she was incapable of discerning ethnicity. 

Cover image: Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana speaks at a US Senate debate in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Oct. 30, 2018. (Screenshot from YouTube)