The 2022 midterms are just barely starting to ramp up, but Black women political leaders and organizations are already laser-focused on getting more Black women elected, saying Kamala Harris’ historic election as vice president is just the beginning.
According to strategists, operatives and organizers, candidates, states like Massachusetts, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and New York are all top targets for Democrats and Black political activists to try to get more Black women into office.
And this week, Black women stand to make history. The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Kristen Clarke’s nomination to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. If confirmed, Clarke will become the first woman and Black woman to serve in this role in the division’s approximately 64-year existence.
Organizers say that getting more Black women elected is about changing political representation and policy — and some are planning for the next 10 years. For example, Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights, one of the only major national Black women’s political organizing groups, said they’re thinking through a strategic plan for Black women’s political leadership through the 2030 cycle.
“That certainly includes the ability to elect the first woman and Black woman president,” she said, “and to create an opportunity map across this country where we ought to be supporting, recruiting, investing in and training Black women to run for U.S. senators and governors.”
Although women comprise half of the United States’ population, they hold just over a quarter of seats in the U.S. Congress. The numbers are even smaller for Black women. There are zero Black female senators in the 117th Congress. There are also no Black female Republicans, even though the GOP brought in more new female members of Congress than Democrats in the 2020 election. And there’s still never been a Black female governor in our nation’s history. (Four Black women are running in Virginia’s gubernatorial race currently.) And of course, we’ve still not elected a Black female president nor appointed a Black female Supreme Court Justice.
I remember being at a Democratic National Committee event back in 2018 when Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., declared that “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party.” At the time, it was a bold statement — one that finally recognized the political power Black women have as voters, organizers and candidates. Around that time, Democrat Doug Jones’ historic win in the Alabama special Senate runoff happened in large part because of the on-the-ground work of Black women. And they didn’t just help Jones, they delivered a huge win for the Democratic Party.
The Democratic National Committee chairman at the time, Tom Perez, tweeted in December 2017: “Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.”
It all felt like a reckoning. But now, five years later, Black women are still fighting for representation in elected office. “Kamala Harris was a gigantic step forward with her election as vice president,” Carr said. “But it was also at the same point, a step back because we don’t have a Black woman in the U.S. Senate now.” Over 90 percent of Black women voted for Biden-Harris ticket in the 2020 election, according to NBC exit polls.
Last week, Keisha Lance Bottoms, only the second Black woman ever to be elected as Atlanta’s mayor, announced she’s not seeking re-election. She’d talked openly about the difficult realities of being a city executive while raising Black children in a country devastated by police violence against Black and brown communities, and the pandemic hit Atlanta especially hard. “There was last summer. There was a pandemic. There was a social justice movement. There was a madman in the White House,” she said. “It is abundantly clear to me today that it is time to pass the baton on to someone else.”
Though her decision surprised many Democratic operatives as she’s grown to be a rising star in the party, her absence opens a lane for new Black women to try their hand at politics — and what that could mean for the viability of Black women mayoral candidates in other major cities, like Maya Wiley in New York and Andrea Campbell in Boston.
Representation matters, especially at this moment as hate crimes have been on the rise. Just look at this excerpt from Tishaura Jones’ speech after she was elected the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis in April: “I will not stay silent when I spot racism. I will not stay silent when I spot homophobia or transphobia. I will not stay silent when I spot xenophobia. I will not stay silent when I spot religious intolerance. I will not stay silent when I spot any injustice.”
On the Republican side, Black women aren’t being hailed as the backbone of the GOP and their experience can often be a lonely one. Rep. Mia Love was the only Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress in Utah. She lost re-election in 2019. But Kathy Barnette, an Army veteran, is running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, and if elected she would make history as the first Black female Republican elected to the U.S. Senate.
Regardless of what side of the aisle they’re running, Black women candidates stress the importance of bringing your lived experience to your campaigning. For example, Barnette, who’s running in Pennsylvania, shared on the homepage of her campaign website that she had a “disadvantaged” upbringing, is “the by-product of a rape,” and was the first in her family to complete college.
Even Democrats running in more conservative states, like Tennessee, don’t shy away from reality. “I’m Black, I’m gay, I’m stressed, I’m flawed, I’m working class,” said Odessa Kelly, a progressive Democrat challenging Rep. Jim Cooper. She became a parent at 25, her brother spent 11 years in prison, and she felt underpaid for the work she’d been doing for Nashville’s Parks and Recreation department — all things she openly talks about while campaigning.
Having a pipeline of Black women who have been through the campaign process and made history (even those who didn’t win) is crucial to some of these women. Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and presidential campaign co-chair for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, mentioned women like Shirley Chisholm, Reps. Barbara Jordan and Carol Moseley Braun, and Fannie Lou Hamer as trailblazing Black women who inspired her to run.
“At this particular moment, we see the fruits of that labor. Now, we need more fruit to come from that tree,” Turner said. “We’ve still got more miles to go.”
Kelly said one of her first calls after launching her congressional campaign was to Marquita Bradshaw — a Black woman who “pulled off one of 2020’s biggest political upsets,” per the Nashville Post. Bradshaw won the Democratic Party’s nomination for Tennessee’s U.S. Senate seat last cycle, which was a shocker victory given she spent less than $25,000 on her campaign and she was up against a white male candidate backed by the Democratic Party’s Senate campaign arm.
“We just kind of geeked out on the Green New Deal,” Kelly said of her call with Bradshaw.
Turner and Kelly both said that while they’re running in local races, the policies and solutions necessary to meet today’s challenges have broader appeal. “I want to fix systemic problems,” Turner said, “whether they identify as progressives or not.”
More Black women ran in the 2020 cycle than ever before, and advocates expect 2022 will break that record, but running hasn’t significantly changed their representation at the state and federal level.
“Every now and then we, as Black women, reach a ‘sick-and-tired-of-being-sick-and-tired moment,’” said Beverly Smith, national president & CEO for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. “You will see a phenomenon” of all Black women’s political organizations “coming together to make sure we will move the needle,” she added.