Black Women Legislators Are Rare in Statehouses. This Could Be the Solution.

 In SLED, State

In late May, Mona Das watched as protests unfold­ed in Minneapolis over the killing of George Floyd.

A sen­a­tor in Washington state, Das felt like she needed to do some­thing to address the sys­temic racism that had cre­at­ed con­di­tions for a white police offi­cer to kneel onto the neck of Floyd, a Black man, for more than eight min­utes.

“I was sit­ting on the couch think­ing, ‘What can I do?’” she recalled.

Das observed people on her social media feed rais­ing match­ing funds to help arrest­ed pro­test­ers with bail money. As she wit­nessed the col­lec­tive power of people open­ing their wal­lets to respond to the moment, Das thought about how that might help can­di­dates of color — specif­i­cal­ly, she knew of sev­er­al Black women run­ning for the Washington state­house — and how that could shift polit­i­cal power and who gets to wield it. Oftentimes, at her state Capitol and else­where, it has been white men.

“The only thing that’s going to make a dif­fer­ence is policy change,” Das, a Democrat, said. “And the only people who are going to make a dif­fer­ence in policy are elect­ed offi­cials.”

Das texted a local donor and asked if she would make a match­ing gift. The donor respond­ed imme­di­ate­ly, com­mit­ting $2,500. Das knew she was onto some­thing. She con­tact­ed Shasti Conrad, chair of the King County Democrats (which rep­re­sents com­mu­ni­ties in and around Seattle), to help spear­head the idea.

Opportunity PAC was born. Its goal, amid this time of social and polit­i­cal upheaval in America, is to elect sev­er­al Black women to the Washington State Legislature. It is high­light­ing eight: Seven who are seek­ing seats to the state House of Representatives (two are incum­bents) and one who is run­ning for the state Senate. The group has also con­tributed money to sev­er­al other Black women run­ning for dif­fer­ent state­house races and judge­ships.

Das, an Indian woman, still remem­bers the chal­lenges of fundrais­ing as a can­di­date in 2018 when she won her Senate seat (she briefly ran for a con­gres­sion­al seat ear­li­er that year but she dropped out over fundrais­ing con­cerns in the crowd­ed race).

“Women of color in gen­er­al are taught not to ask for money, not to raise money, not to be com­fort­able around money,” she said. “And so I just turned my trauma of run­ning for office into a fundrais­ing machine for these other women.”

In just a few months, the polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee has raised nearly $200,000 — with more pledges on the way — to help the can­di­dates, all Democrats who advanced out of their August 4 pri­ma­ry, accord­ing to Conrad, one of the co-founders of Opportunity PAC. The group is also orga­niz­ing a vir­tu­al con­cert in mid-October to raise more funds.

“Having these women in the state leg­is­la­ture will change the types of poli­cies that get put for­ward. It’ll change the kind of people that will be rep­re­sent­ed, and what deci­sions are being made,” she said.

A small but grow­ing number of polit­i­cal groups around the coun­try are active­ly trying to increase the number of people of color in elect­ed office, and an even small­er number are exclu­sive­ly focused on elect­ing Black women.

Opportunity PAC appears to be one of only a few devot­ed almost entire­ly to state­house races — and Conrad hopes it can be a model for sim­i­lar efforts in other states.

“It’s about chang­ing insti­tu­tions and chang­ing struc­tures,” she said. “In such a height­ened polit­i­cal time, sup­port­ing people run­ning for office, par­tic­u­lar­ly Black women, also makes a lot of sense.”

Joy Stanford’s second attempt at run­ning for office feels dif­fer­ent.

Back in 2018, Stanford ran for the Washington House as a first-time can­di­date who was trying to ele­vate issues like hous­ing and home­less­ness. She lost by about 10 percentage points.

This year she has the sup­port of Opportunity PAC. The group spends money on dig­i­tal ads and other adver­tis­ing in sup­port of can­di­dates, but it is legal­ly barred from direct­ly coor­di­nat­ing with them.

“The momen­tum is so much better and pal­pa­ble,” Stanford said. “They’ve ele­vat­ed us as, ‘Here’s some­one who cares. Here’s some­one who’s going to rep­re­sent every­one, no matter if you vote for them or not. They are going to include you when they are think­ing about policy and when they are writ­ing policy.’”

Tanisha Harris, anoth­er House can­di­date that Opportunity PAC is sup­port­ing, agrees. She has spoken with Stanford about how dif­fer­ent things feel for them this year because there is “so much more sup­port for us.” Harris also ran in 2018 and lost by just under 860 votes.

Harris said the renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter move­ment — which has high­light­ed not just Floyd’s death, but the killings of other Black Americans includ­ing Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — has high­light­ed the can­di­da­cies of people of color.

“People of color and low-income people, we’ve always been kind of rising up for social jus­tice and our causes and our values and beliefs,” she said. “But some­thing has changed over the last six to nine months. We see more allies coming out and speak­ing out, too.”

Black women face addi­tion­al bar­ri­ers to run­ning for office, accord­ing to Conrad. Even tra­di­tion­al cam­paign wisdom can be com­pli­cat­ed for them to heed. She recalled some­thing one can­di­date expe­ri­enced.

“One of the can­di­date train­ing pro­grams said, ‘Go and fundraise from your net­work. Go ask your family or ask your friends,’” Conrad said. “And one of the women said, ‘My family and my friends are strug­gling … we don’t have inter­gen­er­a­tional wealth. So when you’re asking me to go to my father or my cousin and ask them for money, I’m asking people who are strug­gling, and so I don’t have the same capa­bil­i­ties or the same oppor­tu­ni­ties.’”

T’wina Nobles, who is run­ning for the state Senate and is also being sup­port­ed by the PAC, said Black women and people of color must get ear­li­er buy-in from poten­tial donors, and they face a steep­er hill on secur­ing key endorse­ments from polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions that have the power to make or break cam­paigns.

Nobles said endorse­ment groups some­times ques­tion any life expe­ri­ence that isn’t tied direct­ly to pre­vi­ous­ly-held elect­ed office.

“We’re going to have to start … taking chances on, ‘Here is a mom. Here is a com­mu­ni­ty member of yours, a CEO leader. Here is some­one who has not held elect­ed office before,” she said. 

Nobles, who serves on her local school board and runs a non­prof­it, was recent­ly endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called Nobles “an expe­ri­enced com­mu­ni­ty leader.”

Nobles said groups need to look at life expe­ri­ences and what skills that can bring to the table.

Failure to do so cre­ates a cycle that per­pet­u­ates under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

“When you say you want to see more of us run, but then you start to dis­qual­i­fy us … it’s the same type of dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty that we see across other sec­tors for people of color and for Black folks.”

There are con­cert­ed efforts to elect Black women into office else­where. In California, Black Women Organized for Political Action State PAC has worked to elect Black women into office for decades. In Texas, there’s the Black Women’s PAC, which sup­port­ed 19 Black women run­ning to be judges in Harris County in 2018. (They were all elected.)

Higher Heights for America PAC, found­ed in 2011, helps elect Black women up and down the ballot. The group col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Center for American Women and Politics in 2019 for a report on Black’s women rise in polit­i­cal power. It showed that a larger number of Black women than ever before are serv­ing in state leg­is­la­tures (more than 40 new Black women were elect­ed to seats in the 2018 elec­tion). While that data still shows an incre­men­tal increase, the gains in Black rep­re­sen­ta­tion in state­hous­es have been driven pri­mar­i­ly by Black women versus Black men.

Glynda Carr, Higher Heights’ pres­i­dent, CEO and co-founder, is not sur­prised by the effort among polit­i­cal groups to more inten­tion­al­ly sup­port Black women run­ning for office. Data shows that Black women are among the most active voting blocs.

“Black women in this coun­try are under­rep­re­sent­ed and under­served,” Carr said. “And because this work has been so severe­ly under-resourced, it is about build­ing a nation­al infra­struc­ture.”

Other polit­i­cal groups are also advo­cat­ing for Black can­di­dates or can­di­dates that will rep­re­sent the inter­ests of people of color. Collective PAC endors­es Black state and fed­er­al can­di­dates. The Asian American Advocacy Fund advo­cates on behalf of civi­cal­ly engaged Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians in Georgia. PODER NC Action, a group out of North Carolina, is led by Latinas.

Sayu Bhojwani is pres­i­dent and founder of New American Leaders, an orga­ni­za­tion that is trying to elect more first- and second-gen­er­a­tion Americans to run for office. The group recent­ly released a report high­light­ing the lack of diverse rep­re­sen­ta­tion in state­hous­es.

Bhojwani said people of color, who have already been com­mit­ted to turn­ing out their com­mu­ni­ties to vote, have increas­ing­ly stepped up in trying to ensure women of color suc­cess­ful­ly run for office.

“We’re saying that we want to make sure that those women are suc­cess­ful very early on, and one way to do that is for us to fundraise and invest in those races in a way that estab­lish­ment gate­keep­ers and donors are not as will­ing and as ready to do,” she said.

There are 61 women serving in the 147-member Washington Legislature, rep­re­sent­ing 41.5 per­cent of all mem­bers. That is one of the high­est per­cent­ages in the coun­try — but only two are Black women, both serv­ing in the House.

If Nobles wins her state Senate race, she would be the first Black leg­is­la­tor in the cham­ber in a decade. If all the can­di­dates sup­port­ed by Opportunity PAC win, or even just a hand­ful, it would rep­re­sent one of the largest increas­es of elect­ed Black women to the state­house. Several of the can­di­dates received more votes than their party chal­lengers in the pri­ma­ry (Washington has a top two primary), indi­cat­ing sev­er­al com­pet­i­tive races. 

The lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Washington State Legislature has ram­i­fi­ca­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly at a time when people are look­ing for change in response to the Black Lives Matter move­ment and the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic.

“If our poli­cies are being deter­mined pre­dom­i­nant­ly by the white male expe­ri­ence, then it is going to respond to only the white male expe­ri­ence,” Bhojwani said.

Das has known the com­plex­i­ties of being one of the only people of color in a state­house. In June 2019, she alleged at a cham­ber of com­merce forum that she had expe­ri­enced “hate, sexism, racism and misog­y­ny” during closed-door Democratic caucus meet­ings.

The com­ments brought public scruti­ny. A state Senate legislative report found no evi­dence that such state­ments were made. Das told a human resources offi­cer that she regret­ted using the lan­guage, and said she instead was refer­ring to “a few” col­leagues who “were pur­port­ed­ly dis­mis­sive and dis­re­spect­ful when mem­bers of color raised con­cerns that spe­cif­ic leg­is­la­tion could dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact com­mu­ni­ties of color.”

The report noted that other leg­is­la­tors of color agreed that the Senate, like “all insti­tu­tions, some­times reflects atti­tudes and assump­tions that under­mine the inter­ests and con­cerns of those who have been his­tor­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized on the basis of sex, race and sexual ori­en­ta­tion.”

Das said the expe­ri­ence gave her more resolve to help women of color get elect­ed into the state­house to ensure things get better. She said nav­i­gat­ing those polit­i­cal spaces “is so hard” when there are so few people of color there.

“These sys­tems were not built for us. They were not cre­at­ed with us in mind,” she said. “And so when we show up to these spaces, it’s a rude awak­en­ing.”

It’s unclear for now whether Opportunity PAC’s efforts will pay off. But its exis­tence has allowed the can­di­dates it sup­ports to bond over the shared expe­ri­ence of being a Black woman run­ning for office during such a tumul­tuous time.

Stanford recalled when Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. Blake was par­a­lyzed. Days later, a white 17-year-old was arrest­ed for alleged­ly shoot­ing three people fol­low­ing relat­ed protests, includ­ing two fatal­ly. He faces multiple homicide charges. Police arrest­ed the teen with­out force, lead­ing to addi­tion­al public out­rage because it high­light­ed the con­trasts in how law enforce­ment can treat Black and white people.

Stanford said she texted with some of the can­di­dates. The vio­lence amid con­tin­ued effects of the pan­dem­ic felt trau­mat­ic. Stanford was laid off from her job at a non­prof­it ear­li­er this year because of the finan­cial effects of COVID-19.

“As a Black woman who is run­ning, I hit a wall,” Stanford said.

The can­di­dates asked each other how they were doing, and how they could respond to the moment. They agreed to pro­mote pos­i­tiv­i­ty and love through their cam­paigns.

“Just that by itself, being able to have that con­ver­sa­tion with one or two of my other Opportunity PAC sis­ters, was very fruit­ful and very mean­ing­ful for me,” she said.

Harris added that the can­di­dates draw strength from each other.

“We respect and under­stand where each of us is coming from,” she said. “And know­ing that we all have our own dif­fer­ent paths. But it all leads to the same road, and that is being an elect­ed offi­cial in Olympia.”

Originally pub­lished by The 19th

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