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Black women look to build upon gains in coming elections

The Hill logo The Hill 6/5/2021 Julia Manchester and Aris Folley
Kamala Harris et al. posing for the camera: Black women look to build upon gains in coming elections © The Hill Black women look to build upon gains in coming elections

Black female candidates are working to build upon their success in the last election cycle, setting their sights on governor's mansions, Capitol Hill, and city halls in 2021 and 2022.

They made history in 2020, with Vice President Harris becoming the first Black and South Asian woman to hold the post, while Rep. Cori Bush (D) became the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.

Despite the gains made last year, when the nation also saw a record number of Black female candidates win election to Congress, Black women remain underrepresented in political offices up and down the ballot. But upcoming elections show the group is working to change that.

"I can tell you that the structures that are in place, they aren't built for people like me," said Virginia gubernatorial candidate and former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy (D).

Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) are both hoping to make history as the commonwealth's first female governor and second Black governor.

Both women have already broken down barriers in Virginia. McClellan was the first member of the House of Delegates to be pregnant and give birth while in office. Carroll Foy was one of the first Black women to attend the Virginia Military Institute.

"When I walked into the General Assembly as a 32-year-old Black woman from the most Democratic district in the state, operating in a body that was mostly white men Republicans over 50, I very quickly understood I've got to meet people where they are, understand their perspective, and share my and other perspectives," McClellan told The Hill.

The two women are competing in the Democratic gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, but they face an uphill battle against the race's front-runner, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

A Christopher Newport University survey released in April showed the former governor holding a 47 percent lead, with McClellan and Carroll Foy respectively trailing at 6 percent and 5 percent support.

All three candidates tout support from leading figures in the commonwealth's Black community. However, polls show McAuliffe leading with the demographic. A Public Policy poll released last month showed the former governor with 45 percent support among the Black community, while Carroll Foy and McClellan trailed at 9 percent and 6 percent support.

Some strategists argue that McClellan and Carroll Foy would have a broader net of support if McAuliffe was not in the race, and attribute his advantage to widespread name ID and previous record in the governor's mansion.

But McClellan and Carroll Foy's very presence in the race suggests that Black women will be a major force going into the 2022 midterms.

Glynda Carr, founder and CEO of Higher Heights, a group dedicated to electing Black progressive women, said the group has conducted research in Virginia and found that general election voters, particularly women, want "a new generation of leaders that they want someone that can unite their state, the country."

"They actually are excited about making history, and they actually believe that a Black woman is uniquely positioned with all those traits to lead," said Carr.

Higher Heights endorsed Carroll Foy in Virginia's Democratic primary.

In Florida, Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who was the first Black woman to serve as Orlando's police chief, is slated to challenge incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for his seat.

Her candidacy for Senate has already kicked off a fight between multiple candidates to replace her in the state's 10th Congressional District, including state Sen. Randolph Bracy (D), former state attorney Aramis Ayala, and civil rights attorney Natalie Jackson. All three candidates are representative of the district's large Black population.

"There are amazing men who will do great work, but that doesn't mean there aren't as amazing women who have a lot to bring, a lot of insight, a lot of experience, and I'm certainly one of them," Ayala told The Hill.

In the coming years, Carr said the nation is going to see more Black women in the Senate pipeline.

"If you look at the U.S. Senate, we elected Carol Moseley Braun in 1992, and it took almost 24 years to elect Kamala Harris. We certainly are not waiting over 20 years to elect the next Black woman," Carr said.

Carr also thinks more Black women will run in mayoral races in the coming years.

She noted that in 2014 there were only two Black women serving as mayors in the country's list of the 100 largest cities. But that number hit a new high in recent months with the appointment of Kim Janey as Boston's mayor and Tishaura Jones's election as mayor of St. Louis.

Now, a record nine Black women are serving as mayor in the country's 100 biggest cities.

When it comes to statewide races, insiders say fundraising can present a particular challenge for Black female candidates, noting they historically have not had as much access to major political donors.

"It's a challenge for Black women to raise this kind of capital because we're normally not in that space of these mega-million people, the Jeff Bezos and those sort of people," said Jennifer Carroll, a Republican and the first Black woman to win election both in the Florida state legislature and as lieutenant governor.

"So, who do we go to? We go to mom and pop places ... and we hope the political action committees will give us money," added Carroll, who also serves as the national spokeswoman for Maggie's List, a group dedicated to electing conservative women. "But at the end of the day, it's still not enough because we need the larger donors."

Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette (R), a Black woman and veteran who ran for the House last year in the state's 4th Congressional District, discussed facing similar challenges as she works to replace outgoing Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.).

"When you're looking at a minority candidate, the odds of us coming to the table with a tremendous amount of wealth and influence in a system that requires you to have wealth and influence ... that's a challenge," Barnette said.

Carroll also acknowledged additional barriers Black women candidates can face when they run as Republicans.

"There is a huge challenge that, on the Democratic side, you'd be painted as an Uncle Tom...Right away, your credibility goes down," Carroll said, because some Black American voters "that don't know you will assume that you have no credibility."

Of the record 27 Black women who won election to Congress last year, none were Republican, an outcome that stood out in an election cycle where the party celebrated a record number of women winning in November. Former Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), who lost reelection almost three years ago, is the only Black Republican woman to have ever served in Congress.

Carroll noted that a number of the Black Republican women who lost their general elections last year also faced an "uphill battle" by running in Democratic strongholds.

Maggie's List has already thrown support behind House candidate Tamika Hamilton, a Black Republican woman who notched over 45 percent of the vote in a Democratic-leaning district in California last year and is running again to flip the district.

For more Black women candidates to break through the statewide barrier, Carr, of the progressive group Higher Heights, says the work must be done not only in investing in the pipeline in getting elected women to run for higher office, but also "continuing to identify business leaders and community activists and community organizers to run for these offices."

Carroll, of Maggie's List, said it's also important that once women get into office that they recruit others for their role - something her organization has been trying to assist with by helping build a pipeline for conservative women trying to get elected.

"Maggie's list is aggressively going out there and seeing those that have an interest, educate, train and mentor them, and then give them the tools and the resources to be successful," she said.

Carroll hopes that women the group supports will then turn around and do the same for other women, "so that we're not looking at, 'Oh, this is the first time we ever had so many women elected to the Congress.'"

"No," she said. "This will be a norm."

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