This past Election Day, Netta Young-Hughes attempted to become the first African-American to represent Pennsylvania's 70th district in the state House. She lost by just over 100 votes in a district that is 60 percent white Republican.
Young-Hughes' margin of defeat is testament to her strength as a candidate – even more so when one considers that she confronted some of the worst race-baiting and intimidation tactics on the national scene. Death threats to both her and her staff; widespread reports of voter suppression; and the physical assault of a white, female volunteer who had signed a sworn statement saying that she heard Young-Hughes' opponent tell voters at the polls, "Netta is just a nigger. She doesn't deserve to win."
Progressive Majority – an organization dedicated exclusively to electing progressives at the state and local level – worked closely with Young-Hughes as part of its Racial Justice Campaign. The Racial Justice Campaign recruits and trains progressive candidates of color to run in key races nationwide. It works with its candidates on everything from speechwriting to staffing to GOTV efforts. Pennsylvania State Director for Progressive Majority – Lewis Thomas, III – said that Young-Hughes' opponent used race as a wedge issue from the start.
"Not everyone knew she was a black woman," Lewis says. "So [her opponent] made a concerted effort to make sure white conservative voters knew." Lewis said that her opponent's campaign mailings even used doctored photos to make the light-skinned Young-Hughes appear to have a darker complexion. And despite Young-Hughes' record of service throughout the county, opposition mailings suggested that she only served Norristown--a majority African-American district.
"Race is still at the forefront of American politics," Lewis says. "People still vote – or change their vote – based on race."
Racial Justice Campaign Director, Malia Lazu, agrees. On a national scale, she viewed "immigration as the new Willy Horton… sending a message of ‘Mexicans run amok.'" Lazu cites a race for the state House in Colorado where a Republican candidate – Ramey Johnson, who is white – sent out a flyer featuring two photographs: one of Ramey with two white voters and the caption "She's on OUR Side!"; the other depicting a handcuffed Latino man on the ground and the caption "Re-Elect Ramey!"
With candidates of color facing extreme personal attacks – as well as race-bating and voter suppression tactics – it can be very challenging to persuade the best potential candidates to run. Progressive Majority is starting a new mentorship program so that potential candidates can work with other leaders and politicians who have been in the same boat. Lazu, Lu-Hanley and Thomas all spoke of insufficient support from the Democratic Party in helping candidates of color and PM is working to fill that void.
"If Democrats want to continue to win then the party needs to do a better job embracing diversity and facing these tough issues," Lazu says. "Do they want to keep targeting independent and swing voters? Or do they want to reach the 50 percent of people who aren't voting and minority voters who – when they vote – vote Democrat 90 percent of the time? The rainbow is the only way to win."
There are also numerous reports of Democratic state legislators failing to support progressive challengers if there is an existing collegial relationship with an incumbent Republican. There needs to be more seriousness of purpose and commitment to building winning, diverse coalitions.
Thomas says that prior to Progressive Majority entering the Young-Hughes race in August she was receiving no mainstream support or resources from the state Democratic party. "She was a spectacular candidate," Thomas says, "but they didn't think she could win."
He said he was reminded of a time when he worked for potential Senate candidate Barack Obama. Thomas sat in on a meeting between Obama and the State Party Chair who stated that the party would never support Obama – for the sole reason that whites would never vote for him given their disappointment with former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun.
"By that logic," Thomas says, "any time people are disappointed by a white representative they'll never vote for another white candidate." According to Thomas, Obama was only selected as a candidate worthy of support after every other viable white candidate was rejected.
"How do we begin to head those kinds of sentiments off? How do we get people to make decisions based on our common humanity? How do we as a party take a leading role in making race a non-issue?" Thomas asks.
In Pennsylvania, the Montgomery County District Attorney is still investigating the threats and the assault in the Young-Hughes race. And Lewis says the candidate will run again in 2008 with a lot more preparation and a lot more support. But it is clear from this contest and so many others that our nation –and the Democratic Party – still has much to grapple with in battling racism.