There has been a long-simmering tension between the Democratic Party apparatus and its African-American base. Many black women, especially, voice frustration at what they interpret as a lack of commitment from a party that repeatedly depends on them to push its candidates to victory. In last year’s Alabama special election, black women played the deciding role, electing Democrat Doug Jones with 98 percent of their votes. And in 2016 they rallied behind Hillary Clinton in her presidential run, delivering 94 percent of their vote to the Democratic nominee.
With midterms fast-approaching and 2020 on the horizon, black women may well determine the Democratic Party’s success. But have Democrats earned their vote? And what can the party do to support a surge of black women who are running for office?
Melanie L. Campbell is president of the nonpartisan National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, a program centered on harnessing black women’s voting power to influence policy around the issues that matter most to them. Campbell has worked for more than a decade on voter enfranchisement, community engagement, and voter registration. I sat down with her to discuss the central importance of black women for the Democratic Party.
Safiya Charles: Black Women’s Roundtable conducted its first Power of the Sister Vote poll with Essence magazine in 2015, what stands out when you look at the data over that three-year period?
Melanie L. Campbell: Right before Obama was elected, we established the Black Women’s Roundtable, because while everyone was talking about black women’s voting power, we weren’t really seeing our issues’ being addressed. The Essence poll gives us an idea of what black women are thinking, what their priority issues are, and what they’re looking for from a candidate. The impact of the 2016 election is still being felt, and last year’s poll really gave us a window to see that something different was happening in the way black women were thinking. There was an 11-point drop [85 to 74 percent] in the belief among black women that the Democratic Party had our best interests at heart. For the Democrats, that’s pretty significant, because these are black women who vote [98 percent of the poll’s respondents!]. In 2016, polling showed that black women were more interested in running for office, and now we’ve seen that happen. That’s partly why the Democratic Party is getting challenged, because black women are shifting how we want to leverage our power.
SC: I also noticed that more black women were identifying as independents.
MC: I think part of that is generational. We had already seen trends that the millennial generation was really looking more independent and not seeing any party as theirs, let alone the Democrats. But then this poll showed that 11 percent drop, which consisted of a “reliable base of Democratic voters.” Folks aged 40 and up are also really feeling disenchanted with the party.
The secret sauce of black women’s political power is not just us turning out—it’s also who we get to turn out. We influence who votes in our families and in our relationships, so when you see a major increase [in voting], it’s because we’ve gone above and beyond to engage our families. That’s what we do, and being that most of us are heads of household, we really have an impact.
SC: What’s the significance of the down-ballot races, especially in a situation where people are frustrated and feel as if their politicians aren’t representing their interests?
MC: I’ve spent half my life working on the local level in politics, and in the last couple of years, there’s been a downward trend in the turnout in some of these local races. People are concerned about their local races, but they’re not voting in the numbers. Even in Atlanta’s mayoral race, which was highly contested, the turnout was pretty abysmal. There’s a concern that people are frustrated with the process, especially young people. They want to see their vote as something they can make change with.
There are some organizations that we support that are focusing on tying issues to the vote and making that relevant to peoples’ daily lives in order to motivate folks—groups like Black Youth Project 100 in Chicago led by Charlene Carruthers. In 2014, they were very much involved in pushing an effort to go after a district-attorney seat in Cook County. They backed their candidate against one they felt was really horrible, and they ultimately beat that candidate. I think these kinds of examples show that there is a way you can localize efforts and connect to peoples’ passion.
SC: In May, the #43Democratic was trending on Twitter. It was created to call attention to the 43 black women candidates running to unseat Republicans and the fact that only one, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, had garnered any active support or endorsement from the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee]. To me, that seems like it can be interpreted as an indication that the party doesn’t see black women as viable candidates.
MC: I think it can be perceived that way, and perception can rule. On the national level, there’s not one black person I’m aware of that’s a chair of any of the national committees. Not the DNC, the Democratic Senatorial Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. You have to address that. I remember last year when we were sharing the poll with national Democratic Party leaders, one thing we asked about was how your state party is run and who’s leading them? Look at that, that will tell you a lot. It’s not just what’s happening in Washington, DC, it’s what’s happening on the ground in states, in your party leadership—does it reflect your base?
In some cases, the party will stay out of the race in the primary—I get that. But here’s where the rubber is going to meet the road: How invested are you in those folks who have been selected? In 2014, when Michelle Nunn had become the nominee for a US Senate seat in Georgia, there were five black women who had won statewide nominations for the Democratic Party, but there was little to no investment made in those races. They put all their resources in the Senate race, and left alone those five black women who were highly qualified; who had been in state rep seats, state-senate seats; had been in leadership positions. That investment was not made, and many of those women got more votes in some places than Nunn. That was a stark example of what it means to say, “Are you really supportive of your base?”
SC: There was a detail that I found really interesting in this year’s Black Women’s Round Table Report, which is that most of the black women currently serving in Congress represent districts that are not majority black, about 38 percent, while most black men represent majority-black districts, at about 55 percent—evidence of the fact that black women can run competitively and win in non-majority districts.
MC: Yes, I agree, also when it comes to winning mayor’s races. So, if you want to win, get a black woman candidate! That may be a little arrogant, but look at the results. Even right here in Washington, DC—Washington, DC, is not a majority-black city, it hasn’t been for close to half a decade, maybe even longer—you have a black woman being able to win that race. It’s not about transcending color; it’s about being able to be seen as viable and having people commit to that and put the resources in. It costs a lot of money to run for office.
You would certainly have more perspective of what this country is and a greater diversity of not just race, but ideas, strategy, and leadership than we’ve had in this country if we had more black women in power. There’s a lot of opportunity to go further, and I think black women have a role to play in that. Not to shrink from leadership, but to embrace it. When we lead, we’re not just leading for ourselves we’re leading with the idea of community in mind. I believe women overall think that way, but I think with an African-American experience, black women play a unique role. The demographics have changed and will continue to—that needs to be reflected in our political leaders.