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!”