Among the voters who pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton in 2016, 21 percent were women of color. However, women of color make up just 16 percent of House Democrats and only 8 percent of Senate Democrats. As the Democratic Party tries to shed its past complicity with constructing the infrastructure and ideological frameworks for white-supremacist policies, more women of color are demanding that their voices be heard inside Congress.
There are currently 19 white Democratic members of Congress that represent majority-minority House districts. (Three of them, Representatives Gene Green, Bob Brady, and Beto O’Rourke, are vacating their seats). Many blue or blue-leaning states, like Massachusetts and Colorado, still do not have any people of color in their congressional delegations.
But a group of young, progressive women of color want to change that: In Delaware, Colorado’s first district, Massachusetts’s seventh, and New York’s fourteenth—-the most diverse district in the country still represented by a white man—-white male incumbents are facing well-funded and well-organized challenges from women of color.
Ayanna Pressley is running to represent the people of Massachusetts’ seventh district, a majority-minority district with a highly educated voter base. Pressley was the first woman of color ever elected to the Boston City Council, and her current at-large seat represents 70 percent of the seventh district. Early polling put her opponent, incumbent Representative Michael Capuano, up by a mere 12 points. The most recent filings show Capuano raising twice as much as Pressley, though he leads by only a few thousand dollars among individual donors. (Pressley has refused corporate PAC money.)
Pressley is running on a racial-justice and survivor’s-justice platform—-what she calls an “Equity Agenda.” The premise of her campaign is that inequalities are driven by policy choices, and must be reversed in the same way. “The economic inequality, the wealth and wage gap, the structural racism, the gun violence, these conditions were created by policy, either discriminatory or short-sighted policy-making or well-meaning policy with negative policies,” she said. “When I think about the conditions my family grew up in, we were in the residual aftermath of redlining and welfare reform and the war on drugs and Reaganomics.”
“These policies were manufactured by men, and they can be disrupted by women,” Pressley added.
Capuano has accused Pressley of playing identity politics, and he doesn’t intend it as a compliment. He told local radio station WBUR, “Look, I cannot be a woman of color. And if that’s what people care about, that’s fine. I accept that, I understand that. I just don’t think there are that many people who will vote for me because I’m a white male or vote against me because I’m a white male.”
Pressley said she finds these types of arguments absurd: “Because I’m black and a woman, that when I talk about individuals being overlooked and communities feeling silence, the assumption is that I’m only talking about communities of color. I’m not.”
Pressley is part of a new generation of politicians who are open about their life stories, including some of the painful details. The 2018 cycle is the first to include numerous women who have been open about the fact that they are survivors of sexual assault, including Pressley.
“My father has gone on to do great things, but for many years was in the throes of addiction and in and out of the criminal-justice system,” she said. “I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and campus sexual assault. So these social ills and these critical social determinants that destabilized my family are destabilizing many families. These experiences are not abstract for me, they’re lived. And lived experience matters.”
Pressley symbolizes the struggle for women of color in the Democratic Party. She’s spent eight years on the City Council and was for another 16 a policy aide in various federal capacities. Tom Perez openly praised her as the future of the party and Emily’s List gave her a Rising Star Award.
But the refrain from the party now seems to be “wait your turn.” The Congressional Black Caucus PAC (though not the CBC itself) is backing Capuano, and groups like Emily’s List have not weighed in. It’s not surprising that groups might be wary of taking on an incumbent, but the reality is that congressional seats are a finite resource: If Democrats want more women of color in Congress, there will have to be fewer white men. But more and more women like Pressley may be tired of waiting.
In New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is poised to give the Democratic Party an Eric Cantor moment in her challenge to Representative Joe Crowley, who is chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Crowley’s district is 45 percent Latino and only 28 percent white. African-Americans make up 10 percent of the district and Asian-Americans 16 percent, making it the most diverse in the country. However, the primary electorate will likely be far whiter and older, because of some of the strictest registration laws in the country, designed to disenfranchise the sort of voters who might upset the methodical rise to leadership of an incumbent like Crowley.
Ocasio-Cortez is running what may be among the most progressive campaigns in the country’s history. She supports defunding ICE and wiping out student debt, talks seamlessly about the connections between imperial war and US immigration policy, and has stood with the #NoDAPL protesters at Standing Rock. Crowley has still outspent her 20-to-1, and can rely on a machine style of politics and depressed turnout due to strict election laws in New York state that make it hard for people to vote in Democratic primaries unless they registered as Democrats long before Election Day.
After spending most of his career as a centrist (he was, at one point, pro-life), Crowley has lurched left, particularly on immigration. He doesn’t support abolishing ICE, however, and as Ocasio-Cortez notes, Crowley was one of the 88 Democrats who voted to establish ICE by supporting the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
“My district is 80 percent people of color, 50 percent immigrants, and 85 percent Democratic. We should have a representative that is fighting tooth and nail for social, economic and racial justice,” she said. ”Instead of listening to the many voices of his immigrant constituents, [Crowley] chose to listen to fear. He chose to believe those that are telling us that immigrants threaten our country, and he decided to support an extrajudicial deportation strike force that has had a long history of sexual assault and uninvestigated deaths in custody.”
Ocasio-Cortez connects racial injustice to economic oppression, and often criticizes Crowley for taking money from corporate interests, pointing to, among other things, Crowley’s recent vote to roll back the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s auto-lending regulations.
While Crowley is the most powerful Democrat facing a serious challenge, in Colorado’s first district Representative Diana Degette, the chief deputy whip, is facing a primary challenge by Saira Rao, an Indian-American lawyer and activist.
Rao supports wiping out all student debt (a growing demand on the left), defunding ICE, and ending solitary confinement. She’s persistently called for defunding ICE, which is a contrast to Degette, who has called for Democrats in Congress to use their “bully pulpit” to put pressure on ICE, but nothing else.
Rao is far less timid. “ICE has wantonly terrorized Americans and ravaged communities of color. ICE is accountable to nobody. ICE needs to be defunded right now,” she said. Rao also argues that the Democratic Party has not been intersectional enough when discussing reproductive-health care. “The ongoing attack on reproductive rights isn’t just an attack on women, but rather an extension of systemic oppression of women, people living in poverty, people of color, documented and undocumented immigrants, women in prison, and other marginalized communities,” Rao said.
In the Senate, Kerri Evelyn Harris is challenging centrist Senator Tom Carper, one of the few Democrats in the Senate who supports Social Security cuts and who recently voted to roll back Dodd-Frank. According to my analysis of American National Election Studies 2016 survey data, 92 percent of Democratic primary voters support more, not less, government regulation of banks, and a mere 3 percent support cuts to Social Security.
Given her decade as an organizer, most recently with the Center for Popular Democracy, Harris is approaching the race the way a community organizer would. She’s going to low-income neighborhoods and doesn’t spend much time worrying about which party a voter is registered with. Harris emphasizes financial deregulation, talking about the ways the recent rollbacks affect folks living in mobile homes: “Those hoping for their piece of the American Dream won’t realize it’s been ripped from them until it’s too late; leaving them feeling hopeless and disenfranchised.”
Pundits have so far dismissed the idea of a Tea Party of the left, arguing that there are not deep ideological divides between the base and the establishment. In many ways, that’s true, as I’ve shown, and the establishment has been willing to move to the base on issues like Medicare for All. However, these candidates show that there are other ways incumbents don’t represent the base: They are still more likely to be older, white, and male. The surge in young candidates, candidates of color, and women running for high and low office will soon create a pipeline of people hungry to take the next step, often into a House seat currently occupied by another Democrat. But they won’t let an incumbent stop them from running. And they are already creating an infrastructure of donors, of activists, of campaign strategists, volunteers, data wonks, canvassers, communications directors, and graphic designers that could change the Democratic Party forever.