Last week, Boston enacted its own version of what may be a national trend—black progressive candidates, many of them women, beating centrist incumbents and challenging traditional ideas about viability, strategy, and some would even say the soul of the Democratic Party.
Before I go on, we should acknowledge that we are seeing a challenge to the disproportionally high rate of white leadership in many aspects of civil society, including the nonprofit sector. NPQ wrote about this last year in our coverage of BoardSource’s 2017 “Leading with Intent” report, which rung the alarm about the finding that nonprofit boards and CEOs are 90 percent white. So, as you read this, I suggest that you look close to home for similar dynamics.
The Bay State Banner’s Yawu Miller writes about the Pressley victory.
A surge of progressive candidates challenging Democratic incumbents proved pollsters and pundits wrong Tuesday, sweeping longtime incumbents out of office and upending the calculus of Massachusetts politics.
That surge saw at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley best incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, attorney Rachael Rollins win a decisive victory in a five-way race for Suffolk County District attorney, political newcomer Nika Elugardo defeat longtime 15th Suffolk District Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, and physician Jonathan Santiago beat 36-year incumbent 9th Suffolk District Rep. Byron Rushing.
In the 5th Suffolk District, Liz Miranda finished well ahead of second-place finisher Darrin Howell in the race to fill the seat Evandro Carvalho vacated to run for Suffolk District Attorney.
Miller says the defeats of Sanchez and Rushing signal “a strong rebuke of the centrist policies of House leadership that have sparked the ire of progressives over the last year.” He explains that both challengers held these incumbents responsible for the failure to pass legislation on immigrant protection, environmental protection, and increasing state education aid.
The winning challengers used the same strategy—a focus on turning out unlikely voters who are affected by the issues, over super voters. In other words, the ground game was fierce. One local resident, Eric Berg, said, “I have never seen anything like I’ve seen today. There were armies of volunteers knocking on doors. It was impressive.” CNN’s Eric Bradner called it “the latest upset to rock the Democratic Party and showcase a restive base eager for change.”
NPQ recently covered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win over New York Rep. Joe Crowley, who, like Capuano, is a ten-term incumbent. Capuano gets high marks from various organizations that issue scorecards, including the NAACP, which gives him 100 percent. While many, including the candidates themselves, have noted that both Capuano and Pressley vote very similarly, CNN’s Chris Cillizza distinguishes them this way:
This primary didn’t turn on the incumbent member of Congress voting in ways that were inconsistent with the wants and needs of his district. It was about what kind of liberalism voters in the Boston-area district wanted. Capuano’s was a quiet liberalism; he always voted the right way for a district where Hillary Clinton won 83 percent of the vote in 2016, but he wasn’t an activist. He wasn’t demanding change. He wasn’t storming the barricades. That was the sort of liberalism that Pressley promised. “This district and these times demand more than just an ally, they demand an advocate and a champion,” she said in announcing her candidacy.
Bradner quotes Presley as saying, “This is a fight for the soul of our party. This is a fight for the future of our democracy. We might vote the same way, but we will lead differently. These times require, and this district deserves bold, activist leadership.”
Pressley, who does not have a Republican challenger and is expected to be the next representative of the Seventh Congressional District, Massachusetts’s most diverse, will be the first black woman to do so. She was also the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council. She will also be the only black member of the state’s congressional delegation. Pressley has argued during the campaign that systemic inequalities have worsened in the district.
Stacey Abrams also just won the Democratic nomination in Georgia for governor in May, beating Stacey Evans. If she wins against the Republican candidate, she will be both the first woman and Black person to ever do so in the state. The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey writes,
Each has pledged to advance an ambitious, progressive agenda for Georgia. But their approaches have been markedly different. Abrams has structured her campaign around minority empowerment and outreach through a targeted, grassroots-style campaign. Evans, meanwhile, with a promise to Bring Hope Back to Georgia, has sold herself as the candidate who can court independents and swing voters, a self-proclaimed “champion for common sense.”
Godfrey then asks, “Should Democrats focus more on capturing white working-class voters who feel let down by Trump? Or should they mobilize black voters and rally the base?” She quotes “a local Democratic strategist” who sums it up this way: “If you ask people what the Democratic Party stands for, they can’t tell you.”
Godfrey sees in the Georgia election a microcosm of what the Democrats will face this November and in 2020: the need to establish a clear identity. She writes, “The choice in Georgia is between two different playbooks: an ambitious-but-risky plan of action, versus a careful, more traditional one.”
Stacey Abrams asks, “What if Democrats didn’t focus so much on reclaiming Trump voters? What if they dedicated their resources, instead, to reaching the millions who didn’t vote—and reaching them early?”
The logic behind Abrams approach compared to Evans is summed up by an Abrams campaign spokesperson, “[Evans] is persuading folks to become Democratic, and our focus is more about reaching folks who do agree with us and convincing them that voting actually matters.”
Aimee Allison, president of Democracy in Color, says, “It’s a weak response to the political reality of electoral politics. If we look across the aisle, [Republicans are] not trying to win over moderate Democrats.”
Although Pressley, who was running against another progressive, focused less on her policy platform than who she is as a leader, Abrams pledged “to work for a ‘fair and diverse economy’: tackling poverty and inequality through her proposed ‘Georgia Economic Mobility Plan.’”
Then, there’s Andrew Gillum’s August victory in Florida over former Congresswoman Gwen Graham (and the daughter of former Governor and Senator Bob Graham) by 26,000 votes for the Democratic nomination for governor. Gillum’s platform calls for “single-payer health care, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as reforming the cash bail system and removing barriers to community re-entry after prison.” If he wins, he would be Florida’s first black governor.
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Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, won the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland, also “by running to the left of his opponent,” as the New York Times’s Melanye Price writes. He would be Maryland’s first black governor.
Price notes, “Beyond historic firsts, this new class of candidates is pushing the Democratic Party farther left.” This is reflected in the candidates’ supporters. Pressley won without the backing of established black politicians. The Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee endorsed Representative Michael Capuano. Abrams received endorsements from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Democracy in Color, “an organization ‘focused on race, politics and the multiracial, progressive New American Majority.’” Gillum was endorsed by “young black activists across the state, particularly the Dream Defenders” and “liberal donors like George Soros and Tom Steyer.”
Price argues that while many believe that the most significant political shift of our time is Trumpism, white nationalism, corruption, or the right, it is actually in black politics. She writes,
At the end of Mr. Obama’s second term, black youth had become a significant and unified political voice. Since then, their power has only grown. The constellation of Black Lives Matter groups initially focused on police and vigilante violence but expanded its platform to address political and economic challenges facing the black community. From the outset, these groups have made clear that all black lives matter—women, queer and transgender people were always at the center of their political agenda.
The political focus of the Black Lives Matter movement is much farther to the left than traditional black civil rights organizations. The movement supports reparations in the form of fully funded education, an end to money bail and the demilitarization of the police. Since turning to electoral politics, its constituent groups have said that the candidates they endorse must also represent similar progressive views.
New infrastructure organizations are emerging to support black as well as left candidates. In addition to Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for President, and Democratic Socialists of America, which claims to be “the largest socialist organization” in the US, there is the Black Campaign School, which, according to the Atlantic’s Russell Berman, works to “increase black representation in a country where 90 percent of all elected public officials are white.”
In fact, while the three-day training program is supported by “major Democratic campaign committees and allied groups like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List,” it is also “a challenge to them.” Black candidates are very aware that the current political system is not designed for them.
The Black Campaign School goes beyond teaching the ABCs of political campaigns to address the “historical and cultural things that have kept black people from political power.” This includes advice—oftentimes from other black women—like don’t change your hair style too much while campaigning (“don’t go back and forth between having straight hair and natural hair”), don’t have tattoos, and play golf.
The organization behind Black Campaign School, the Collective PAC, “is one of four affiliated groups known as The Collective that recruit, train, and fund black candidates up and down the ballot.” The progressive political action committee was created in 2016 “as a vehicle to build black power in the post-Obama era.” Of the five candidates it backed for Congress that year, four won, “including Senator Kamala Harris of California and Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, who became both the first woman and the first African American to represent Delaware in Washington, DC.”
Berman writes that, “The election of Donald Trump has arguably done as much or more to inspire what [Quentin] James [(who created the PAC with his wife, Stefanie Brown James)] called ‘a reawakening of black political consciousness’ than the election and reelection of the nation’s first black president. But it has not made running while black any easier.”
While there are “plenty of candidate-training programs across the country” run by progressive (such as Emily’s List and Emerge for women) and conservative groups, as well as the major parties, none address the particular challenges of candidates of color.
Jessica Byrd, one of the Black Campaign School’s facilitators, says,
There are a lot of complex ways in which we reach out to voters, [ways] in which we are presented and portrayed in the media, the way that people receive our stories versus candidates that have traditionally held power. So, a lot of the strategy is similar—you have to raise money, you have to have a good message, you have to talk to every voter possible—but what’s complex is really thinking about how you do that as a person who hasn’t traditionally been holding power where you live.
A central theme in this year’s training is “how the Democratic Party itself often is one of the institutions standing in the way of black candidates.” Panelists and participants told stories of party committees that refuse to invest in their campaigns and actively dissuade them from running. Brandon Brown, “a Democrat who beat four white primary competitors in the South Carolina district being vacated by GOP Representative Trey Gowdy,” says, “You hear phrases like, It’s not your time. You hear questions like, Can you win? And you have to overcome those hurdles.”
As Byrd sums it up, Black candidates are left to fend for themselves in a system that doesn’t trust their abilities and so doesn’t think they are viable. But there is also a flip side to this. Greg Edwards, “who lost a Democratic primary for an open Pennsylvania House seat in May,” says, “Don’t underestimate the power of institutional oppression to reward white mediocrity.”
This is something that the party acknowledges. At a Democratic National Committee fundraiser held in Atlanta the day before this year’s School training launched, chairman Tom Perez apologized to black voters and donors for taking them for granted and promised it would never happen again.
Further, Berman notes that the fundraiser’s themes included “an implicit critique of the first black president.” He explains, “Obama has long faced criticism that, under his leadership, Democrats neglected voter mobilization and were unable to extend the president’s personal brand to candidates up and down the ballot.”
All the candidates on a School panel advised participants that although they will face more scrutiny as black candidates, “they should embrace their identity without apology.”
Berman sees the Democratic National Committee fundraiser as a turning point away from Obama’s presidency and towards “a new generation of black leaders.” Price agrees when she concludes, “As the party moves left, establishment leaders will be displaced.”
The same—both the dominance of white leadership and the desire of leaders of color to lead—can be said for the nonprofit sector. As one of the white, displaced, nonprofit leaders recently shared with NPQ, “The Pressley/Capuano race reflects the change that is necessary in our sector. Older, white baby boomers are doing a good job, just as Capuano is, but it’s time to make room for leadership of color.”
Disclosure: Yawu Miller is Cyndi’s Suarez’s partner.