Women of Color Face Significant Barriers When Running for Office. But They’re Finding Support

How winning campaigns are working to overcome the sexism and racism that nonwhite candidates face.
Alexadria-Ocasio-Cortez.jpg

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks in support of Brent Welder during a rally at The Reardon Convention Center on Friday, July 20, 2018 in Kansas City, KS.

Photo by Dan Videtich/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images

In 2014, Rebecca M. Thompson decided it was time to take the next logical step in her career in activism and her commitment to social progress. She campaigned in her hometown of Detroit for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. It was close, but at the end of election night, the race was called for her opponent: Thompson lost by six votes.

“It was devastating. I was in a tailspin,” Thompson says. “The things I’d experienced as challenges I’ve learned are prevalent among women of color.”

That included learning how to raise campaign funds—something she as a Black woman had trouble doing or even talking about in front of strangers—prioritizing her self-care, and delegating authority.

“We are so used to being seen as Superwoman—the ‘strong Black woman’ is a dangerous myth—that we struggle to delegate,” Thompson says.

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After all the absentee ballots were counted and the election results were certified, Thompson’s loss had grown to about 500 votes. But her defeat only emphasized that she could help other candidates succeed where she had failed. She became a candidacy coach and trainer focused on motivating and preparing more women of color to run for office.

This election cycle, the resources and guidance offered by a growing number of organizations and individuals like Thompson are paying off in the number of women of color running—and winning—in both local and national races. The surge is almost all on the Democratic side of the aisle, prompted by the urgency of fighting back against the policies of the Trump administration.

“Women of color have always done a little bit better both in terms of the frequency with which they run compared to men and their representation in Congress,” says political scholar Jennifer Lawless of the University of Virginia. “There is no disadvantage when they run.”

Lawless and other analysts point out that more men also are running and caution that November’s results may not translate into a proportional increase in representation of those who are historically underrepresented. But it still looks like 2018 will be a record-setting year for women of color, and that’s in no small part due to increased efforts to recruit, train, and support those candidates.

A joint report from Higher Heights for America and the Center for American Women and Politics noted that as of June 2017, no Black woman has ever been elected governor, and Black women make up just 3.6 percent of all members of Congress and 3.7 percent of all state legislators.

Women of color are going to face a different set of barriers on the campaign trail.

Yet that same report also found that Black women nominees for open congressional seats did better than women overall in 2016, and that the two new Black congresswomen won open seats in majority White districts. In addition, all of the net increase in seats for women in state legislatures from 2016 to 2017 came from women of color.

“We’ve seen a lot of organizations out there that do a great job preparing all women to run. We needed to create a space that is unique for Black women to talk about the challenges and opportunities that exist that are unique for Black women so we can move Black women up the political pipeline,” says Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, an online training and campaign research organization that recently launched the #BlackWomenVote campaign to promote turnout among women of color.

Black women still face significant challenges, such as the state representative in Oregon who was canvassing her own district when a constituent called the police on her. That prompted Joy Stanford, a Black candidate for the Washington state House of Representatives, to make sure she takes someone along with her when she goes doorbelling. “It was a little eye-opening that going by myself could potentially be not safe for me,” says Stanford, a first-time candidate running in a majority White district.

Women of color are going to face a different set of barriers on the campaign trail, says A’shanti Gholar, political director of Emerge America and creator of the Brown Girls Guide to Politics, which offers a list of resources for candidates.

“Fundraising is going to be different for you because people are not going to see you as a viable candidate because of the color of your skin,” Gholar says. “Doorknocking is going to be different for you. When you are doing public speaking and debates, you are going to be critiqued more on your vernacular and your presence.”

A room of their own

Most training programs for women historically have not provided separate programs for women of color. The Center for American Women in Politics, based at Rutgers University, is one of the few that does. It offers three separate sessions for women of color as part of its Ready to Run series, which offers programs in 20 states: Eleccion Latina, Rising Stars for Asian American women, and Run Sister Run for Black women.

“The support infrastructure available to women of color has historically not been as strong, particularly when it comes to things like campaign trainings, recruitments, and financial support,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at CAWP. “It is important to confront not only sexist notions about who can be a leader, but also racist notions of who can and should lead. These women need a space to talk about the intersections of race and gender as a challenge or as an opportunity.”

The Washington state chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus last year offered its first program for women of color led by women of color, called Coloring Washington. So far, 140 women have taken the free courses.

Tanisha Harris attended the first session and is now running in the Aug. 7 primary to win the Democratic nomination for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

“It’s important for women of color candidates to know their value and worth when it comes to politics and elected office,” Harris writes in an email. “In the African American community there is the saying ‘it takes a village.’ Well, the same can be applied to campaigns. As a woman of color candidate, I’ve had to rely on my ‘village’ throughout my campaign this year.”

In the 2018 election season, Emily’s List, which supports Democratic pro-choice women, has trained 2,400 women, 400 of them women of color, which set a record for the 33-year-old organization. The training is “intentionally diverse in its message and in the visible aspects,” says Mũthoni Wambu Kraal, vice president of national outreach and training. She says Emily’s List is exploring targeted sessions, and is starting a program for Native American women that will launch this fall or early 2019.

“We will not win if we continue to do what we’ve always done.”

In addition to offering the free training, Emily’s List is a major source of fundraising for its endorsed candidates, and this cycle has tripled the size of its state and local teams that guide candidates through the campaign. Of the women Emily’s List has helped elect to Congress, 40 percent have been women of color.

One of those candidates is Veronica Escobar, the Democratic nominee for Congress from El Paso, Texas, in a district that is about 85 percent Latino. “I’m fortunate there were all these organizations willing to step up and help me. The support was out of this world,” Escobar says.

Escobar and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, also running for a seat in Congress in a heavily Democratic district in Houston, are likely to become the first Latinas elected to Congress from Texas. Escobar has also received support from Latino Victory, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Bold PAC, and Poder PAC, among others.

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, also has received support from groups working to elect more diverse candidates. “I am proud to be running in a year where women—including women of color—are making historic gains,” Abrams says in an email. “Organizations like CollectivePAC, Emily’s List, Higher Heights, and Latino Victory help build for a future where our leaders reflect the diversity of our communities.”

After primary victories like those of Abrams in Georgia, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Lauren Underwood in Illinois, and Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, women of color have high hopes for the November election.

The long campaign season worries Thompson.

“We will not win if we continue to do what we’ve always done,” Thompson says. “It is not enough to be fangirls. We’ve got to be making phone calls and knocking on doors and opening up our wallets.”

Scholars warn that Democratic candidates in solidly Republican districts still face big odds winning in November. But for women of color, win or lose, they already are making a difference.

“We have to have different measures of success for women in 2018,” Dittmar says. “One measure of success is winning in November, but other measures of success is the impact you can have in just disrupting our expectations of what leadership looks like, engaging different groups of voters. All of these things are points of success for women even if they don’t win office this year.”

 

Updated Aug. 1, 2018. This story's description the Coloring Washington training program has been corrected.