In 2010, black politics is often written in male faces. Tomorrow, women may be the torchbearers of black political power.
Today’s pantheon of African-American political talent begins with President Barack Obama, who rode into office on the strength of organized communities and an overwhelming black turnout. Add to the shining roster: Cory Booker, Rhodes Scholar and mayor of Newark, N.J.; Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, D.C.; Deval Patrick, Obama’s Harvard Law School classmate and current governor of Massachusetts; Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee; even Harold Ford Jr., the ingénue from a Tennessee political dynasty who recently scuttled plans to run for Senate in New York state. Ready to join the lineup: Rep. Kendrick Meek, the presumptive Democratic nominee for senator in Florida; and Artur Davis, the congressman from Montgomery gunning to be the first black governor of Alabama.
All of these young and charismatic men have seen an opening for broader political coalitions and bigger victories in the Obama era. But did the first black president open a space for women as well?
Filling Up the Pipeline
“We’ve got a long way to go,” says Jonathan Parker, political director for Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice female candidates. But, he points out, “there were fewer women in Congress [30 years ago] than there are now from California alone.” This year, the Center for American Women in Politics has tracked hundreds of women running for office–with several standout women of color in the hunt.
Four black women are currently running in Alabama for the House seat being vacated by Davis. Emily’s List is supporting Terri Sewell, a Selma native who interviewed congressional pioneer Shirley Chisholm for her Princeton undergraduate thesis titled “Black Women in Politics: Our Time Has Come.” Parker calls Kamala Harris, front-runner for attorney general of California, “a superstar for the future.” Likewise, Robin Kelly is poised to win a seat for state treasurer in Illinois, with key backing from the political class in Chicago. Karen Bass, the first black female speaker in the California assembly, might inherit a seat held by Diane Watson, the retiring congresswoman and CBC member who first asked her to run.
It may seem that women are finally achieving parity in politics. In fact, there are a record 90 women in the 111th Congress–and 18 female senators. But not a single senator is a woman of color, and the body at large is not nearly representative of the women who make up 57 percent of the American electorate.
State and local races, however, are key to building the female political talent of the future. “The reason women in politics have been bottlenecked [is] because there has been less of a movement to draft women at the local level,” says Ayanna Pressley, an African-American woman who recently won a seat on Boston’s city council. “By recruiting on the municipal level, it will not only attract more women, but more diverse women. Because that’s where you find a lot of women of color activists in their community, who don’t even know they have the sharpened skills to run and win.”
Creating a Winning Candidate
Even when a promising woman with a free moment is asked to take a shot at elected office, few have the built-in skill set to win a statewide or even citywide race. Just ask Massachusetts attorney general (and recently failed Senate candidate) Martha Coakley. “If you can’t communicate your message in three minutes and do it in a compelling way, it’s difficult to get elected,” says Andrea Steele, a Democratic activist who founded Emerge America as a way to train women for elected office. “Martha Coakley is the perfect example.”
Nonprofits like Emerge, Emily’s List, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the White House Project are trying to change the math on women in politics. At Emerge, women train at local meet-ups one weekend a month, says Steele, to learn, “how to fundraise, how to put together a message … everything from how to hire a consultant to going through the nuts and bolts of governing.” Forty percent of their alumni are women of color, and 41 percent of all trainees eventually run. The Lee Foundation focuses on state houses and governorships–the historically proven route to the presidency. They offer female-oriented campaign advice on how to be “Not Too Tough, Not Too Soft,” or “Who comes First, Your Family or the Public.
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