Candidates accuse Democrats of treating black women as ‘mules of the party’

Michelle Laws
Michelle Laws

Black women have helped carry the Democratic Party to a string of post-2016 election victories, raising hopes of a wave election and a takeover of the House of Representatives in November.

“The blue wave is because of the black women,” said DD Adams, a Winston-Salem councilwoman who is running for the Democratic nomination in the 5th District.

But the party is still not doing enough to support black women candidates and is taking their votes for granted, according to Adams and Michelle Laws of Chapel Hill, a former executive director of the NAACP’s state chapter and a Democratic primary challenger to longtime Rep. David Price.

“There are many black women around this country who are no longer willing to be the mules of the party, doing the hard work on the ground, and receiving very little in return in terms of support and endorsement of the party to serve in key leadership positions,” Laws said in a campaign statement. She is a candidate in the 4th District which runs along I-40 from Mebane in the west to Garner in the east. It includes Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Cary.

Said Adams: “African-American women have been carrying the water. ... People always look to us to carry the water. I’m not carrying the water no more. I want the bucket and I want a sip from it and I want to help determine who gets a sip.”

Analysis, including from the Democratic National Committee, of the Alabama Senate race pointed to turnout — and 98 percent support — among black women as a deciding factor in Democrat Doug Jones’ victory. More than 48 percent of registered black women voted in the election, a number far higher than other racial and gender groups, according to TargetSmart. For example, just less than 37 percent of registered white women voted in the election.

Similarly, black women voted in heavy numbers for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey, victories that buoyed the hopes of Democrats who are in the minority in the U.S. House and Senate.

Despite their voting prowess, black women lag far behind in terms of elected officials. Black women account for 3.6 percent of members of Congress and 3.7 percent of state lawmakers across the country, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Just two black women hold statewide executive offices and no black woman has ever been governor of a state.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles is one of five black women mayors out of the nation’s most 100 populated cities.

“We’re still underrepresented on the ballot. The ability to break through and run, win and lead is still a place that we need additional investments,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder of the Higher Heights Leadership Fund, which supports black women leadership at all levels. “We ought to invest in black women’s political leadership outside of just voting; that means recruiting, training and supporting black women running for office.”

Democrat Vi Lyles easily defeated Republican Kenny Smith on Tuesday to become Charlotte’s first African-American female mayor.

Laws said that despite black women’s contributions to electing Democratic candidates, “when we bring forth candidates, strong candidates, they’re not supported by party leadership.” Laws said she’s had a hard time winning support from Democrats active in the party since she’s running against a longtime incumbent.

Wayne Goodwin, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said his party “has made tremendous gains recruiting African-American women.” According to the party, 29 black women are running for the General Assembly in 170 districts. In the last session, there were 12 black women lawmakers, all Democrats.

At least four black women— Adams, Laws, Linda Coleman of Wake County and Rep. Alma Adams, who represents the 12th District in Charlotte — are running for the U.S. House as Democrats in North Carolina. Alma Adams is the second black woman to represent the state in Congress. Eva Clayton, who served from 1991 to 2003, was the first.

“We have made great strides. We certainly better mirror the state’s composition (than Republicans). Even with that being said, I pledge that we can do even more,” Goodwin said.

Experts say that recruiting and supporting black women means looking beyond the traditional networks that parties mine for new candidates and expanding the districts in which women of color are considered as viable candidates.

Of the 61 women endorsed by Emily’s List for U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governorships across the nation, two are black. Emily’s List’s mission is to elect “pro-choice Democratic women.”

“What does it look like to be a political leader? For so long that image has not been a woman of color. That alone raises challenges for these women,” said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor for political science at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers. “They have to confront people who may challenge their qualifications. There’s a certain level of proving yourself, which particularly white male candidates don’t have to do. Their credentials are often presumed in part because of their identity.”

It is not uncommon, Dittmar said, for white elected officials to represent diverse districts, but few women of color are considered to represent majority white districts or states, one reason for the paltry statewide executive numbers.

Coleman, who is running in the 2nd District, is a former Wake County commissioner and state House member, but has lost two statewide runs for lieutenant governor.

Black voters make up 22 percent of the 4th district, in line with the state average. Black Democrats — Rep. G.K. Butterfield and Adams — represent two other North Carolina congressional districts; the other 10 are represented by white Republicans. Butterfield’s 1st Congressional District is 45 percent black and Adams’ 12th District is 37 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.

“The notion is that they can’t do it. There’s no empirical proof that they can’t. They haven’t,” Dittmar said. “But they haven’t in part because they haven’t been tapped. It’s a cyclical perception problem.”

Laws, who faces an uphill battle to win the Democratic primary in May against Price, said it’s vital for the party to have new voices. She said there is little difference in the policy positions between her and Price, though there are some priority differences.

“We’re still the party that offers the best solutions,” said Laws, an assistant director for a local community health organization and ordained minister. “The messengers that we have in place right now are not well received. Why sacrifice the future and the lifeblood of the party because you won’t switch messengers?”

Price, a white, 77-year-old Chapel Hill Democrat, has held the seat since 1986 with a single two-year gap in the mid-1990s. Price, a member of the appropriations committee, raised more than $283,000 in 2017 and has more than $200,000 cash on hand for his re-election campaign. Laws has yet to file a campaign finance report with the FEC.

“I understand why people here and around the country are stepping forward to run for office — they are fired up about what’s happening in Washington, and I’m fired up too,” Price said in a statement. “This is not the first time I’ve faced a primary, and I take nothing for granted. I will be working hard to maintain the trust and confidence the voters of the Fourth District have placed in me and look forward to discussing my accomplishments and priorities in the coming months.”

Richard Watkins, who is black, is also running for the Democratic nomination in the district. Watkins works at UNC-Chapel Hill and is the CEO of The Science Policy Action Network. He raised less than $700 for his campaign through Dec. 31.

“It’s a very healthy exercise to practice democracy. It gives people a choice and restores power into the hands of the people,” Watkins said. “They could very well go back to the ballot box and choose David Price. I think they have the right to have a choice in a functioning democratic society.”

Republican Steve A. (Von) Loor and Libertarian candidates Barbara Howe and Scerry Perry Whitlock are also running in the 4th District.

DD Adams is running against schoolteacher Jenny Marshall in for the Democratic nomination in the 5th District. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican, currently holds the seat and is running for re-election. Two other Republicans Dillon Gentry and Cortland J. Meader Jr. are in the race.

Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089, @MurphinDC