Jennifer McClellan remembers her parents’ life as Black Virginians going through the segregation and trauma and triumph of the civil rights movement.
It showed him that government can be “a powerful force to improve people’s lives”, but also “a force that oppresses some, ignores others”.
A generation later, despite her interest in public service, there was no obvious path for someone like her.
“There weren’t many role models … examples of black women” in power, McClellan said in an interview. Today, it is a 48-year-old state senator who is running for governor herself: “We are in a very different Virginia. ”
McClellan’s candidacy alongside fellow primary candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy demonstrates the growing political power of black women, a long-standing foundation of Democratic victories, and most recently, as candidates and office holders, vice -President Kamala Harris to the mayors of Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco.
McClellan and Carroll Foy, a 39-year-old former lawmaker, are trying to break down another barrier by becoming the first black woman to win a state governorship race. They are decidedly the outsiders of the former governor Terry McAuliffe during the primary of June 8 in Virginia. Yet they are nonetheless part of a wave of applications from black women not only for local and legislative positions, but also for state-wide offices that are still new ground for black women.
“We are normalizing black women’s leadership (and) seeing black women in every ballot so it’s second nature to voters,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which supports black female candidates.
In addition to Virginia, two black women are running for the US Senate from North Carolina in 2022: former Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court Cheri Beasley and former lawmaker Erica Smith. In Florida, US Representative Val Demings is running for Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s seat. In Georgia, voting rights activist and former legislative leader Stacey Abrams is set to run for a second governorship in 2022.
Steve Schale, a white strategist who has helped President Barack Obama win Florida twice, said it was a growing consensus that black women can be Democrats’ ideal election alliance statewide: older black voters, younger voters of all racial and ethnic lines, white urban white liberals, especially women, in metropolitan areas.
“This is the next step after Obama,” Schale said. “They can rebuild this coalition as well as anyone.”
Both Virginia candidates say black women are right at the moment.
“I’m tired of fighting the same fights my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did, and I can’t leave that to my kids,” McClellan recalled as she looked at the movie. video of George Floyd, a black man, dying below the knee of a white policeman in Minnesota last year.
Carroll Foy links his biography – a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and working in low-paying jobs and as a public advocate – to his political strategy. “There is intersectionality … coming from one of the poorest communities in Virginia” and selling political ideas to all working and middle class voters, she said in an interview.
In addition to the absence of a black woman as governor, only two were elected to the United States Senate and the chamber has none. The next goal, Carr said, is for black women to associate their voting power with their representation.
Congress began this year with a record 25 black women out of 435 House members. Black women are mayors of seven of America’s 100 most populous cities, up from one less than ten years ago. The number of black women in state legislatures has nearly doubled in two decades, to over 4%.
“We can celebrate,” Carr said, “while recognizing the work that needs to be done.”
At the very least, the strong campaigns of black women so early in the midterm cycle stand out from previous years.
In 2017, as Georgian Abrams prepared for her first gubernatorial candidacy, the state party’s white brokers recruited one of her fellow state lawmakers, a white woman, to run against her. .
“They should have been ashamed of themselves,” said Karen Finney, a prominent black Democratic consultant and Abrams ally. “She proved them all wrong.”
Abrams defeated his main handpicked opponent and came close to 55,000 votes out of 4 million votes to defeat Republican Brian Kemp. Soon after, Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer courted her to run for the Senate. She refused but recruited Reverend Raphael Warnock. Warnock, a black, won his January second round by 2 points, a wider margin than his white colleague, Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff, who succeeded in a side competition.
As 2022 approaches, Georgia Democrats are uniformly handing over the top of the ticket to Abrams, who is publicly a mom but is expected to run.
“She’s proven that you don’t have to follow conventional wisdom,” McClellan said.
The National Democrats followed suit in recruiting and Senate approvals. The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm appears determined to be much more deliberate on approvals in the 2022 cycle, rather than publicly anointing preferred candidates early on.
In 2020, the committee backed North Carolina Democrat Cal Cunningham, a moderate white, over other candidates, including Smith. Cunningham, who admitted to having an extramarital affair in the last month of the campaign, lost 1.8 points, or nearly 100,000 votes. Beasley, then sitting Supreme Court chief justice, lost his candidacy for re-election in the same general election by just over 400 votes.
Finney cited her focus group research which found white women were becoming more open to supporting black women. Black female candidates, she said, can capitalize on public frustration with dysfunction. Voters “see women as collaborative leaders, and women of color are not seen as part of what is already broken,” Finney said, even though they have held a position before, because they are “underdogs.” natural ”.
Beasley and Demings, Finney added, have potential benefits from the criminal justice establishment: Beasley as a member of the justice system, Demings as the former Orlando police chief. So, Finney said, it would be more difficult for Republicans to caricature as “extremist” or “radical.”
In Virginia, McClellan and Carroll Foy describe their nominations as progress, with caveats.
Carroll Foy has received support from Higher Heights and EMILY’s List, which advocates for abortion rights. She’s amassed millions, but not at the pace of McAuliffe, a prodigious fundraiser since his days as President Bill Clinton’s reelection co-chair in 1996.
“Obviously the structures in place are not made for a woman of color to show up and win the leadership position,” said Carroll Foy.
McClellan said voters beyond the political class are “ready for someone with that different perspective,” while many insiders still believe that “if there’s a white man in the race you have to wait. your turn”.
Indeed, McAuliffe works with a lot of black support. Among his campaign co-chairs is the most senior black member of the General Assembly, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Louise Lucas.
She credited McAuliffe with real outreach to non-white communities and said she “went back three decades” with the 64-year-old Democrat.
“I’m excited about all the black and brunette women showing up for offices across the country,” Lucas said. “This is not an affront to any of my sisters.”
Still, the 77-year-old senator implicitly asked if black women could win the general election in Virginia. “Rather than speculating,” said Lucas, “I would rather say that I think Terry is in the best position and fit to win.”