Women of color pose a question for Democratic candidates: Why should we vote for you?
Aimee Allison’s brainchild was born of elation and frustration.
The Oakland-based political strategist was invigorated by Democratic wins and near-wins the last two years in places like Alabama, Georgia and Texas, powered substantially by voter turnout among minority women.
But she blanched at the notion held in some quarters of the party that the key to retaking the White House is to lure back disaffected Democrats and swing voters who backed Trump
“I was watching so-called experts say we need to go after Trump supporters,” she said, “when they’re not reliable Democrats and they’ve been taking up the lion’s share of investment.”
So Allison organized a forum to promote the best path she sees to victory: Rallying women of color, who have been the Democratic party’s most loyal foot soldiers, and making sure presidential hopefuls show some loyalty back.
Candidates responded. Eight Democratic contenders — Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard and Julian Castro — appeared at the “She the People” forum on Wednesday, addressing about 1,700 black, Latina, Asian American and other women from 28 states at Texas Southern University, a historically black college.
The Houston summit was an opportunity for women to direct a pointed question to an array of Democratic candidates: In this crowded field, why should women of color vote for you?
In the past, Allison said, Democratic paeans to minority women were “perfunctory.”
“Moderate white voters are still king and queen,” she said. This election cycle, “we are going to insist that women of color are recognized and really put in front of a multiracial winning coalition.”
Brianna Brown, deputy director of the left-leaning grassroots group Texas Organizing Project, noted black women were now the “most solidly Democratic voting bloc of all time.”
“If that’s true for any other demographic, then they become a center of policy platform. It’s not about dog-whistle politics to that demographic, they go get the bullhorn,” Brown said. “For so long, that hasn’t happened.”
In addition to proclaiming support for standard Democratic litmus tests such as abortion rights and immigration reform, candidates at the forum were pressed on issues that often get less attention on the trail, such as gentrification or Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria.
Access to the ballot was a consistent refrain. Former Texas Rep. O’Rourke backed a slate of policies to make it easier to vote, including automatic registration for 18-year-olds, same-day registration and full restoration of voting rights for convicted felons who have completed their sentences.
California Sen. Harris said she would prioritize mental healthcare and drug treatment to address “undiagnosed and untreated trauma” in poor communities, as well as use pardon powers broadly for those convicted of federal drug crimes.
Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, recited statistics on how women of color — particularly black women — are more likely to die during pregnancy and detailed a plan to make hospitals more accountable by linking federal dollars to maternal health outcomes.
Booker pledged to address the effects of pollution in communities of color, citing high rates of asthma and unsafe drinking water, which ranked as a top concern in a recent poll of black, Latina and Asian American women. The New Jersey senator also promised to select a woman as his running mate should he win the nomination.
The women in attendance said they were gratified to see their political influence recognized, but added that they would continue to keep pressure on the candidates.
“It’s good they came here,” said Jordan Dunn, a 21-year-old Texas Southern University student. But, she added, “talk is cheap. I want to see action.”
Black, Latina and Asian women have been central to the party since well before President Trump’s election. Back in 2014, Maya Harris, who is sister and campaign chair to Kamala Harris, pointed out that the population of eligible voters among women of color increased by 2.2 million between 2012 and 2014; the ranks of white women eligible to vote swelled by just 286,000 in the same span.
“As their numbers increase and their participation grows, women of color will increasingly have the chance to sway electoral results, influence which candidates run and win, and play a greater role in shaping the policy agenda,” Harris wrote in a research paper.
By 2016, minority women made up 20% of Democratic primary voters nationwide, according to an analysis by She the People.
When Democrats won the White House in 2008 and 2012, turnout among women of color exceeded the national average. In 2010, 2014 and 2016 — all punishing years for Democrats — that group voted at rates lower than the national average.
Allison faulted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for not doing enough to energize that constituency, citing tactical errors such as failing to mobilize black voters around Detroit that allowed Trump to narrowly win Michigan.
Since Trump’s election, black women and other minorities have been at the heart of pivotal Democratic successes.
When Doug Jones ran in 2017 to be the first Democrat in 25 years to win a U.S. Senate seat in deep-red Alabama, his campaign homed in on black women.
“They would be the single biggest bloc of votes we would need to get a majority in that race,” said Paul Maslin, a top advisor for Jones. “We acted accordingly.”
The campaign targeted black women through television and radio ads, leaflets and door knocking, church visits and meetings with political power brokers. It heavily advertised Jones’ prosecution of Ku Klux Klan members in the infamous bombing of a Birmingham church.
Jones won 98% of the African American female vote, according to exit polls, in defeating former state Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore.
In 2018, the Texas Senate race enthralled national Democrats, who delighted in watching O’Rourke, then a congressman, mount a spirited challenge to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s narrow loss was a signal that typically conservative Texas could veer into battleground territory, especially if the state’s diverse voting groups were engaged.
There were other victories in Texas — 14 statehouse seats, two congressional districts, a criminal justice reformer winning as Dallas County district attorney, the election of 19 black women to judgeships in the Houston area. Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Project, said those wins were the culmination of years of constant engagement with black and Latino voters, particularly women.
But Maslin said Democrats should be cautious about sacrificing appeal to other demographic groups in their bid to draw in women of color.
“With white men, you cannot get blown out by the margins we did against Donald Trump,” he said. “I refuse to accept the notion it’s a zero-sum game.”
He said that while the party may have taken minority women for granted in the past, “I don’t think that’s been true about the Democratic Party for a long time. We know where our bread is buttered.”
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