Insurgent Democratic women running for Congress are pushing the party to rethink its approach to politics if they retake control of Capitol Hill in the fall.
At the annual meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus Friday, black female candidates who prevailed in primaries over established incumbents said it’s time for a conversation about how the party is structured. They expressed frustration that the party is tilted against rising politicians — especially those of color — and argued that if Democrats flip the House in November, it would be the result of organization and turnout amount black voters, particularly women.
If that happens, the candidates said, gratitude won’t be enough. They want a seat at the leadership table and a role in re-examining how the party works.
“It is not enough to just talk about a blue wave and Democrats being in the majority,” said Ayanna Pressley, the Boston city councilwoman now poised to become Massachusetts’ first black congresswoman. “What matters is who are those Democrats? We have to have a conversation about the guts and the soul of this party.”
Pressley won her primary last month by 18 points after challenging a 10-term incumbent initially endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus. Without a Republican challenger in the general election, she appears to have a clear path to Congress. Her comments foreshadow the challenges that lie ahead if Democrats regain control of the House in November. The party will have to reconcile the anti-establishment energy of a diverse set of freshmen with a leadership structure dominated by lawmakers who are mostly white and have held office for decades.
Connecticut House Democratic nominee Jahana Hayes also challenged a state political veteran to win her shot at becoming the state’s first black congresswoman. The former National Teacher of the Year told the CBC audience that she lacked support during her primary.
“Everyone said, ‘You don’t have the network, no one knows you.’ I had never run for political office, I had no money,” Hayes said. “I’m doing this for the people who don’t have a voice.”
Since her recent win with 62 percent of the vote, Hayes said, “it’s popular to support me now.”
After black women “showed up and showed out” this primary season, they are taking their rightful place, said Rep. Terri Sewell, who in 2010 was elected Alabama’s first black congresswoman. The Selma Democrat was instrumental in Sen. Doug Jones’ special election last winter, when he became the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the Senate in 25 years.
“We’ve been the backbone of the Democratic Party for a long time and we’re finally getting our due,” said Sewell. “There were a whole bunch of people he doesn’t even know that did a whole bunch of work to help him get there.”
Those people were the black women who often work with little or no financial support for infrastructure, she said.
“We need to activate the people on the ground who have been doing this work for free,” Sewell said. “They need resources. It’s not just about a seat at the table.”
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, agreed, noting that grassroots groups like hers have long filled the gap when the official party apparatus was absent.
“It’s our table,” said Brown, who galvanized black women to support Jones. “We have to have some really deep conversations about how the landscape has changed.”
That also includes addressing priorities within the party, Pressley said.
“I reject the notion that this is about working class white folk and everyone else!” Pressley told the cheering crowd. “I reject the notion that we’re going to have an actual debate about if we are the party of jobs and the economy, or of criminal justice reform. I’m not choosing.”
Some CBC meeting attendees noted the party has made efforts this cycle. This summer, the Democratic National Committee launched an initiative aimed at black women. After voting overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, many black women said they felt ignored or taken for granted by the party. Instead of being looked to as saviors, black women are calling for roles as decision and agenda makers.
This week’s gathering of black lawmakers also spotlighted black women’s political influence and impact. Much of the CBC agenda was focused squarely on black women and their issues, with black women as panelists, honorees and framers of much of the discussion.
“They’re not leading this nation in health care or pay, but when it comes to the democracy of this nation, black women are leading the way, and we need to be talking about those issues and more,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who along with California Sen. Kamala Harris — the Senate’s only black woman — served as the convention’s honorary co-chair.
New York Congresswoman Yvette Clark, echoed his sentiments Thursday evening at an awards event honoring CBC women.
“The sisters on the Hill are definitely running things,” said Clark, one of 21 women in the caucus.
“When I think about the blue wave hitting and seeing Congresswoman Maxine Waters bring down the gavel, as chair of financial services, I get excited,” said Clark, currently the ranking Democrat on the committee. “When I think about Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson bringing down that gavel, as chair of the committee on science and technology, I get excited.”
Waikinya Clanton, the DNC’s African-American Outreach Chair, encouraged the pressure to change the party dynamic toward black women candidates and voters.
“We need you all’s support, whether that comes in the form of criticism or whatever,” said Clanton. “One of the reasons I came to the party was because that was valid. I believed that I could only make the change that I needed by being there. All these people who haven’t for a long time felt like this was their party, feel like this is their party now because I’m there and I’m doing the work every single day.”