Black Women Legislators Are Rare in Statehouses. This Could Be the Solution.

Washington State Capitol in Olympia

Washington State Capitol in Olympia Shutterstock/Cascade Creatives

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Statehouses are predominantly White and male-led. One PAC in Washington state wants to change that—and be the model for other legislatures.

In late May, Mona Das watched as protests unfolded in Minneapolis over the killing of George Floyd.

A senator in Washington state, Das felt like she needed to do something to address the systemic racism that had created conditions for a white police officer to kneel onto the neck of Floyd, a Black man, for more than eight minutes.

“I was sitting on the couch thinking, ‘What can I do?’” she recalled.

Das observed people on her social media feed raising matching funds to help arrested protesters with bail money. As she witnessed the collective power of people opening their wallets to respond to the moment, Das thought about how that might help candidates of color—specifically, she knew of several Black women running for the Washington statehouse—and how that could shift political power and who gets to wield it. Oftentimes, at her state Capitol and elsewhere, it has been white men.

“The only thing that’s going to make a difference is policy change,” Das, a Democrat, said. “And the only people who are going to make a difference in policy are elected officials.”

Das texted a local donor and asked if she would make a matching gift. The donor responded immediately, committing $2,500. Das knew she was onto something. She contacted Shasti Conrad, chair of the King County Democrats (which represents communities in and around Seattle), to help spearhead the idea.

Opportunity PAC was born. Its goal, amid this time of social and political upheaval in America, is to elect several Black women to the Washington State Legislature. It is highlighting eight: Seven who are seeking seats to the state House of Representatives (two are incumbents) and one who is running for the state Senate. The group has also contributed money to several other Black women running for different statehouse races and judgeships.

Das, an Indian woman, still remembers the challenges of fundraising as a candidate in 2018 when she won her Senate seat (she briefly ran for a congressional seat earlier that year but she dropped out over fundraising concerns in the crowded race).

“Women of color in general are taught not to ask for money, not to raise money, not to be comfortable around money,” she said. “And so I just turned my trauma of running for office into a fundraising machine for these other women.”

In just a few months, the political action committee has raised nearly $200,000—with more pledges on the way—to help the candidates, all Democrats who advanced out of their August 4 primary, according to Conrad, one of the co-founders of Opportunity PAC. The group is also organizing a virtual concert in mid-October to raise more funds.

“Having these women in the state legislature will change the types of policies that get put forward. It’ll change the kind of people that will be represented, and what decisions are being made,” she said.

A small but growing number of political groups around the country are actively trying to increase the number of people of color in elected office, and an even smaller number are exclusively focused on electing Black women.

Opportunity PAC appears to be one of only a few devoted almost entirely to statehouse races — and Conrad hopes it can be a model for similar efforts in other states.

“It’s about changing institutions and changing structures,” she said. “In such a heightened political time, supporting people running for office, particularly Black women, also makes a lot of sense.”


Joy Stanford’s second attempt at running for office feels different.

Back in 2018, Stanford ran for the Washington House as a first-time candidate who was trying to elevate issues like housing and homelessness. She lost by about 10 percentage points.

This year she has the support of Opportunity PAC. The group spends money on digital ads and other advertising in support of candidates, but it is legally barred from directly coordinating with them.

“The momentum is so much better and palpable,” Stanford said. “They’ve elevated us as, ‘Here’s someone who cares. Here’s someone who’s going to represent everyone, no matter if you vote for them or not. They are going to include you when they are thinking about policy and when they are writing policy.’”

Tanisha Harris, another House candidate that Opportunity PAC is supporting, agrees. She has spoken with Stanford about how different things feel for them this year because there is “so much more support for us.” Harris also ran in 2018 and lost by just under 860 votes.

Harris said the renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement—which has highlighted not just Floyd’s death, but the killings of other Black Americans including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery—has highlighted the candidacies of people of color.

“People of color and low-income people, we’ve always been kind of rising up for social justice and our causes and our values and beliefs,” she said. “But something has changed over the last six to nine months. We see more allies coming out and speaking out, too.”

Black women face additional barriers to running for office, according to Conrad. Even traditional campaign wisdom can be complicated for them to heed. She recalled something one candidate experienced.

“One of the candidate training programs said, ‘Go and fundraise from your network. Go ask your family or ask your friends,’” Conrad said. “And one of the women said, ‘My family and my friends are struggling … we don’t have intergenerational wealth. So when you’re asking me to go to my father or my cousin and ask them for money, I’m asking people who are struggling, and so I don’t have the same capabilities or the same opportunities.’”

T’wina Nobles, who is running for the state Senate and is also being supported by the PAC, said Black women and people of color must get earlier buy-in from potential donors, and they face a steeper hill on securing key endorsements from political organizations that have the power to make or break campaigns.

Nobles said endorsement groups sometimes question any life experience that isn’t tied directly to previously-held elected office.

“We’re going to have to start … taking chances on, ‘Here is a mom. Here is a community member of yours, a CEO leader. Here is someone who has not held elected office before,” she said. 

Nobles, who serves on her local school board and runs a nonprofit, was recently endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called Nobles “an experienced community leader.”

Nobles said groups need to look at life experiences and what skills that can bring to the table.

Failure to do so creates a cycle that perpetuates underrepresentation.

“When you say you want to see more of us run, but then you start to disqualify us … it’s the same type of disproportionality that we see across other sectors for people of color and for Black folks.”


There are concerted efforts to elect Black women into office elsewhere. In California, Black Women Organized for Political Action State PAC has worked to elect Black women into office for decades. In Texas, there’s the Black Women’s PAC, which supported 19 Black women running to be judges in Harris County in 2018. (They were all elected.)

Higher Heights for America PAC, founded in 2011, helps elect Black women up and down the ballot. The group collaborated with the Center for American Women and Politics in 2019 for a report on Black’s women rise in political power. It showed that a larger number of Black women than ever before are serving in state legislatures (more than 40 new Black women were elected to seats in the 2018 election). While that data still shows an incremental increase, the gains in Black representation in statehouses have been driven primarily by Black women versus Black men.

Glynda Carr, Higher Heights’ president, CEO and co-founder, is not surprised by the effort among political groups to more intentionally support Black women running for office. Data shows that Black women are among the most active voting blocs.

“Black women in this country are underrepresented and underserved,” Carr said. “And because this work has been so severely under-resourced, it is about building a national infrastructure.”

Other political groups are also advocating for Black candidates or candidates that will represent the interests of people of color. Collective PAC endorses Black state and federal candidates. The Asian American Advocacy Fund advocates on behalf of civically engaged Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians in Georgia. PODER NC Action, a group out of North Carolina, is led by Latinas.

Sayu Bhojwani is president and founder of New American Leaders, an organization that is trying to elect more first- and second-generation Americans to run for office. The group recently released a report highlighting the lack of diverse representation in statehouses.

Bhojwani said people of color, who have already been committed to turning out their communities to vote, have increasingly stepped up in trying to ensure women of color successfully run for office.

“We’re saying that we want to make sure that those women are successful very early on, and one way to do that is for us to fundraise and invest in those races in a way that establishment gatekeepers and donors are not as willing and as ready to do,” she said.


There are 61 women serving in the 147-member Washington Legislature, representing 41.5 percent of all members. That is one of the highest percentages in the country—but only two are Black women, both serving in the House.

If Nobles wins her state Senate race, she would be the first Black legislator in the chamber in a decade. If all the candidates supported by Opportunity PAC win, or even just a handful, it would represent one of the largest increases of elected Black women to the statehouse. Several of the candidates received more votes than their party challengers in the primary (Washington has a top two primary), indicating several competitive races. 

The lack of representation in the Washington State Legislature has ramifications, particularly at a time when people are looking for change in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic.

“If our policies are being determined predominantly by the white male experience, then it is going to respond to only the white male experience,” Bhojwani said.

Das has known the complexities of being one of the only people of color in a statehouse. In June 2019, she alleged at a chamber of commerce forum that she had experienced “hate, sexism, racism and misogyny” during closed-door Democratic caucus meetings.

The comments brought public scrutiny. A state Senate legislative report found no evidence that such statements were made. Das told a human resources officer that she regretted using the language, and said she instead was referring to “a few” colleagues who “were purportedly dismissive and disrespectful when members of color raised concerns that specific legislation could disproportionately impact communities of color.”

The report noted that other legislators of color agreed that the Senate, like “all institutions, sometimes reflects attitudes and assumptions that undermine the interests and concerns of those who have been historically marginalized on the basis of sex, race and sexual orientation.”

Das said the experience gave her more resolve to help women of color get elected into the statehouse to ensure things get better. She said navigating those political spaces “is so hard” when there are so few people of color there.

“These systems were not built for us. They were not created with us in mind,” she said. “And so when we show up to these spaces, it’s a rude awakening.”

It’s unclear for now whether Opportunity PAC’s efforts will pay off. But its existence has allowed the candidates it supports to bond over the shared experience of being a Black woman running for office during such a tumultuous time.

Stanford recalled when Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. Blake was paralyzed. Days later, a white 17-year-old was arrested for allegedly shooting three people following related protests, including two fatally. He faces multiple homicide charges. Police arrested the teen without force, leading to additional public outrage because it highlighted the contrasts in how law enforcement can treat Black and white people.

Stanford said she texted with some of the candidates. The violence amid continued effects of the pandemic felt traumatic. Stanford was laid off from her job at a nonprofit earlier this year because of the financial effects of COVID-19.

“As a Black woman who is running, I hit a wall,” Stanford said.

The candidates asked each other how they were doing, and how they could respond to the moment. They agreed to promote positivity and love through their campaigns.

“Just that by itself, being able to have that conversation with one or two of my other Opportunity PAC sisters, was very fruitful and very meaningful for me,” she said.

Harris added that the candidates draw strength from each other.

“We respect and understand where each of us is coming from,” she said. “And knowing that we all have our own different paths. But it all leads to the same road, and that is being an elected official in Olympia.”

Originally published by The 19th

Barbara Rodriguez is the statehouses reporter at The 19th. 

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