Women of Color Take Center Stage in the 2018 Blue Wave

There has been much speculation about the “Blue Wave,” the greatly anticipated flip of the House and Senate from red to blue in the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats lost the majority in 2010, in response to Democratic President Barack Obama’s election, and now they’re hoping for some karma under Republican President Trump. In September 2018, CNN reported that, of the 218 House seats needed for control, 182 were solidly Democratic, 9 were likely Democratic, and 12 leaned Democratic. On the red side of things, 155 seats were solidly Republican, 30 were likely Republican, and 17 leaned Republican, leaving 30 seats as “toss ups.”

Amidst talks of this blue wave, there has been much reporting on factors influencing the wave, Republican incumbents threatened by the wave, and of course, what will happen if Democrats actually do take control of the House or Senate. But what has been less talked about is why this particular blue wave is happening now, and the answer is the organizing, willpower, and influence of women of color. Political commentator Symone Sanders said it best when she said simply, “There is no blue wave in 2018 without Black women.”

Increasing representation for women of color in politics is desperately needed. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women of color account for 7.1 percent of the total 535 members of Congress, 2.6 percent of the total 312 statewide elective officials, and 6.2 percent of the total 7,383 state legislators. In addition, “In the nation’s 100 largest cities, ten women of color currently serve as mayors.” According to Vox, which specifically looked at the representation of Black women, “At the beginning of 2018, Black women held just 3.7 percent of state legislative seats, 0.96 percent of statewide elected executive positions, and just five mayorships in the US’s 100 largest cities.” In addition, “Less than 20 seats in the House of Representatives were held by Black women, while a single Black woman, Kamala Harris (D-CA), serves in the Senate. Collectively, Black women made up just 3.6 percent of Congress.”

Spurning on these women of color running in 2018 is the fact that the number of women of color eligible to vote has increased by 55 percent from 2000 to 2014. However, the blue wave isn’t just due to more eligible voters, but also their political affiliations. According to Vox, “Women of color are the most likely of all millennials to identify as Democrats: roughly 63 percent, surpassing even men of color.”

Partisanship by Race and Gender, Courtesy of Vox

Women of color are the most partisan of any groups, and this trend continues on policy positions, where women of color look distinctly different than even white women or men of color of similar ages:

Women of color support building a wall along the Mexican border far less than other groups. On both immigration and economic concerns, millennials hold more liberal positions than Americans more generally. But while about half of young Americans see the growing wealth divide as critical to them personally, two-thirds of women of color do. Many young Americans consider the high costs of higher education a critical issue to them personally – roughly 58 percent in the PRRI data. Again, however, young women of color are the most likely to say this issue is critically important to them.

Policy Positions by Race and Gender, Courtesy of Vox

Women of color also hold the most distinctly progressive attitudes on issues of discrimination and rights for minorities, indicating stronger beliefs that LGBTQ rights are critical to them personally and that discrimination against blacks has increased in the past year. Also, women of color are the most overtly feminist of all millennials, although young white women are also more comfortable using this term to describe themselves than young men overall.

Social Attitudes by Race and Gender, Courtesy of Vox

In addition to more eligible voters and strong policy stances and identities, women of color are the “most politically engaged” according to Vox:

Across seven different areas (following politics online, posting on social media about political issues, signing online petitions, volunteering for a political cause, donating money to a cause or campaign, attending a public rally, or contacting an elected official), young women engaged in more activities than young men. Young women of color, however, engaged in the most activities on average: 2.62 political or civic activities compared with 2.44 activities of white women. By contrast, young men of color averaged 2.22 activities and young white men only 1.78.

According to Teen Vogue, more than 400 Black women are running for office in 2018, and that’s not including the numerous Latinx, Asian-American, and Native American women who are also throwing their hat in the political ring. According to The Washington Post, “This year, 36 states will hold elections for governor. Out of a total of 14 women who have won their primary so far, five gubernatorial nominees are women of color.” That’s a big deal considering a woman of color has never served as governor before. In fact, Politico reported that white men are actually in the minority in the House Democratic candidate pool in 2018. According to their analysis, “A flood of women, minorities and first-time candidates is poised to radically alter the composition of Congress next year after winning Democratic primaries in record numbers in 2018.” According to Nadia Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University, “This, hopefully, should be a wake-up call for the political parties… First of all, to see women of color as a viable candidate. Not just a whim, not a fluke, not someone who has an idea that might push the party to the left or the right, but that they actually have views that should be center or mainstream.”

But just because women of color are running in record numbers and winning Democratic primaries doesn’t mean all is well within the Democratic Party. According to Buzzfeed, Black women say their “allegiance” to the Democratic Party is “critically imperiled, citing an exasperation with chair Tom Perez and a widely shared feeling that the party’s central arm gives only superficial recognition to the voices that represent its longest-serving stewards and most loyal base of voters.” According to Yolanda Caraway, a longtime Democratic official, “It just breaks my heart. I don’t feel I’m included in this party anymore. I’m, like, three weeks away from going to register as an independent. I really am.” According to Leah Daughtry, a political operative who has worked in and with the DNC for over three decades, “[Perez] often says that Black women are the backbone of the party, and folks appreciate that sentiment. But women are looking for the evidence that it’s more than words.” She continued, “I think a lot of women don’t see that evidence, so patience is wearing thin and frustration is getting high.”

That frustration felt by many Democratic Black women was on display at the annual Congressional Black Caucus meeting in September. Numerous Black women candidates who won their primaries over establishment and incumbent candidates “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 [sic] Black voters, particularly women.” According to Ayanna Pressley, “It is not enough to just talk about a blue wave and Democrats being in the majority. What matters is who are those Democrats? We have to have a conversation about the guts and the soul of this party.”

And just who are these women of color running in 2018? They are young and old, socialist and “gun-wielding” Democrats, spanning east coast to west and everywhere in between. They are black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian, but most importantly, they refuse to be placed in any one box of preconceived expectations. Below, we take a look at just a handful of the women of color set to take center stage in 2018.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - NY 14

Courtesy of Vanity Fair

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who might just become the youngest woman elected to Congress come November at 28-years-old. Ocasio-Cortez studied Economics and International Relations at Boston University, and while there she interned for the late Sen. Kennedy. She returned to the Bronx after graduating from college but tragedy struck her family when her father passed away from cancer in the midst of the 2008 recession. To support her family, Ocasio-Cortez found herself working two jobs and 18-hour shifts at restaurants. It was during this time that she realized how much political change was desperately needed in the Bronx and so far, her candidacy for NY 14 has already been history-making; She has been the “first NY-14 Democratic challenger in a generation; the first NY-14 candidate to run without any lobbyist money in modern history; and the first woman of color to ever run in NY-14 (a district that’s 70% people of color).”

As a Democratic Socialist, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has focused on issues like expanding Medicare-for-All, tuition-free college, and criminal justice reform. In June, She pulled off a “stunning” upset in the New York primaries against incumbent Rep. Joe Crowely and she now has Republicans and conservative media outlets running scared, with National Review, Breitbart, and the American Conservative all writing “extensively” on her. However, Ocasio-Cortez also has some powerful Democrats in her corner. According to The New Yorker, she’s been “been fielding calls of congratulation ‘from everyone you can name,’ including her ideological lodestar, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, who, she said, ‘seemed to come from a mentoring place.’” When asked about her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez said,

I’m twenty-eight years old, and I was elected on this super-idealistic platform. Folks may want to take that away from me, but I won. When you hear ‘She won just for demographic reasons,’ or low turnout, or that I won because of all the white ‘Bernie bros’ in Astoria–maybe that all helped. But I smoked this race. I didn’t edge anybody out. I dominated. And I am going to own that.

Paulette Jordan - Idaho

Courtesy of CNN

Paulette Jordan, a Democrat and member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, could become the nation’s first ever Native American governor. But, even if she loses, she’s already made history by becoming the first woman in Idaho history to win the Democratic nomination for governor. Jordan grew up on a farm in northern Idaho and attended the University of Washington, where she “discovered a love of local politics and grassroots activism.” After graduation, Jordan moved back to Idaho and became the “youngest person elected to the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council,” and served as Finance Chair on the Executive Board of the National Indian Gaming Association. In 2014, Jordan ran for a seat in the Idaho House of Representatives and won, beating a Republican incumbent.

Winning will not be easy for Jordan– Idaho is a “deep red state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990.” However, Jordan knows what it’s like to beat the odds. In 2016, she was the “only Democrat in north Idaho to win a district that President Trump also won.” Now, Jordan’s gubernatorial platform includes “expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, decriminalizing cannabis and legalizing medicinal cannabis, fighting climate change, and protecting public lands.” Oh, and she’s been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and pop goddess Cher. According to Jordan, “For me, being indigenous, you are definitely born in a political life. Everything from the earlier treaties and relations, the things that we negotiated, like having access to clean air and water and access to education, that was all politicized.” According to CNN, who deemed Jordan a “horse-riding, gun-owning Democrat,” “Idaho has been a graveyard for Democrats seeking state or federal positions for decades. But Jordan’s passion for her roots and battle cry that the state work for the people and not the other way round are winning attention and funding. She’s being watched as a possible model for Democrats to win in rural areas.”

Ayanna Pressley- MA 7

Courtesy of Vox

Ayanna Pressley grabbed national headlines this September when she “upended the Massachusetts political order” by beating out Michael Capuano, a 10-term incumbent, in the primary election for Massachusetts’ 7th District. However, the road to get here has been both long and uphill for Pressley. She was born in Chicago to an activist mother and father who rotated in and out of her life while struggling with heroin addiction and incarceration. Pressley has also disclosed that she is a survivor of a decade of childhood sexual abuse. By the time she graduated from high school, Pressley was the student body president, named the “most likely to be mayor of Chicago,” and was the commencement speaker for her class. She went on to study at Boston University, but was forced to drop out and work at a Boston Marriott hotel to support her mother, who lost her job. Once her mother got back on her feet, Pressley went to work for Sen. John Kerry, and ended up serving as his scheduler, constituent services director, and then political director over the course of 13 years in his office. When asked about Pressley, Kerry said, “Ayanna was a force. She had enormous focus and drive, a wonderful, outgoing personality, and believed in public service.” In 2009, Pressley won election to the Boston City Council, becoming the first woman of color to do so in the council’s 100-year history.

Since announcing her candidacy for Congress, Pressley has made her opinions clear– On separate occasions, she called President Trump “a racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man,” stated her support for the NFL’s kneeling protest movement, and called for the defunding of ICE. Her congressional slogan, “Change can’t wait,” was also chosen as a nod to those who urged her not to run against Capuano because it would disrupt the “traditional order of Boston politics.” Numerous think pieces have been written on her, including ones claiming she’s the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and one boldly stating, “Why Ayanna Pressley is not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” Regardless of how you classify her, Pressley’s win was the “biggest sign yet that a ‘new Boston’ was emerging in the shadow of the city’s historically white, union-driven political establishment.”

Lupe Valdez - Texas

Courtesy of the Houston Chronicle

Lupe Valdez was born in Texas, the daughter of two Mexican-American migrant farmworkers and the youngest child in a family of ten. After putting herself through college, eventually getting a Master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Texas, Valdez joined the United States Army Reserve, where she attained the rank of Captain. Througher her career, Valdez served in investigative roles in numerous offices, including the General Services Administration, the US Department of Agriculture, the US Customs Service, and the Department of Homeland Security. In 2004, she retired to run for the office of Dallas County Sheriff, an election she won in a landslide with over 70 percent of the vote. Valdez went on to serve four terms as Dallas County Sheriff, no small feat considering she was running as a Democrat in a red state and was openly lesbian.

Valdez announced her candidacy for governor of Texas in December 2017, and when she won the run-off primary election in May, she became the first Latina and first openly gay person nominated for governor by a major party in Texas. Despite the fact that Texas “hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly half a century and has never had a Latino or Latina as its governor,” Valdez is “undaunted.” According to Valdez, “Texans made me the nominee, and that’s a cry from Texas for a change, for a change that all of us can be heard – Latinos, LGBTQ, Anglos, Muslims, African-Americans. We all need to be heard.”

Debra Haaland - NM 1

Courtesy of The New York Times

Although Debra Haaland moved around a lot as a child, her roots in New Mexico trace back to 1300 AD– the approximate year members of her tribe, the Laguna Pueblo, moved to the area. Haaland was a military “brat” growing up because her mother served in the U.S. Navy and her father served in the U.S. Marine Corps. For his service in Vietnam, Haaland’s father received a Silver Star and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. After graduating from high school in Albuquerque, Haaland studied English at the University of New Mexico and got her JD in Native American law from the University of New Mexico Law School. In her professional career, she has worked as the tribal administrator for the San Felipe Pueblo people and was New Mexico’s vote director for Native Americans in Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

After losing New Mexico’s Lt. Governor election in 2014, Haaland became Chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party and announced her candidacy for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. If elected, Haaland will make history as the first Native woman ever elected to Congress. Haaland is putting the knowledge she’s learned volunteering on past campaigns to the test now that she’s a candidate herself, and she’s placing a heavy emphasis on organizing in underrepresented communities. Since Haaland has already won the Democratic primary and the 1st District is largely Democratic, she has a very large shot at being in DC come January 2019. If she does make it to the hallowed halls of Congress, Haaland wants to focus on climate change, renewable energy, Medicare-for-all, immigration reform, and bringing Native American tribes to the table more often, especially on issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline. According to Tara Gatewood, a member of the Pueblo of Isleta tribe who hosts the radio show Native America Calling, “People relate to her story as someone from a tribal community who can speak with authority about energy development, threats to sovereignty, how to balance family responsibility with politics… Her candidacy could finally give us a voice on the inside. For us, that’s critical.”

Ilhan Omar - MN 5

Courtesy of the Star Tribune

Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia, and her family fled the country’s civil war when she was just 8-years-old. After living in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years, Omar’s family finally settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Omar learned English in only three months once she immigrated to the States, and she went on to graduate from North Dakota State University with a Bachelor’s in Political Science and International Studies. Since then, she’s worked as a community nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota, campaign manager for Kari Dziedzic’s reelection campaign for the Minnesota State Senate, managed Andrew Johnson’s campaign for Minneapolis City Council, and then served as Johnson’s Senior Policy Aide once he was elected.

In 2016, Omar became the first Somali-American, Muslim legislator in the United States when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in District 60B. Not to mention, she did so by beating a 44-year Democratic incumbent in the primary election. Now, she hopes to make history again and become the first Somali-American and one of the first Muslim women in Congress. However, according to The New Yorker,

Stories about these ‘firsts’ tend to miss Omar’s certainty about who she is, and the rightness of her desire to ‘expand what is politically possible,’ including cancelling student debt, banning private prisons, increasing the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., and cutting funding for ‘perpetual war and military aggression.’ She supports passing a national bill of rights for renters, the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act, and automatically registering every eighteen-year-old to vote. These are the stances Omar is referring to when she speaks, as she does often, about ‘a politics of moral clarity and courage.’

Jahana Hayes - CT 5

Courtesy of Rolling Stone

Jahana Hayes is a lifelong resident of Connecticut and grew up in the Berkeley Heights housing project in Waterbury, a place where she says she encountered the “predictable cycle of poverty.” When she was young, Hayes’ family members struggled with addiction and relied on public assistance, and Hayes herself became pregnant when she was 16-years-old. Undeterred by the cards life dealt to her, Hayes got her undergraduate degree from Southern Connecticut State University and her master’s from the University of Saint Joseph. Hayes ultimately became a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School and the Talent and Professional Development Supervisor for Waterbury Public Schools. In 2016, Hayes was named National Teacher of the Year. According to Hayes, “I built my teaching career by telling my students you don’t get to complain here… If you see a problem in your community, you go and fix it.”

Now, Hayes has her sights set on “becoming Connecticut’s first Black Democratic member of Congress and the first Black Congresswoman from any New England state.” She is inspired to run, in part, by President Trump. Hayes was on a State Department-sponsored trip to Tunisia the day after the 2016 election and her 8-year-old son called her to ask if she “went to Africa to find us a new house because someone on the bus told him: We have a new president, they’re going to build a wall and all of the brown people have to leave.” According to Hayes, she “can’t just sit by and let these things happen anymore.” After winning the Democratic primary election for Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District against Mary Glassman, a more “seasoned” opponent with the party’s backing, Hayes declared, “People told me I had no chance and I had no business trying to do this. Tonight we proved them wrong.” According to The New York Times, Hayes’ victory on primary night “also marked a watershed moment for the teachers’ movement, in which educators are demanding better pay and labor protections in protests and strikes across the United States, from West Virginia to Arizona.”

Lucy McBath - GA 6

Courtesy of Millennial Politics

Lucy McBath’s path to announcing her candidacy for Congress started with tragedy– the shooting death of her 17-year-old son by a white man at a gas station, who was apparently angered that McBath’s son, David, was playing his car radio too loud. According to Mother Jones, David’s murder in 2012 happened “nine months after another Black teen, Trayvon Martin, was gunned down by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman, causing national outrage.” Shortly after her son’s death, McBath heard from Trayvon’s father, who texted her, “I just want to welcome you to a club that none of us want to be in.”

However, McBath isn’t new to politics. Her father was the president of the Illinois chapter of the NAACP, and she grew up “fully enmeshed in the civil rights movement.” Reportedly, “McBath graduated from Virginia State University in 1982 with a degree in political science and interned for Douglas Wilder, who would become the state’s first Black governor.” After her son’s murder, McBath became involved with the organization Moms Demand Action, and has since testified in Congress, spoken before numerous state legislators, stood with President Obama when he delivered a White House address on gun violence, and acted as a Clinton surrogate during the 2016 election alongside other “Mothers of the Movement.” In November, McBath will face off against Republican incumbent Sam Teasley, but McBath is “optimistic” because “Trump won Georgia but lost Cobb County by 2 percentage points.” According to McBath, “All of the preparations and the battles that I’m having to fight now to save people’s lives, to take this work to a whole other level, is tough. [But] what else could you do to hurt me? Bring it on.”

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