Women of Color: Running for Office and Breaking New Ground

In 2014, Mia Love, 42, made a big splash when she became the first black female Republican in the U.S. House, where the Republican caucus is more than 90 percent white. Love is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, born in New York City, raised in Connecticut and now living in Utah with her husband and three children. She won her primary on a conservative, pro-life platform. As mayor of her hometown, she confronted financial deficits by cutting the budget, raising taxes and laying off personnel.

Women are breaking down barriers in the nation’s governorships as well. Three women of color have won their primaries and are running for governor as firsts in the nation. In Idaho, Paulette Jordan, 38, is hoping to win her race as the first Native American governor. If elected, Stacey Abrams, 44, will be the first black woman governor ever and the first woman governor in Georgia. Farther west, Lupe Valdez, 70, is the first openly gay and first Latina to win a major party nomination in a Texas gubernatorial race.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, which is keeping track of the unprecedented numbers of women both filing and running for political office, as of July 18 more than 2000 women are running (“filed or are likely candidates”) in Congressional and state-level races. These women are fighting for equal pay and paid family leave. Healthcare for their families and reproductive care continue to unite them on both sides of the aisle. (For a detailed breakdown of women running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Governor, Lt . Governor, Other Statewide Elected Offices and State Legislatures see the 2018 Summary of Women Candidates report from the Center for American Women and Politics.)

The present moment in our nation’s history takes me back 50 years, when the country was polarized and torn with strife then as it is now. A main difference, however, is the pivotal role of women in public office. Currently, one-third of all Democratic candidates are women, as are 14 percent of Republican candidates, which places them in a better position to have their voices heard and heeded.

After the June primaries this year, two-thirds of the women who had originally filed were still in the running in congressional and gubernatorial races. Some still had their primaries ahead of them, but many had won their places on the ballot.

This level of electoral success is not an accident. Women are raising money, organizing and volunteering in the campaigns in record numbers as well. Patricia Russo runs the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, which boasts Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) as an alumna. “When we started,” Russo says, “the median age for women attending our school was mid-40s. Now the median age is around 30.” Women no longer have to wait until their kids are grown. They are taken seriously despite being under 40, as evidenced most recently by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Women can be young and single or mothers of little children—none of which is an impediment any longer. It is significant that the majority of those who enroll in the school are women of color.

Higher Heights was founded in 2011 to enlist and train black women as voters, organizers, and candidates. A modest number of women were engaged until the numbers spiked in the fall of 2017 with the elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama. “Black women were really acknowledged as political drivers of change, as first-time candidates and as the voters who made the difference,” says co-founder Kimberly Peeler-Allen.

Though all women face daunting challenges when they run for office, whether against an incumbent or for an open seat, women of color often find the road more arduous.

When the seat for her Connecticut district in the U.S. House suddenly became open, 44-year-old mother of four Jahana Hayes decided to go for it. With only 12 days to go before the nominating convention, Hayes jumped in with no political experience, no funding to speak of and no campaign organization. “I keep waiting for the right person to come along. . . Why can’t that person be me?” she said.

Hayes grew up in public housing, her high school education interrupted by pregnancy at 17. She struggled through low-wage jobs, community college and graduate school to become a social studies teacher. In 2016, she capped her career with the National Teacher of the Year award. Two years later, she took her place at the nominating convention.

To the surprise of many, Hayes won by a slender margin when the votes were tallied. Yet the chair held the voting open, giving delegates an opportunity to change their votes. Some of them were apparently persuaded to do so, thereby stripping Hayes’s victory away.

In Connecticut, any candidate who wins 15 percent or more of the nominating votes earns a place on the ballot. The winner of the majority of votes gets the party endorsement and a decided advantage. The party’s candidate almost always wins the primary.

Undaunted, Hayes continues to fight. She has the backing of the local unions and the support of her community and her former students. “They were very upset,” she said of her backers, “and I was like, guys, you don’t live this long in this community, in this skin with no — they were more upset than me.” Her life has taught her not to reel with setbacks, to assume that they are temporary and can be overcome.

If Hayes’s bid is successful, she will be another first: the first black candidate to be nominated by Connecticut Democrats and the only African-American in Congress from all of New England.

This is only the beginning. We are witnessing ever greater participation by women of color in the electoral process.

“We want to get to a place where race or ethnicity is not considered a hurdle they [women of color] have to overcome or a liability to their candidacy for statewide office,” says Kelly Dittmar of the Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers. “Instead, to rethink the way being a woman of color can be a value added and can be an advantage, when trying to appeal to voters.”

In the United States more than half the population are women. Yet men outnumber women in Congress by five to one, by three to one on the Supreme Court and more than eight to one in governors. The numbers for women of color fare even worse. In Congress, there are fewer than one in 10 and on the Supreme Court one of nine (before the latest vacancy) and only one of the 50 governors. This year’s election is on track to diminish this disparity. In ever-increasing numbers, women, especially women of color, are closing the gap to achieve representation in government that more honestly reflects our reality.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s photo courtesy of oscasio2018.com. Jahana Hayes’s photo courtesy of Jahana Hayes for U.S. Congress.


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