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Why didnít more Black women candidates win in North Carolina?
Race, gender and campaign finance are barriers
Published Sunday, November 29, 2020 9:21 am
by Kirsten Johnson | The Charlotte Post

Former Democratic secretary of labor candidate Jessica Holmes lost her statewide race by a small margin in November. Of nearly 20 Black women to run for legislative, judicial or Council of State positions in 2020, only six were elected.

Despite Black women making great strides in North Carolina politics, they remain an underrepresented group in the state’s halls of power in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

Black women in North Carolina have advocated, marched, rallied, lead in office and in civil rights movements for years and have participated in elections since the 1965 Voting Rights Act legally banned racial discrimination from the voting process.

Still, in 2020, they don’t make up a quarter of state representatives, senators or judges. In the 2020 election cycle, nearly 20 Black women ran for legislative, judicial and Council of State seats, yet only six won. The others, including Yvonne Lewis Holley for (lieutenant governor), Jessica Holmes (labor commissioner), Erica Smith (U.S. Senate) and Lora Cubbage (Court of Appeals) all lost by slim margins.

Cheri Beasley, who trails Paul Newby in her re-election bid to remain chief justice of the state Supreme Court, is in a recount.

“The results were discouraging, I can say, at the very least,” said Smith, a state senator. “I’m also extremely disappointed and disgusted that African American women are the most loyal voting bloc for the Democratic Party, we have carried so much water yet every African American woman who ran a race up ballot lost.”

Smith, 50, ran for the Senate Democratic nomination against Cal Cunningham and lost in the March party primary. Cunningham lost to incumbent Republican Thom Tillis, due in part to at least one admitted affair after winning the nomination.

“We have a fallacy of thinking that it takes a white male to beat a white male,” said Smith, who grew up on a family farm in Gaston. “In the 230 years that we have been electing United States senators, we have only had two Black women, two Black women, ever to serve in the highest chamber in our country. What does that say?”

Only 10 African Americans in total have served in the U.S. Senate. The two women are Vice President-elect Kamala Harris of California and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. The other eight were men.

“In the last three election cycles in the state, Democrats have lost rural and (Native American) voters,” said Smith. “As someone who's represented a rural district, I also think we need to be doing more to show up everywhere for everyone.”

Across the nation, Black women were at the center of conversations surrounding the election this year. They are the largest voting bloc among for democrats and are often referred to as the “backbone” of the Democratic Party.

Over the last four elections, Black women have voted in droves leading to the successes of former President Barack Obama, and now President-elect Joe Biden, and the first Black and South Asian Vice President-elect, Harris.

Black women voters and candidates like Smith have been critical of the Democratic Party’s lack of support when it comes to the success of Black women on the ballot.

“I believe that people need to begin to trust Black women's leadership as much as they trust their votes,” said Rebekah Barber, a graduate student at Duke University and a research associate at the Institute for Southern Studies. “If Black women can help others to get elected, they should have the opportunity to be elected themselves.”

There is not one specific answer as to why Black women did not win more this year. The barriers and challenges that hinder them range from gerrymandering and redistricting to financial disparities, to the complex intersections of race, class and gender, and most recently restrictions brought about by COVID-19.

Still, of the women The Post interviewed, there is a consensus that more needs to be done to ensure more Black women are elected to serve in public office in order to represent marginalized communities across the state.

Born and raised in eastern North Carolina, Holmes ran for labor commissioner to advocate for workers’ rights and create more job opportunities in the state.

“I was not qualified to run because I am a Black woman; I am a Black woman who also happens to be qualified to be labor commissioner. This is an important distinction,” said Holmes, a former Wake County commissioner. “It was important for me to run because far too many workers and everyday working families did not feel heard by the current commissioner of labor.”

Holmes lost to Republican opponent state Rep. Josh Dobson to replace the retiring Cherie Berry, who has held the position since 2001.

“Black women are the most reliable voting block for the Democratic Party but yet we face unique challenges when it comes to electability,” Holmes said.

Electability is a problem. The issues of race, gender, and class are intersectional for Black women and can hinder their chances of running successful, well-funded campaigns.

Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a political action committee dedicated to supporting Black women candidates, wrote: “if progressives truly want to realize a more functional democracy with leaders whose policy priorities lift up everyone, one of our most urgent tasks is dissecting, understanding, and changing the tenor of the conversation about who is electable so that voters’ primary considerations for choosing candidates are their leadership abilities, achievements, and commitment to driving effective policies.”

A Black person has never served as labor commissioner. Holmes lost with 49.1% of the vote.

“We have been the backbone of the party and have supported candidates far less qualified, and far less connected with our communities who receive broad support without the challenges we tend to face,” said Holmes. “Black women are resilient, and you can be assured that we will continue leading in our communities and running for office in historic numbers until we shatter every glass ceiling and barrier put before us.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party spent more than $3 million in its support for candidates on the ballot this year. The party believes in its support of Black women and has made efforts to do so in recent years such as appointing Black women to party leadership and hosting forums on race.

“North Carolina Democrats know that Black women are the backbone of our party,” Meredith Cuomo, the state Democratic Party’s executive director said in a statement to The Post. “Which is why we recruited and ran one of the most diverse statewide slate of candidates in our party’s history and supported them throughout this campaign.”

Financial support has been cited as a barrier by some Black women candidates.

Smith agrees that wealth remains an issue and believes the party should reexamine the value of the number of dollars raised. She was critical of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for endorsing Cunningham, who ended up raising millions of dollars, over her.

“I didn’t come from wealth, I came from hard work and that is a valuable currency that the political culture has not yet had a reckoning with,” said Smith. “Black women, we operate under a different kind of currency that should have more value.”

Money was poured into campaigns around the state. Most notably for a Black woman candidate was Michael Bloomberg’s climate change group, the Beyond Carbon Victory Fund, who donated nearly $2.5 million dollars to Yvonne Lewis Holley’s campaign against Republican challenger Mark Robinson for lieutenant governor.

Holley, a former NC state representative, lost to Robinson.

Holmes said the most challenging part for her campaign this year was COVID-19.

“It’s important for elected officials to get out and meet people where they are to hear their concerns,” she said. “Campaigning via Zoom is not as effective as in-person campaigning and makes it difficult to connect on a more personal level.

COVID-19 cases in North Carolina have been surging and affected how many candidates campaigned this year. The Biden/Harris campaign hosted drive-in rallies and enforced masks when they visited the state. The Republican National Convention was also held virtually over the summer in Charlotte and Jacksonville, Florida instead of in-person.
Blair M. Kelley, assistant dean for Interdisciplinary Studies and International Programs and an associate professor at North Carolina State University, believes that the issue of redistricting is a problem for Black women and North Carolina Democrats.

“Our districts are skewed because of 2010,” said Kelley, referencing redistricting done by the state legislature to favor Republicans. “North Carolina has been battling to get justice around those districts, justice around voter ID, but if the structures are disabling community coalition building that’s effective, it’s hard to win. It’s a structural problem and it’s intentional.”

Kelley was happy to see the gains Black women made across the nation, especially in Georgia, where former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams worked with grassroots organizations to register more than 800,000 voters that helped Biden win in the historically red state.

“It was good to see the ways in which nationally there was a recognition that Black women really do serve as the base of the Democratic Party, that they are not only voters, but they are really taking up leadership positions,” said Kelley. “We still have a lot of work to do in terms of making sure that all of the electorates see Black women as viable candidates. The party as a whole can’t depend on just Black women to move the needle.”

Beasley was appointed chief justice of the state’s highest court by Gov. Roy Cooper, making her the first Black woman to ever serve in that position. Black women serving in the state courts bring a valuable perspective to legal decisions being made and can impact laws for years.

“We have been out here by our sweat, blood, and tears and it’s time for women as a whole but Black women and people of color in particular to get our fair share,” Smith said.

Kristen Johnson is an Election SOS fellow.


Well, we'll, well... I would point the finger at the Black organizations and media of Charlotte, NC. The Charlotte Post is always focused on White incumbents and when Blacks are featured, the focus is not on what the person has or how they have worked tirelessly for the communities, but the hardest working Black women are neglected and discouraged because people cannot imagine these hard working women as Council of State officials. Their prejudices and biases debilitate their brains to offer injustice and doubt instead of support and faith knowing that if the office lands in the hands of these amazingly strong tenacious courageous women their work will make positive significant changes to our towns, cities, and schools.

If we as Black people overcome our need to first look for disorder and inability, but instead look at what impossibilities have emerged from the imaginations of Black women everyone would call us strong leaders. We have made stone soup in every community, gathered wood to build the cabins for schools, and we have been the first in many government positions being dark skinned.

Most of us women in the Black community have served in politics for decades without a stable pay rate and without media support. We have to. How else do we continue to set the examples for those to come to ensure the freedoms of Black people in a nation where the very government we seek to join enslaved us and persist in efforts to enslave us? A slave wage is for slaves and our government ignores racial justice for the very purpose of issuing slave wages to Black people, namely Black women. Well, remember this, ... the first woman millionaire was a Black woman, not from a promotion from white males. One millionaire is proof enough. We should not have to earn your acknowledgments every time you see a Black woman running for elected office. Support each and every one of the Black women without bias . What one needs to improve on will come from the publicity of her daring efforts and media acknowledgments.

I ask you Black women to hold on to your money and put it where it is honored and respected. If you invest time and money, but never acknowledged, don't go back.

Constance Lov Johnson
Candidate Surveying to Campaign for US Senate, North Carolina
Posted on December 1, 2020
I think candidates has to be present before election year, be everywhere meet people let them get to know who you are before election year. I'm so happy young women are stepping up contine. Run intil you win.
Posted on November 30, 2020
This article is so powerful. We needed to hear these stories.
Posted on November 29, 2020

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