Black Women Candidates Are Poised To Change Congress In 2018 — EXCLUSIVE

by Hannah Golden
Audra Gray

I call the psychologist's cell phone but get her voicemail. The parting words on the message are the last thing I'd expect to hear from a Congressional candidate: "Stay hype!" It's a refreshing break from dense politics talk, but Dr. Adia McClellan Winfrey, known as "Dr. Dia," is serious about her candidacy for representative in the U.S. House for Alabama. Winfrey is one of a record-breaking cohort of 35 black women running for office in Alabama. This is part of a groundbreaking trend nationwide in which black women are seizing their political moment.

Women in general are putting their names on the ballots at unprecedented rates, and in big races. As of writing, there are 590 black women candidates listed in the Black Women in Politics database; 98 of them for federal seats. I spoke with Winfrey, one of those 98 candidates, as well as two experts on women in politics: Kelly Ditmar, project director for the Gender Watch 2018 project, and Dr. Wendy Smooth, an expert contributor for the project, to learn more about this trend.

"Certainly there's an increasing number over what we've seen in previous years," Smooth says of black women candidates. Recently, in races where women overall have hit plateaus politically, she explains, black women have made modest yet steady gains. Aside from numbers, what she's noticed is a shift in the relationship between candidates and voters — an increased excitement about black women candidates that wasn't there before.

What does it mean to say that our governing institutions are controlled by white men in this country? What types of policy does that lead to?

When Winfrey, a single mother of four, is not busy campaigning, she's running her own business: a hip-hop youth empowerment therapy program she launched in 2012. (The "hype" on her voicemail is a reference to the curriculum she's created.) "Everything I do is hype; I embody it. It's my secret sauce and signature," says Winfrey. "I was hype before I was [running for] congresswoman."

She lives in Talledega, Alabama, a sixth-generation resident of the district she's running for. Part of a historically politically active family, she and her kids volunteered for the campaign of Doug Jones, the Democratic winner of Alabama's special senatorial election in December 2017, co-leading a team of canvassers the month prior. On election night, she watched with her team as her county — long held by Republicans — lit up blue on the TV screen. At a celebration event following the election, leaders saluted Winfrey's efforts to help clinch the Jones win. Alabama's third congressional district, they added, needed a challenger. It was then that she decided to run herself.

Senator Doug Jones Staff

"Black women have always viewed themselves as political actors," says Smooth, the expert contributor for the Gender Watch project. "It's just that we have not, as scholars and political pundits, paid as much attention to their activism." Much of that energy, she says, has come in the less glamorous form of community-style, grassroots efforts that Winfrey is championing.

Smooth doesn't think the increased energy around black women candidates is just an anti-Trump effect, but a longer-term trend. "I don't think this is an anomaly because of the ways in which black communities have become mobilized," she says, citing the movement of groups like Black Lives Matter. "I think we can only expect to see more. This is a moment to watch."

Winfrey will first have to win the June 5 primary for a chance at the House seat, but it won't be any cake walk. Her primary opponent is Mallory Hagan, better known as Miss America 2013. If Winfrey wins, she'll face off against Republican Mike Rogers as a Democrat in a state that went 61 percent for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. In the last three elections, per Ballotpedia, Rogers got between 64 and 66 percent of the vote. He has something of a stronghold on the seat, having held it for the last 15 years; Republicans have held it continuously since 1996. So a flip in this district would not just be a Doug Jones-sized miracle; it would amount to a fundamental shift in the political paradigm, and a massive victory for black women in particular.

According to a report by the Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics and Higher Heights (CAWP), black women make up 7 percent of the U.S. population but only 3.6 percent of Congress. This is on par with an overall gross underrepresentation of women on Capitol Hill. Women hold only about 20 percent of seats in Congress, per CAWP — nowhere close to proportionate to their 50-percent share of the U.S. population.

I felt like the candidate on the outside who was trying to push through.

"What does it mean to say that our governing institutions are controlled by white men in this country? What types of policy does that lead to?" Smooth asks. "When we have more women represented, the issues tend to shift and we tend to have a different lens."

The report also found that only three black women hold statewide elected office currently, and only 12 black women have ever held any of those 312 seats nationally. The country has yet to elect a black woman governor, but candidates like Stacey Abrams in Georgia are hoping to change that this year.

Unique challenges present themselves for women across different racial and ethnic groups, and both sexism and racism can serve as barriers. Meanwhile, as we saw in the 2016 election, voters aren't necessarily choosing candidates based on the fact that they're a woman or a person of color. "Candidates are going to have to be successful in speaking to the issues of the district," Smooth says. "It's not simply identity."

But both Smooth and Ditmar say that one of the most telling trends is that black women are getting elected in districts that aren't majority-minority, which means they're appealing to a diverse cross-section of voters, not just to other black women. In that way, female candidates of color may have what Smooth calls "crossover appeal," and be well suited to tap into the concerns of a broader swath of the electorate.

"To run in this district, I understood that I had to reach out to people whose backgrounds are different than mine," Winfrey says. Alabama voters she talked to are abandoning the classic party labels altogether, expressing interest instead in whatever candidate they feel is right.

Smooth says there has been an uptick in participation by black women in candidate training programs and political action committees (PACs). Other institutions, like black women's sororities and social clubs, are also "reinvigorating their commitment to formal electoral politics," she adds, as another driving force for political engagement. This combination of trends has been critical in getting black women on the ballot.

Beyond bias, another substantial barrier for anyone running for office is much more tangible: money. Campaign spending and overall money does historically mean a higher win rate for elections — 90 percent of the time, the better-funded candidate wins, per The Washington Post. This is particularly critical for challengers: An analysis by The Atlantic found that the more money a challenger raised over the incumbent, the more likely it was that she or he beat her or him.

Doug Jones is a case in point: He shelled out over $21 million in the election on his path to victory, outspending his opponent by a ratio of greater than three-to-one. As of writing, Rogers, the incumbent Winfrey's challenging, has raised $521,000, with another $736,000 cash on hand. At the close of the last quarter, Winfrey said she'd raised just over $8,000 and had $4,000 cash on hand.

But Winfrey is the unquestionable underdog for many reasons, including the fact that Rogers has both a long tenure and funding pool. At one point, someone mentioned her primary opponent and asked, "'Do you think you're better than Miss America?'" she says. "I'm not gonna lie, that night I literally cried." During an interview with MSNBC on April 4, the host asked if she felt the race was an uphill battle. The question caught Winfrey off guard. "I felt like the candidate on the outside who was trying to push through," she says.

But Winfrey isn't wasting time on the people doubting her. Ever the innovator, she's got a strategy: to tap into her connections in the hip-hop community and take the message beyond the district. Last month, for example, there was a fundraising event held for her in Atlanta at a restaurant owned by none other than 2Chainz.

And she's got the support of her inner circle. Her candidacy has become a family affair of sorts; Winfrey's mom helps her juggle the hectic life of a single parent on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, her kids — 13, 12, and twins of age 10 — are literally on her campaign team, canvassing for their mom on the weekends.

She's laser-focused on that November win. As she tells her kids when they're out canvassing, if they did it for Doug Jones, they can do it for her.