Nina Turner, an Ohio state senator, has been on the front lines of many of the biggest political battles in her state over the last several years. The Democrat was a leading and highly visible voice during the debates around collective bargaining and voter identification laws, and she was one of President Obama’s most high profile surrogates, frequently appearing on MSBNC.
She has been a Democrat’s Democrat, championing progressive causes to big audiences, and in 2011 The Cleveland Plain Dealer dubbed her the “the region’s ‘it’ politician of the moment.”
But, somehow, when state party leaders in Ohio, which has never elected a black Democrat to statewide office, were looking to recruit a slate of candidates in 2014 for statewide races, it was clear that they had missed that moment.
“Nobody from the state Democratic party structure said I should run. Nobody came to me and said ‘Senator Nina Turner, we need you,’” she recalled in a telephone interview, adding that she got some encouragement from a black woman who leads the black legislative caucus.
“I just decided that I was going to run,” said Turner, who will be on the November ballot for Secretary of State.
Turner’s experience underscores the findings of a new report called “The Status of Black Women in American Politics” that lays out the dismal political reality that black women often face as they seek elective office. The challenges that all women face with fundraising, getting on their party’s radar, and convincing voters that they have the leadership chops are well known, but when it comes to black women, those hurdles are magnified.
“My experiences and the conversations I’ve had with sisters across the country in similar positions show that we are being taken for granted and we aren’t seen as bringing value to the table by people in our parties. It’s systematic,” said Turner, who has been in office since 2008. “We sing the same sad song when we get together.”
The 30-page report, by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers and Higher Heights Leadership Fund, a group that wants to expand the ranks of black women in elected office, offers stark numbers at almost every level:
- In 2014, Black women hold only two, or 0.6%, of the 318 statewide elected executive offices across the United States. Denise Nappier (D-CT) serves as Connecticut’s State Treasurer and Kamala Harris (D-CA) is California’s Attorney General.
- Black women are 2.7% of all 74 women in statewide executive offices, 28.6% of all 7 women of color, and 25% of all 8 African-Americans holding statewide elected executive offices.
- Since 1979, 10 black women have had statewide elected executive offices. Here’s a full list of the black women who have been elected, note that there has yet to be a black woman governor, although in California Harris seems poised to rise up the ranks and perhaps run for governor over the next few years.
Black women are relatively new on the political scene, with many “firsts,” yet to come.
“The history of black women’s political representation is a recent but promising one,” said Kelly Dittmar, of the CAWP. “Black women’s representational growth has occurred primarily in the past two decades with the trend likely to continue upward as more black women run.”
At the congressional level, black women have a ways to go, with numbers that are still quite low, but on an upswing. Although there are a record high 20 women in the Senate, none of them are black.
On the House side, the numbers are better–14 black women from nine states serve in the 113th Congress or 18 percent of women in the House. That number, 14, is a record high, and represents a very recent surge dating back to the early 19990s, when 12 majority black districts were created in the South, yielding 5 newly elected black congresswoman.
But if you look at the map below, only 13 states have sent black women to Congress, leaving wide swaths of the country untapped. The South remains particularly fertile ground, as the Democratic Party seeks to mobilize voters at a national level to make that region, with its large population of black voters, more competitive.
In the next several years, as some black congressman retire, look for their daughters to possibly run for their seats — South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn’s daughter, Mignon Clyburn, currently an FCC commissioner, comes to mind — a trend among white women that we’ve seen this cycle in Georgia and Kentucky Senate races.
The most promising numbers for black women are in state legislators, which serve as a feeder system for higher offices. Black women have seen a decades long slow but steady uptick in representation, particularly in the South. In Georgia, for instance, black women hold 11.4 percent of the state legislature seats. As the chart shows, black women, still a small part of the overall percentage of state legislators (3.3 percent), are seeing a steady increase in representation–241 currently serve in 40 state legislatures across the country.
Ultimately, what will, in part, fuel black women’s electoral fortunes is black women themselves — not only stepping up to run, as Turner did, but showing up at the polls. And on that front, black women are incredibly consistent voters, showing up at the ballot box like no other group.
A few charts,and some context. Black women are registered at higher rates than black men and, in fact, hold the key to the overall black vote and the Democratic vote as well. But this chart should make Democrats a bit nervous going into the midterms, as there is a fall-off of black women who are registered to vote in non-presidential election years.
And here’s another snapshot of black women voters and how engaged they are in the political process. There is clearly an “Obama effect,” with almost a 7-point jump in the turnout of black women from 2004 to 2012. The question is, does it take a black candidate (or perhaps a woman,) to keep that turnout rate, which outpaces any other group, so high?
“We need African-American women who are elected to form a pact and encourage more black women to run and take it on as a cause inside and outside the system,” Turner said. “We want to have a seat at the table that we helped prepare.”