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Black politics 2.0: The post-Obama generation is so done with the Democratic Party’s old ways

Black political strategists, activists and candidates are pushing the Democratic Party to change the paradigm on how it views black voters and their contributions to the party. They want more respect and more representation, and many want black voters to also build their own political power structures. From left, Quentin James and Stefanie Brown James, co-founders of the Collective PAC; Jessica Byrd, founder of consulting firm Three Point Strategies; Tishaura Jones, city treasurer of St. Louis, who ran for mayor last year; Pam Keith, running for Congress in Florida’s 18th District; and Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who was elected in November. (Andre Chung/FTWP)

On a Friday afternoon in late September, dozens of young black political hopefuls gathered at a restaurant in Northwest Washington to talk strategy and shore one another up. Nearby at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference was underway, bringing together lawmakers, activists, faith leaders and others to assess the state of the country and discuss policy. For the first time in eight years, Barack Obama was no longer in office, and the shock and incredulity that followed the 2016 election had given way to the reality of President Donald Trump.

The event was sponsored by the Collective PAC, a new political action committee that sees itself as an Emily’s List for black candidates. The crowd included candidates for congressional and statewide seats, but also those running for school board, city clerk and municipal treasurer. They were seeking money, advice, camaraderie — whatever it was going to take to help win an election.

Gubernatorial candidates spoke first: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running in a crowded Democratic primary in Florida; Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP who wants to be Maryland’s governor and is also in a crowded field, one that includes another black candidate, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker; and Justin Fairfax, who was running for lieutenant governor in Virginia (and would go on to win). Applause followed each of them, but the room got even more energized when the congressional, mayoral and lower-ballot candidates began to speed through their 30-second elevator pitches.

Among them was Pam Keith, a former naval officer and labor lawyer who’s running for Congress in Florida’s 18th District.

Then Otha Thornton, a retired Army lieutenant colonel turned educator who, while in the military, worked as a communications officer for both a Republican and Democratic president. Now he’s running to be Georgia’s state school superintendent.

Next, Michael McDonald spoke as a proxy for his wife, Darlene McDonald, who hopes to challenge GOP Rep. Mia Love in Utah. A contest between two black women in Utah would be historic, he noted.

Lee Harris, Tennessee’s Senate minority leader, said he’s running for mayor of Shelby County, home to Memphis.

Another proxy stood in for Antonio Delgado, who’s running in New York’s 19th Congressional District. Delgado is a Harvard Law School graduate and — like Jealous — a Rhodes scholar.

Rob Richardson wants to be Ohio’s treasurer. He grew up taking learning-disability classes and was told he’d never go to college, but he did go — and to law school, too.

The Rev. Stephany Rose Spaulding is running for Congress in Colorado’s 5th District. Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse and another Obama administration alum, is running in Illinois’ 14th, where, she said, the seat could go to a “very nice white man, but why not have a black woman?” Melissa Davis is running in Georgia’s 7th.

The speeches went on like this, from Pennsylvania to Missouri to Baltimore. In Cincinnati, Yvette Simpson was challenging the Democratic incumbent mayor after winning an open primary. She hoped to become the first black female mayor in a city that is about 45 percent African American. (She would lose by 8 points.)

Last to speak was Tishaura Jones, who got huge applause in appreciation of the tough mayoral race she had run in St. Louis. Jones, the city treasurer, lost the Democratic primary and the chance to become St. Louis’s first black female mayor by 888 votes — partly, observers say, because four black men crowded the field. She thanked the Collective PAC for helping to make the vote so close. “Y’all came in ... and came in strong,” she said.

This is what the post-Obama era of black electoral politics looks like — and it is taking shape largely outside the daily headlines in Washington. Across the country, a wave of black candidates, strategists and grass-roots activists are making bold moves. This new cohort of black politicians is fiercely progressive and isn’t asking anyone’s permission to make their case before voters. By and large, they don’t come from privilege, with deep-pocketed donors at the ready or with their own millions to finance a run. It’s their humble beginnings, many say, that help them connect with voters, and not solely black ones. But they don’t duck race, either, opting for authenticity rather than kid gloves: Alongside their impatience with an ever-widening wealth gap and the shrinking of opportunity for all Americans, they are unapologetic about insisting on police accountability or rejecting a glorified history of the Confederacy.

As Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, 44, the former state House minority leader who is running to become the nation’s first black female governor, told a cheering audience at a conference of progressives last year: “We have the power to declare that black lives matter and to defend ‘dreamers’ without having someone questioning our patriotism. … We have the power to talk about policies with people of color and lock arms with white progressives and speak to disaffected Republicans without losing our souls or losing an election.”

Or consider what Justin Fairfax, 39 — who grew up in Northeast Washington — did after taking office as lieutenant governor: During a January meeting of the Virginia General Assembly, he quietly stepped off the dais rather than preside over a tribute to a Confederate general. “I just wanted to, in a very respectful but very definite way, make it clear that these were not adjournment motions that I felt comfortable presiding over, and I was not going to do it,” he said at the time. At his swearing-in nine days earlier, he had the freedom papers of his enslaved great-great-great-grandfather, Simon Fairfax, in his breast pocket.

But this new wave of politicians is only part of the story of black politics in 2018. Alongside them is a growing level of frustration among some strategists and voters who believe the Democratic Party has taken black votes for granted for too long. The party has come to depend on black voters — with black women its most reliable demographic. Advocates are demanding more respect, more representation and more resources to mobilize voters. And to counter those who say that the Democratic Party is black voters’ only choice, activists, strategists and candidates point to 2016, when black turnout plummeted: Demoralized voters, it was clear, can and will simply choose to stay home.

All of this is taking place in the shadow of a onetime U.S. senator from Illinois who a decade ago was criticized for not waiting his turn. Today, many are using his playbook. “President Obama eliminated the idea that you have to do things like they’ve always been done,” says Quentin James, who co-founded the Collective PAC with his wife, Stefanie Brown James. “He made a level playing field for newer folks, smaller organizations and groups, and disruption. Disruption can be a great thing.”

Election Day this past November was cold and wet. I was in Alexandria, Va., talking with voters in an apartment complex not far from the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church. Virginia and New Jersey were holding the first major statewide elections since Trump became president. New Jersey's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Phil Murphy, with African American running mate Sheila Oliver, was expected to triumph, but the governor and lieutenant governor races in Virginia were another matter. Those races were close, and Democrats desperately needed wins.

I spoke to a handful of black voters that day, some outside their polling places, a few in their homes. Most told me they had voted or were planning to vote, and they were voting Democratic to send Trump a message. But there was also Michelle Bannister, whom I met as she was returning home from school with her granddaughter. She invited me inside her apartment. Her son Shaquile, 22, was playing a computer game near the kitchen where his mom had a roast going in the oven. He worked as a security guard but had the day off. He’d been too young to vote for Obama. His mother, 46, had voted for Obama in 2012, bowed out of 2016 and was doing the same in 2017.

“A lot of stuff that [Obama] said he wanted to do got swept under the rug,” she told me, meaning that he’d met a lot of GOP opposition. “Didn’t happen.” Politics had left the onetime school bus driver frustrated and angry. “We struggle. Not only African Americans. You got Hispanics, Ethiopians. We struggle, but they aren’t helping us. I’m not saying I will never vote again, but when it came to Trump and Hillary, I said no — it doesn’t matter.”

Shaquile said he was registered to vote but hadn’t known it was Election Day. His trust in politicians was a lot like his mother’s. He hadn’t seen much change in his life, he said, adding that he had friends who felt the same. (According to Pew, millennial voter turnout increased across racial and ethnic groups from 2012 to 2016, except for black millennials. In 2012, turnout was 55 percent, compared with 49.4 percent in 2016.)

It’s potential voters like the Bannisters who are on the minds of strategists, activists and candidates across the country as they press the Democratic National Committee to focus early and often on mobilizing black voters. In the 2012 presidential election, black voters turned out at a record-setting rate of 66 percent. But that number dropped by 7 percentage points in 2016. Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, was defeated in key states where mobilizing voters such as the Bannisters could have made a difference.

The morning after the Virginia elections — which ended in resounding victories for Democrats and made history with Fairfax’s win — I talked to Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of an organization called BlackPAC. Not wanting the 2016 drop-off in black votes to become a trend, her group — along with many others, including New Virginia Majority — had launched a grass-roots effort in the state. BlackPAC spent $1.1 million, knocking on nearly 50,000 doors, orchestrating a digital campaign, radio ads, text messages to voters, and mailings. “The importance of leaning into the base, running on the issues that matter to the base — that should be one of the central things that [Democrats] take out of this victory in Virginia,” Shropshire said.

Indeed, Democrats’ wins in Virginia — like so many of their election victories across the country for decades — hinged strongly on the black electorate. Roughly 9 in 10 black voters supported Democrat Ralph Northam; a majority of white voters, by a margin of hundreds of thousands of votes, backed Republican Ed Gillespie (although white college-educated voters shifted to support Northam in 2017).

“What we tend to see is that black voters aren’t talked to until the final weeks of the campaign,” Shropshire explained. “We need to think about them as swing voters in a way. You don’t go to swing voters at the last two weeks of an election. ... It’s not because black voters are going to somehow en masse exit to the Republican Party, but it does mean that folks will make the decision to stay home.”

Before the Virginia elections were over, BlackPAC had already decided it would be heading to Alabama, where Democrats sensed an opportunity to capture a Senate seat by defeating Roy Moore. BlackPAC and the Black Progressive Action Coalition — the group’s 501(c)(4) — would ultimately spend more than $2.1 million in Alabama. Among the groups they worked with was Woke Vote, a grass-roots program that focuses on mobilizing black millennials and churches. Both before and after the election, I checked in with DeJuana Thompson, 34, the strategist behind Woke Vote and an Obama administration alum. “Black people are in a place right now where they are very much into building independent black political structure that allows black people, black voters, black communities to really rally around the power of their voice,” she told me.

In the end, Doug Jones won — becoming Alabama’s first Democratic U.S. senator in a quarter-century. Black people made up 29 percent of the vote, surpassing their share of total voters (28 percent) when Obama was on the ballot in 2012.

It was Virginia, Fairfax says, that set the pace for Democrats in a shift that he believes will change the country. Key to that shift, he thinks, will be mobilizing voters — and giving new people an opportunity to help lead. “They tell people to get in line, but the problem is there is no line. This generation has figured it out,” Fairfax told me recently. “People will say that your future is bright. I see it as a way to push people off. I say your future is now. You don’t have to wait 20 years. It’s a very different paradigm.”

Strategists like Stefanie and Quentin James, he says, are helping to diversify that emerging landscape. Their organization, the Collective PAC, has become something of a clearinghouse for politicians such as Fairfax and many others, as well as for grass-roots organizers like Shropshire and Thompson. Those connections extend to DNC staff and groups from the NAACP to to ActBlue. A month before its September event, the Collective PAC hosted a Black Political Power Summit at George Washington University; in June, the PAC hosted a campaign school at Howard University, where 120 participants spent three days learning how to run for office.

Stefanie, 37, was director of the African American outreach operation in Obama’s 2012 campaign, and Quentin, 29, was a paid organizer during Obama’s first run. He was 19 and gave up his college scholarship to do it. He later traveled the country talking with black voters for the Ready for Hillary PAC — though that did not translate to a position on the campaign. The Collective PAC was born in August 2016 out of myriad concerns: police shootings, Trump’s racist-laden appeals and frustrations over hearing too many black people, many of them on college campuses, equating Trump and Clinton.

When I met up with Stefanie and Quentin in late October, they were sitting across from each other with their laptops at a table in a public workspace in a Cleveland suburb, about 30 minutes from their home. Stefanie was working on a New York fundraiser, and Quentin was juggling emails and phone calls from candidates the PAC was supporting that November. It was down to the wire, and they were trying to figure out how they’d spread the remaining $10,000 they had among 26 candidates. Overall, since founding the Collective PAC, they’d raised about $250,000 from more than 2,000 donors, most of whom gave $5 to $25 to $50. Not bad for a first year — though, by comparison, Emily’s List raised more than $7 million in 2016, according to the Federal Election Commission.

They have two boys, Carter, 2, and Elijah, 7 months, who are the reason they live in Stefanie’s home town, where her parents can help. They met while working with the NAACP, Stefanie on staff and Quentin a volunteer. They’ve been married for five years. Though they’re not inside the Beltway, they are in the political trenches, bundling candidate contributions, helping organize rallies, orchestrating voter texting campaigns and urging progressive groups to support their candidates. It’s a dance, trying to decide when to push or whom. If Justin Fairfax is left off a batch of fliers that includes Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring — and those fliers are going to a union that had not endorsed Fairfax — is it a matter of race or pleasing a labor group, or both? Do you protest when an environmental group gives a white candidate more than $1 million and a black one $1,500? Quentin called foul in each situation. He sees these incidents as examples of “white supremacy” being alive and well in progressive circles.

Recently, the Collective PAC wrote a letter to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee complaining that the DCCC’s latest list of favored candidates was nearly all white. In their letter, the Jameses named several black candidates who didn’t make the list, but who they think have viable campaigns. The DCCC quickly agreed to meet with the Jameses.

Steve Phillips — a civil rights lawyer and longtime activist and strategist — believes organizations like the Collective PAC, and others trying to engage black voters, need more support from the progressive community. Based on the nation's "demographic revolution," there is already a "new American majority," Phillips asserts. Twenty-three percent of all eligible U.S. voters are progressive people of color and 28 percent are progressive whites, adding up to 51 percent, he argues in his 2016 bestseller, "Brown Is the New White." He sees the path to victory in those numbers, not in trying to win over centrists or Trump supporters.

“In the 2016 election,” he wrote in July in the New York Times, “the Democratic Party committees that support Senate and House candidates and allied progressive organizations spent more than $1.8 billion. The effectiveness of that staggering amount of money, however, was undermined by a strategic error: prioritizing the pursuit of wavering whites over investing in and inspiring African-American voters, who made up 24 percent of Barack Obama’s winning coalition in 2012.”

Based on the 2014 midterms, Phillips told me recently, he estimates the party is likely to spend more than $700 million in 2018 — and he worries that not enough of it will go toward energizing voters of color. “If you look at the presidential election with the highest turnout of Democrat voters, 47 percent of the Democratic vote are people of color,” he says. “So what percentage of that money is going to go to turning out voters of color and turning out African American voters? Looking at the 2016 examples, probably minuscule amounts.”

The U.S. progressive movement needs an overhaul, Phillips says, one that changes “the complexion of the leadership of its organizations, campaigns and institutions” — more people of color and fewer people with what he describes as “Smart-Ass White Boy Syndrome.” (That syndrome, he notes, is a matter of perspective and doesn’t just afflict white men.) He’s a co-founder of a group Quentin James created called Inclusv, a hiring tool to help campaigns find staffers of color.

In some ways, Donna Brazile’s bestseller, “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House,” is like an amicus brief to Phillips’s work. Brazile’s book, covering her tenure as the interim DNC chair, was explosive on many fronts, but it’s her criticism of the failure to fully mobilize communities of color that caught my attention. Trump’s campaign, she argued, aimed venom at minorities while Clinton’s leadership team focused more on data than it did on people. “For Donald Trump,” she wrote, “the grudge was against communities of color. If we didn’t find a way to make them see that this was their election too, no amount of clever manipulation of data would bring them out to the polls.” Trying to get the resources and people she needed, wrote the Louisiana native, was like having to argue with folks who were debating whether gumbo needed a roux. “You know what? You need a roux.”

I catch up to Brazile early Thanksgiving week. Like Phillips, she was seasoned during the Jesse Jackson presidential runs in the 1980s. She worked on the ’84 campaign. On the day we meet, she has multiple media appearances, including one politely contentious radio interview with conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Hannity wants Brazile to talk about a “rigged” party delegate system. Though she’d been critical of the Clinton campaign’s dealings with the DNC, the system, she insists, was not rigged. Hannity pushes. She pushes back, trying to focus on Russian hacking. They spar over that, too. Eventually it all ends, with the two even talking religious faith a bit, and Brazile, with her Southern charm, wishing him and his family a good holiday. She hangs up. “Motherf---ers,” she says, aggravated by the whole mess.

Despite her frustration with the Democratic Party, Brazile remains loyal. “I am a traditional Democrat,” she tells me. “Like any family, you fight, but you still set the table to get back together to have the big meals. ... I haven’t stopped loving my party. I got a donation that I’m sending today because I send it twice a month.” It hurt, she says, when some accused her of writing her book for money. She grabs her checkbook and shows the copies of donation checks she’s written. A copy of a check for the Collective PAC is among them.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez — the son of Dominican immigrants, a Harvard-trained civil rights lawyer who worked in the Justice Department and as Obama's labor secretary — is in his office on a late January morning, telling a story about a brief encounter. It's part contrition, part call to action. He was elected in February 2017, taking the reins of a party rife with the finger-pointing and anger that inevitably follow defeat. "I still remember vividly a woman that I met in my outreach early on in this job," Perez is saying. He was visiting an African Methodist Episcopal church when the woman told him, "You've got to stop showing up every fourth October pretending that you care."

Just last year a group of prominent black women wrote an open letter asking for Perez’s attention because they were feeling ignored. He met with them. “I think it’s very clear and tragic and so preventable that we took African American voters for granted,” he tells me. “African American voters generally, African American women are indeed the backbone of the Democratic Party. And you don’t ignore the backbone of the Democratic Party.”

He details the party’s role in its two biggest recent wins: The DNC spent about $1 million on Jones’s campaign and more than $1.5 million in Virginia. In both races, it worked closely with local organizers on door knocking, voter calling and developing media strategies — all targeting black voters. “One of the reasons that we invested in Alabama and we invested in Virginia and we invested in the mayor’s race in Charlotte, we invested in the mayor’s race in Atlanta, and we’ve invested in other races up and down the ballot on behalf of African Americans and other candidates of color,” he says, “is because we wanted to send a signal that the new DNC understands that every Zip code counts. The new DNC understands that we will never take African American voters for granted again because that was a shame-on-us moment.”

The truth is it’s never been easy between the Democratic Party and black voters. It was Southern Democrats who disenfranchised African Americans for nearly 100 years after Reconstruction. As black voters in the North — Democrats and Republicans — were exercising the franchise, Southern African Americans risked everything trying to vote. As the civil rights movement demonstrated, it took a blood-price to win back that right. Later, it was presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, a son of the civil rights era, who galvanized a multiracial coalition — including registering millions of new voters — that expanded the party and, many say, laid the groundwork for Obama in 2008.

Much of the fraught history involving Democrats and black voters took place in the South — and for a long time, it appeared far-fetched that Democrats could ever compete in that Republican-dominated region again. But Doug Jones’s victory — which relied so heavily on black voters — raised hopes anew. Now Perez is waiting to see what happens in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams (who is black) and Stacey Evans (who is white) are vying in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. “I predict the nominee will be Stacey,” he jokes with a slight smile.

Abrams was in D.C. at the National Press Club on Valentine’s Day. She had come as part of a panel that included Florida’s Gillum and David Garcia, running for governor in Arizona. They received an endorsement from the progressive group People for the American Way. Abrams says she’s seeing indications that the party is paying better attention to mobilizing black voters. However, she told me, more is needed: “I’ve seen initial signs, but what I want to see is a plan for consistent and sustained and deep investment that is not just about special elections but about systemic change in how we value and invest in black voters.”

A few hours after I speak to Perez, Steve Phillips and I have our phone interview. I summarize my visit with the DNC chairman, to which Phillips responds: “Everybody says the right thing. But this is where I’m like, ‘Show me the money.’ ... I think Tom Perez is actually doing more than has been done previously. But it’s not enough given the severity of the crisis that’s being faced.”

Both Perez and Phillips mentioned the opportunity Georgia offers for Democrats, though Phillips believes the party and progressive donors should support candidates like Abrams on a scale proportionate to the black vote. Does Phillips ever speak to Perez? I ask. “Well, we’re all busy,” Phillips says. “He’s responsive when I reach out. I would say we are in touch certainly as much as I’ve been with any other DNC chair.”

Stefanie James doesn't think black voters are going to vote Republican in large numbers, but she does think that they are ready for something more than what the Democratic Party currently offers. "I think there is a third-party mentality," she told me in response to a question about voter independence. "Black women really get this. They are the backbone of the Democratic Party and civic engagement. But black women continue to be undervalued by the Democratic Party. We need to vote for ourselves first."

More black voters, it appears, are exploring the concept of being independent. Pew, in a study shortly before the 2016 election, found that 23 percent of African American voters identified as independents, up 7 points from 2012. And identification with the Democratic Party was down slightly to 70 percent.

Gillum, who is running in a closed primary in Florida, says he hears a lot of talk about being independent, especially from young voters. “Before I ask party affiliation they are offering the fact that they aren’t party affiliated — they are independent,” he told me. “I have to work that much harder to convince people to register as Democrats so I can make it out of this primary.”

Jessica Byrd, 31, a former Emily’s List staffer and a Movement for Black Lives activist, founded a consulting firm, Three Point Strategies, in 2015; it works at the intersection of gender, race and class, focusing on black female candidates, whom Byrd says are often overlooked or viewed as the underdog. “Black people deserve a self-determined political home,” she told me. “We are building one. We want to do work for our people on our terms.”

The Rev. William Barber — the North Carolina activist who led the Moral Mondays movement, addressed the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is co-chair of a new Poor People’s Campaign, modeled on the one launched by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — also speaks to a sense of political independence: “King didn’t say give us the vote and we’ll vote Democratic or Republican. He said give us the vote. In all their campaigns they never talked about being Democrat or Republican. They talked about what was morally right.” Barber is himself an independent. Yet Perez said that he and Barber text a few times a week, and he read me a psalm Barber had recently texted. Perez said he admires Barber’s “fusion politics,” uniting anti-poverty with anti-racism and building a multiracial coalition of voters.

Perez lives on the fault line of a debate about which way his party should go. Should it tack to the center or to the left? The midterm elections may tell us more about which strategy will eventually win out. “We are in a moment where people are demanding greater representation,” says Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University. “The Democratic Party is reckoning with the demographic shift in the U.S. ... Both parties are going through [shake-ups], but we’ll still have two parties when we’re done. The question is what they will look like.”

There was a period recently, the Jameses say, when money was so tight they'd decided one of them needed a conventional job. Stefanie applied for several and was a finalist for a DNC position. She interviewed with Perez, but ultimately another black woman was hired. It was a blessing, she said: "We're doing the work we're supposed to be doing."

Quentin was with Fairfax when the November election returns came in. “I met his mom, his brothers, all Ivy League grads who came up in D.C. when it wasn’t like it is now. I was remembering what we saw in Charlottesville” in the summer, he said, but here was Fairfax making history.

Not long after the Alabama win, Quentin was picking up Carter from school when his cellphone rang. “Hello, Quentin, this is Hillary Clinton,” the caller said. She wanted to talk about the Collective PAC’s work and to let him know that her political group, Onward Together, was awarding the organization a $75,000 grant.

“With the help of @collectivepac,” Clinton would later tweet, “23 African-American candidates have been elected to local, state, and federal offices since August 2016.”

Now the Collective PAC, along with everyone else, is looking ahead to the midterms and beyond. During a late weekend in February, the Jameses, Shropshire, Thompson and others were in Atlanta for a conference on black women that focused on issues such as economic and political empowerment. Its title: The Power Rising Summit.

Marcia Davis is an articles editor for the magazine.