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Survey: Fewer black women say that the Democratic Party ‘best represents’ their interests

Melanie Campbell, right, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, takes a selfie with women at the Netroots Nation annual conference for progressives in Atlanta on Aug. 10. (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Are black women losing faith in the Democratic Party?

A new survey by the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence magazine suggesting that’s the case was the basis for a lively debate Wednesday at the Congressional Black Caucus annual conference.

Dozens of women packed into a ballroom at the Washington Convention Center to hear results of the annual “Power of the Sister Vote” survey. The most surprising finding was that the percentage of black women who said the Democratic Party best represents their interests had dropped 11 percentage points, from 85 percent to 74 percent, since last year.

But African American women are not looking to the Republican Party, with only 1 percent saying it addresses their concerns. This year, a higher percentage said neither party “best represents the interests of black women.”

“I think it’s great,” Ashley Allison, a senior adviser to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said of the finding about black women’s attitudes toward the Democratic Party. “I think black women are saying, ‘I don’t owe anything to anybody except myself.’ ”

Laughter and applause erupted when a presenter read this finding from the survey: 93 percent of black women said they do not believe President Trump is addressing issues important to them.

This is the third survey by the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence, a popular lifestyle magazine geared toward black women, and affordable health care was again the top issue for respondents. The survey, taken in July, is based on feedback from 1,247 women. Because respondents were a self-selected group, as opposed to a random sample, the results are not representative of black women across the country.

But the findings do mirror the discussions among black women involved in social and political activism, who have been critical of the party’s focus on white voters who supported Trump.

“Black women have been the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party, through thick and thin,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, an adviser to the Black Women’s Roundtable. She said the party has focused more on wooing back “white male voters who have not supported the Democratic Party for 50 years” rather than “watering the garden in your own back yard.”

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Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who dropped in on the discussion, told attendees that they should pay attention to the “values” espoused by political candidates and elected leaders to help decide which party best represents their interests. She also cautioned that in some jurisdictions, people registered as independents are not able to participate in primary elections. “We don’t want to lose out,” she said.

In an interview outside the panel, Jackson Lee said the party was right to listen to the voices of “those who were pushing them … the same people that probably voted for Sen. [Bernie] Sanders, who were saying, just don’t leave them out. It’s not a replacement.” She added: “But let me say this: Democrats would do well to listen to the standard-bearers of the party, and that has been African Americans … African American women, our friends in the Hispanic community. … These are the standard-bearers.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton got 94 percent of black women’s votes in last year’s election, the highest of any group of voters. In June, a group of black women penned an open letter to new Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez noting that he had met with other constituent groups but had yet to hold a session with black women.

Amanda Brown Lierman, political director of the DNC, said in a statement Wednesday: “With black women at the core of our party, Democrats are focused on harnessing this moment of grassroots enthusiasm into a sustained movement for electoral gain at the ballot box. We’re organizing around the values we share — access to affordable health care, the dignity of a good-paying job with good benefits and a path to retirement security, and a quality education that opens the doors of opportunity.”

In addition to health care, criminal justice reform, quality public education and jobs that pay a living wage were the top issues cited by the women in the survey. A third also said they were concerned about the rise in hate crimes, which was a new category in this year’s survey.

A majority of the women who took the survey — 60 percent — also said they believe that civic activism is important. Most said they were active in their communities and places of worship.

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Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said she was pleased that 98 percent of the survey takers said they were registered to vote. But she was concerned that so few of the respondents, 5 percent, cited “expanding voting rights” as a concern, given ongoing efforts in states led by Republicans to enact stricter voter ID laws and other policies that restrict voting.

Clarke blasted Trump’s “election integrity commission” as “a sham whose end goal is to push voter suppression efforts.”

“I’m concerned that this is an area where maybe we’ve gotten a little too comfortable. This is an area in which we need to be vigilant,” Clarke said. “If they take away our right to vote, we lose everything.”

Melanie Campbell, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable and president of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, said the survey reflects the concerns she’s been hearing in conversations with African American women in the past several months.

She thinks the drop in the percentage of black women saying the Democratic Party best represents them “relates to what we’re hearing across the country, which is we’re past being sick and tired and shifting the way we’re operating.”

Black women want their loyalty at the ballot box to translate into positions of leadership within the party and support for those who run for office.

“We’re also saying to people that you have to invest in us in a different way,” Campbell said, adding that black women “can come together and leverage our political power much better.”