More than two dozen African American women, including political activists and elected officials, have signed an open letter to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez criticizing him for seeming to take for granted the party’s most loyal base of support.
The letter, published Thursday on nbcnews.com, comes as Perez, who was elected chairman of the DNC in February, is traveling around the country meeting with party leaders in an effort to regroup after last fall’s upset victory by Republican Donald Trump.
In the letter, the authors say that black women have consistently supported the party, but have been ignored by Democratic leaders who seemed to be more focused on winning back white voters who rejected Hillary Clinton in November.
“The data reveals that Black women voters are the very foundation to a winning coalition, yet most Black voters feel like the Democrats take them for granted,” the letter reads. “Since taking office, you have met with and listened to key constituencies. But you have yet to host a Black women leaders convening.”
The letter calls on Perez to hold a meeting with black women leaders and activists to talk about how the party can better work with black women, including hiring them for key staff positions.
“The time is now for progressive power brokers and the very Party that we have carried on our back to the voting booth, year in and year out, to make a sustained and substantial investment in our leadership and priorities,” the letter states.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Perez said, “While black women are at the core of our party and of the resistance, they are too often taken for granted. We must change this.” He went on to say the party would gather women “from across the country, including those that signed the letter, to discuss how we can better engage the issues confronting Black women and partner with them to elect more leaders who share their values.”
Perez met with a diverse group of women in early May, including some of the letter’s signees, but will host a meeting just for black women, according to a DNC official. In addition to Karen Carter Peterson, who was elected vice chair of the party in February, the officials said, there are several other black women in leadership posts, including the deputy treasurer and the chief operating officer.
Glynda C. Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which encourages black women to run for elected office, said the intent of the letter was to “begin a dialogue on how the Democratic Party will address the concerns of this vital bloc.”
Carr, one of the signees, said the party could do more to recruit and support black women to run for office.
“Having Black women’s voices at the table as the Democratic leadership determines strategy for a pathway forward is important to ensure that our issues are included in agenda setting and that investments are made to support our leadership development from grass roots activism to candidate recruitment and pipeline building,” Carr said.
Much of the public discussion within and about the party has focused on the defections among white working-class and rural voters, to whom President Trump appealed with a strong economic message and raw language that hinted at halting the march toward multiculturalism that characterized the tenure of former President Barack Obama.
But even as other traditional Democratic voters shifted to Trump or backed minor party candidates, black women remained the Democratic candidate’s strongest supporters. Network exit polling indicated that 94 percent of black women who cast ballots in 2016 voted for Clinton. And at least 90 percent or more black women voted for Democratic candidates in each of the last five presidential elections. In comparison, 82 percent of black men voted for Clinton in 2016. Black women, along with other women of color, are responsible for Clinton’s 13-point win among women overall, as a slim majority of white women, 52 percent, voted for Trump, according to network exit polling.
Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist, said that in many cases, white working-class voters and working African Americans share some of the same concerns, especially about the economy, and the party need not favor one group over the other.
“If the party believes that black people are going to continue to, on their own, organize and show up and vote for Democrats without serious acknowledgment of our electoral importance, the party will be in for a rude awakening,” Sanders said.
One consequence of failure to engage black voters is that they might stay home on Election Day. After historic rates of turnout in 2008 and 2012, black voter participation dipped last year. Black voter turnout fell from 66 percent in 2012, when it surpassed turnout among white voters, to 59 percent in 2016, according to Census Bureau data. Among black women, 64 percent voted in November, a noticeable drop from the 70 percent who cast ballots in 2012.
Activists say that neither the Clinton campaign nor the DNC was able to rally black voters. Meanwhile, although Trump did not drive up turnout among white working-class voters as pundits theorized after his upset victory, they did vote for him at a higher rate — 66 percent — than they did for Mitt Romney, who got 61 percent of their votes in 2012, according to exit polls.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), one of the signers, said the letter was “a manifestation of conversations we’ve been having among ourselves. The Democratic Party depends on us, we show up and it doesn’t necessarily recognize that there needs to be much more to this relationship than what happens in late October or November.”
She also said black women are looking for an ongoing dialogue, not just an event in response to the letter.
“We need to have not just one conversation and not a conversation with 100 women at one time, but a series of conversations,” Watson said, adding that black women need to be part of the discussion about how the party goes about polling, plots strategy and shapes messages. “It’s not about what you say, it’s what you do. You can’t tell me I’m important to this enterprise and not act like it.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.