'Fully Erased': With Harris' Rise, There Are No Black Women In The Senate

Feb 1, 2021
Originally published on February 1, 2021 11:56 am

On the day that California Gov. Gavin Newsom named Kamala Harris' replacement in the U.S. Senate, Molly Watson jumped on a call with other organizers and the two Black women in Congress whom they had urged Newsom to appoint to the seat instead.

It was an emotional conversation, in which Watson said she struggled to hold back tears.

"It cut pretty deep knowing that we were going to be fully erased from the Senate," said Watson, of the progressive group Courage California.

While the Democratic Party is in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, there is also a new fight playing out over representation. There are now no Black women in the Senate after an election cycle with key victories powered by Black women. It has turned a moment of triumph for many Black women thrilled to see Harris make a historic ascent to the vice presidency into something more bittersweet.

"Everybody else is represented in the U.S. Senate except for us, period," said Watson, one of the organizers who urged Newsom to select either Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland or Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles for the vacancy. Instead, Newsom appointed Alex Padilla, California's then-secretary of state, who is a Latino man.

"We've got to figure out what to do after everybody spent all this time loving Black women and thanking us for saving the country and doing the work in the background," Watson said, "but not ever being pushed to the front or believed in to do the jobs of actual elected representatives as we so often see."

Why so few Black women?

Asked why so few Black women have served in the Senate, more than a dozen current and former Black lawmakers, candidates and strategists said there is not just one diagnosis for a problem that has plagued the Senate for its entire history.

The barriers to entry are high. Another argument: The party establishment doesn't see potential candidates of color as viable candidates who can win. And Black women, in particular, are plagued by the intertwined ills of sexism and racism, not to mention the impact of voter suppression tactics.

"There is targeted, systemic and constantly evolving voter suppression tactics that people are trying to keep up with that make it hard for certain paths to victory to be made possible when you're thinking about a statewide run, which is a completely different math calculation than when you're thinking about running for a House district," said Amanda Brown Lierman, the executive director of the activist group Supermajority and a former political director of the Democratic National Committee.

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as Harris' husband, Doug Emhoff, holds the Bible. Harris is the first woman to be vice president, and the first person of Black or South Asian heritage to hold the office.
Andrew Harnik / Pool/Getty Images

All agree that one of the biggest challenges is money. The last cycle saw Senate candidates raise jaw-dropping sums, like Jaime Harrison in South Carolina who raised more than $133 million in his unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham.

"It's bloody expensive. You're talking multimillion-dollar campaigns," said Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman to serve in the Senate. "And if you don't start off with a Rolodex full of people who can write big checks, and write big checks to the party. ... If you try to do it the 'pass the hat' kind of way, that doesn't work anymore."

Raising money simply opens doors, to attention from deep-pocketed donors, as well as from the party establishment itself.

Too often, party leaders don't invest in candidates who are Black women early enough, said Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of The Collective PAC, one of several groups that has served as an early financial pipeline for Black candidates.

"Black women need to have a disproportionate amount of money provided to them when they're running as candidates, because they are disproportionately faced with obstacles and challenges to them being successful in their races," she said in an interview.

James said The Collective's top priority in 2024 is to elect a Black woman to the Senate, but she also issued a call to action.

"The entire progressive community needs to really put their money where their mouth is," she said. "Don't just say that Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. No, you need to show us with support and with resources that you understand the importance of Black women, not just as voters but as candidates as well."

Being the only one "made me work harder"

Only one Black woman won a Senate primary this cycle. In Tennessee, Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist, defeated a field of Democrats including James Mackler, the candidate backed by Senate Democrats' campaign arm. Her victory also made her the state's first Black woman to win a major party's nomination for the U.S. Senate.

"The dynamic of there not being another African American woman in the whole United States that was running for U.S. Senate made me work harder," Bradshaw said in an interview.

Bradshaw, who said she makes less than $15 an hour, said that fundraising was a challenge from Day 1.

"I remember just trying to get the first $100 to open up the account, and how hard it was to get somebody to just give $100 to me," she said.

Even after winning her primary, Bradshaw said she received no institutional support from the party establishment, support that she believes could have made a difference. In November, she lost to Republican Bill Hagerty by about 800,000 votes.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed a number of racially diverse candidates this cycle, including Raphael Warnock, who became the first Black Democratic senator from the South. The committee also pointed to aggressive efforts to push Stacey Abrams to run for Senate in Georgia, though she ultimately declined.

The absence of Black women in the Senate is not just among Democrats: No Black Republican woman has ever served in the Senate, and the Republican Party significantly lags behind Democrats in terms of racial diversity.

Bradshaw described it as "pretty disappointing" to know that she was the only Black woman running for Senate and to not have the full resources of the party at her disposal. She says she's working to ensure that the next Black woman who runs for federal office in Tennessee won't face the same issues.

Bradshaw rejected the idea that Tennessee, which hasn't elected a Democratic senator since Al Gore 30 years ago, is a clearly red state. She said she believes many people across Tennessee simply don't vote, a problem she's looking to solve. Since losing her campaign, she's launched a nonprofit, Sowing Justice, with a goal of bringing more people into the process.

Jessica Byrd, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of The Front Line, pointed to races like Bradshaw's as an example of how gains by Black women in elected office are often made: without the permission — or support — of the party establishment.

"It's really going to take the DSCC, the DCCC and the DNC to really see the primary process as an opportunity for Black women to be elected to the United States Congress, which then makes them more viable and able to be elected to the United States Senate," she said. "And until then, there are many, many many Black women who are both qualified and want to run and have really been gatekept from doing so."

Brown Lierman, who worked at the DNC, said the party needs to have some tough, internal conversations about the "loyalty and deference" given to incumbents.

"Of course that's a fair thing to do, but it makes it really hard for new people to enter our political systems and enter halls of power," she said.

"We're going to demand power"

Current and former lawmakers say that the fresh absence of Black women in the Senate is not just a symbolic loss.

"You have a void in terms of perspective, in terms of experiences, in terms of the ideas that are brought to the policy agenda," said Lee, the California congresswoman who was first elected to the House in 1998.

Carol Moseley Braun became the first Black woman to serve in the Senate when she was elected to represent Illinois in 1992.
Brian Bahr / AFP via Getty Images

The very types of issues that Black women raise, by virtue of their lived experiences, may go unmentioned. Moseley Braun, who was elected in 1992 and served one term in the Senate, recalled working on legislation related to lupus, which affects more women than men and is more common among Black people.

"It wasn't that my colleagues didn't know that there was an issue with lupus — many of them did," Moseley Braun said. "But it just wasn't that important to them because it wasn't exactly their world."

She said that it was her insight as "a person with a Black person's consciousness that helps everybody in the country."

"By not having that voice in the room or at the table, we do ourselves a disservice, we do our country a disservice," said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, who is the first Black person and Black woman to represent the state of Delaware in Congress.

Black women in Congress are taking the push for representation in the Senate into their own hands, grappling with the reality that a Black woman's candidacy often does not get prioritized in the way that they believe it should.

Lee said that she and others are launching an urgent effort to "secure the seat" for a Black woman.

"We have to take, in many respects, it in our own hands, hoping that the formal committees will recognize that we have a lot to offer, and that we're here to stay and we're going to demand power," she said.

Blunt Rochester underscored the gravity of the moment, paraphrasing a quote from Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in Congress.

"When a person's voice is not in the room, sometimes people don't even know that they're missing it, and it hampers, and dampens and makes us not as effective," she said. "I love Shirley Chisholm's quote that everybody knows: 'If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.' That's really what this moment is about."

Black political leaders are eyeing opportunities on the horizon that might give them opportunities to fill the void. One is in Ohio, where Republican Sen. Rob Portman is not seeking reelection. Some have publicly speculated that Rep. Joyce Beatty, a veteran lawmaker who represents Ohio's 3rd district, should campaign for the seat.

For her part, Beatty has said that she is "beyond flattered" by the attention, but has made no decisions on a future Senate run.

And in California, eyes are on the future of 87-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has several years left in her current term.

Lee, who was among the Black women that organizers had publicly pushed for the appointment to fill Harris' seat, said that she is "honored" by the support and that her colleague, Rep. Bass, is among the "phenomenal Black women" who could "step into the United States Senate and hit the ground running."

"I've been in Congress now 21 years and I worked for a member of Congress for 11 years; I certainly know the ropes," she said. "But having said that, it's so important that we focus on supporting Black women wherever they may be, for a seat in the Senate."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Kamala Harris was inaugurated as vice president of the United States, she made history. But her departure from the Senate made history of a different kind. There are now no Black women in the 100-person body. NPR's Juana Summers has been talking with Black Democratic women about what they plan to do.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: In an election cycle that delivered Democrats unified control of Congress and the White House, there was only one Black woman on the ballot running for the U.S. Senate. Her name is Marquita Bradshaw.

MARQUITA BRADSHAW: The dynamic of there not being another African American woman in the whole United States that was running for U.S. Senate made me work harder.

SUMMERS: Bradshaw is an environmental justice advocate who won an upset victory in Tennessee's Democratic primary, defeating the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's preferred candidate. Also, she was running in a state that hasn't elected a Democratic senator since Al Gore in 1990. She says fundraising was a struggle from the start.

BRADSHAW: I remember just trying to get the first $100 to open up the account and how hard it was to get somebody to give $100 to me.

SUMMERS: Even after Bradshaw won her primary, she says she got no institutional support. Bradshaw lost in November by about 800,000 votes. Jessica Byrd is a Democratic strategist. She says that when gains have been made by Black women, they've often occurred in places where those women have bucked the wishes of their party and run anyway.

JESSICA BYRD: There are many, many, many Black women who are both qualified and want to run and have really been gate-kept from being able to do so.

SUMMERS: This problem is not unique to Democrats. Not one Black Republican woman has served in the Senate. But because of the role that Black women have and do play at the core of the Democratic Party, it is an absence that is deeply felt and one that there is a fierce urgency to repair. Senate Democrats' Campaign Committee endorsed an array of racially diverse candidates this cycle, including Raphael Warnock, the first Black Democratic senator from the South. None of the Senate candidates the committee backed, however, were Black women. The committee pointed to an aggressive effort to push Stacey Abrams to run for Senate in Georgia, but she declined.

Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of Collective PAC, says her top priority for 2024 is to elect a Black woman to the U.S. Senate. But she also issued a call to action.

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: The entire progressive community needs to really put their money where their mouth is. Don't just say that, you know, Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. No, you need to show us with support and with resources that you understand the importance of Black women not just as voters, but as candidates as well.

SUMMERS: One of many big barriers is fundraising. Raising money simply opens doors - to attention from deep-pocketed donors, as well as from the party establishment itself. And competitive Senate campaigns are really expensive. Carol Moseley Braun was the first Black woman senator.

CAROL MOSELEY BROWN: The party establishment does not appreciate or embrace candidates until the candidates have already won, and that's unfortunate. And if you don't start off with a Rolodex full of people who can write you, you know, big checks and write big checks to the party, you try to do it, you know, pass-the-hat kind of way - that doesn't work anymore.

SUMMERS: There is also a lack of investment and recruitment for candidates at the state and local levels and, according to Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, outdated notions of what a good candidate looks like.

BARBARA LEE: The pipeline is extremely important. But we have to understand also that the same criteria for white men, for example, can't be applied to the African American women.

SUMMERS: Lee and other Black women on Capitol Hill are working to secure a seat for a Black woman in the Senate.

LEE: We can't go back. There are no African American women in the United States Senate. And so we're working day and night to put together the infrastructure and what's needed to be able to - when an African American woman surfaces and believes she can run and win or can run an effective race, then we have to be ready to support her.

SUMMERS: Lee's House colleague, Lisa Blunt Rochester is the first Black person and first woman to represent the state of Delaware.

LISA BLUNT ROCHESTER: When a person's voice is not in the room, sometimes people don't even know that they're missing it. And it hampers and dampens and makes us not as effective. I love Shirley Chisholm's quote that everybody knows, that if they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair. That's really what this moment is about.

SUMMERS: Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.