A New Force In Politics: Black Women As Game Changers and Shot Callers - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise Magazine Summer 2019 Issue

Kamala Harris has officially announced that she will run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. True to form for such aspirants, she recently launched a book tour to promote her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, to tell her story to the electorate. Having made history as California’s first black female U.S. senator and attorney general, she represents the smart, charismatic, and progressive politician who can build an election-winning coalition. Along with the other two African Americans in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Cory Booker and Republican Tim Scott, she recently lead the passage of a bill making lynching a hate crime as well as pushed for legislation requiring that an ethnic minority and a woman gain consideration whenever there’s a vacancy for the top position at one of the Federal Reserve’s 12 banks.

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The wave of black women elected to office in the last election cycle demonstrates the ongoing evolution of political diversity, power, and leadership that will be felt for generations. Here are some of the national and statewide officeholders who are fearless and relentless in reshaping our world today and tomorrow:

Stacey Abrams: Historymaker 

In her historic bid to become governor of Georgia, Stacey Yvonne Abrams electrified not only multitudes of voters of the Peach State but supporters nationwide. As the first black female gubernatorial nominee of a major party—and the most Googled politician of 2018—the former Georgia House Democratic leader projected a progressive message of economic and educational opportunity for all, inspiring women, African Americans, labor and the LGBT community—core components of her coalition. Her barrier-shattering run in “The New, New South,” however, did not smash practices emblematic of the region’s past: voter suppression and race-baiting.

Stacey Abrams

(Instagram)

So as Georgia’s tightest gubernatorial race in more than 50 years came to a close, Abrams confirmed that Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp had enough votes to be certified to occupy the statehouse but refused to concede the race. She asserted in her speech to supporters: “To watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling…Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that.”

For the courageous Abrams, who will speak at the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit, that race was the introduction of a new powerful voice on the national stage. Many pundits said she was symbolic of “The Year of the Woman.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.): Keeping The Financial Industry In Check

With Democrats taking control of the House, Waters now holds one of the most powerful seats in Congress: chair of the Financial Services Committee. Presiding over the body that oversees the banking industry, Waters has vowed to not let financial institutions “run amok” and plunge the nation into a new crisis. Another guarantee: She will use her elevated congressional clout to turn up the heat on President Trump.

Maxine Waters

Rep. Maxine Waters (Image: Flickr)

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.): Leading The Conscience of Congress

Roughly a decade ago, Bass was a California assembly member who became the first-ever African American woman to rise to speaker of any state legislature. Today, she has become a national power player with her recent advancement to the helm of the Congressional Black Caucus, known for decades as “the Conscience of The Congress.” With a more diverse 116th Congress, Bass leads the CBC at its most populous and powerful: 55 members of the House and Senate who represent more than 82 million Americans, or 25.3% of the total U.S. population, and about 17 million African Americans, or 41% of the nation’s African American population. Moreover, the CBC will gain even more leverage during tight legislative votes and assume leadership positions as the group comprises roughly a quarter of the House Democratic Caucus. It has already flexed its muscles on issues such as the government shutdown and Rep. Steve King’s removal from committee assignments for his full embrace of white supremacy.

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Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas): Overseeing The Innovation Agenda

Representing the Lone Star State—home to Space Center Houston—Johnson became the first African American and the first woman to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. As such, she runs the body that oversees non-defense federal scientific R&D and has jurisdiction over agencies that include NASA, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology and Office of Science and Technology Policy. Among major focal areas: Cybersecurity related to the U.S. electric grid and the Trump White House’s “mandate to ignore” climate science.

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Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.): A Fresh View on Healthcare Policy

As the youngest African American woman to ever serve in the House, this nurse with two master’s degrees from John Hopkins University may help find the right prescription for healthcare policy, among other issues. As a policymaker in the Obama administration, she served as an adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the activation of the Affordable Care Act—better known as “Obamacare,” which continues to be under attack by the GOP. Among the new wave of political outsiders, Underwood, who never held office, scored an upset victory over four-term Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren during the midterms to win her congressional seat representing Illinois’ 14th District. Gaining donors outside the state, the political newbie also outraised her opponent in campaign funds: $4 million to $2 million.

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Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL)

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.): Beating The Establishment

Former Boston City Council Member Ayanna Pressley, 44, became the first African American congresswoman from the state of Massachusetts. The persistent Pressley set her path to victory by building grassroots support to beat the local and national political establishment. During the Democratic primary, she defeated 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano, who gained backing from some of America’s most celebrated black politicians, a group that included civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Massachusetts first African American governor, Deval Patrick.

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Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.): Learning New Political Lessons

The 2016 National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes, 45, emerged victorious in her campaign to become the first African American woman to represent a congressional district in Connecticut. To achieve that goal, she had to defeat Republican Manny Santos in one of the state’s most hotly-contested midterm battles. The former high school teacher and administrator has a new, appropriate assignment as a freshman: membership on the House Education and Labor Committee.

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Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)

The first Somali and one of two Muslim women elected to Congress, Omar, 37, now assumes the Minnesota congressional seat previously occupied by Rep. Keith Ellison, the former deputy Democratic National Committee Chair who is now the state’s Attorney General. Already engaged in political battles over her tweets critical of Sen. Lindsey Graham and the nation of Israel, Omar has not received a unanimous welcome as the freshman legislator joins the highly-coveted House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.)

In 2012, her son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed in a horrific act of gun violence. When her son’s killer invoked Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law as a defense, McBath took to the frontlines in her passionate fight for gun control and justice. After retiring from a 30-year career with Delta Airlines, she became the national spokesperson for both Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. That activism led to her congressional run for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Emerging victorious, she became its first Democratic representative since Newt Gingrich won the seat in 1993. A Virginia State University graduate who served as an intern for the nation’s first elected black governor, Virginia’s L. Douglas Wilder, McBath is now making her own history through her co-sponsorship of gun control legislation requiring universal background checks. To ensure passage, McBath maintained in a CNN interview that she is willing to “reach across the aisle.”

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(Instagram)

State Attorney General Letitia James (D-N.Y.)

Beyond congressional milestones, there have been a number of African American woman who broke new ground in statewide races. In the Empire State, for example, James, became the first black woman to assume the role of attorney general—a potential pathway to the governor’s mansion. But before her next political pursuit, the former public advocate for New York City has vowed to use her post to investigate President Trump’s past real estate dealings to uncover any possible shady activities.

Letitia James

Letitia James circa 2013 (Wikimedia Commons)

New York State Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Another milestone was heralded in the New York State Senate. With Democrats gaining control of the New York State Senate —the third time in more than 80 years—Stewart-Cousins was unanimously chosen to lead that powerful body. As such, the Yonkers Democrat became the first African American women to lead that chamber of the state legislature. It wasn’t the first time that she made history though: Stewart-Cousins was selected the first black women minority leader six years ago. Pundits say that her ascension to the state legislative leadership, which includes the Governor and Assembly Speaker, will “break three men in a room.”

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