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A record number of black women are running for office in Alabama’s primary elections

Black women in Alabama helped defeat Roy Moore. Now they’re running for office in deep-red districts.

Rep. Terri Sewell was the first black woman elected to Congress in Alabama in 2011. A record number of black women are now running for office too.
Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When Alabama voters go to the polls Tuesday for the state’s primary elections, they’ll see something rare on their ballots: A large number of Democrats are running for office — and many of them are black women.

A record number of black women are fighting to unseat Republicans in this deep-red state, which has often struggled to get Democrats to run for office at all.

At least 70 African-American women are running in Alabama, according to Emerge America, a nonprofit group that trains women to run for political office. These women are running for seats on local school boards, and as county judges, state lawmakers, and members of Congress. Many are entering politics for the first time with the momentum from December’s special election, when Democrats turned out en masse to defeat Republican Roy Moore’s bid for US Senate and to elect Doug Jones.

Black female voters were considered a decisive demographic for Jones, who was elected as the state’s first Democratic senator in 25 years. Exit polls showed that 98 percent of black female voters cast a ballot for Jones, propelling him to a narrow victory over Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice with a history of controversial statements and decisions — and who was accused of sexual misconduct and assault by several women.

Many of the voters who powered Jones to victory have now decided it’s their turn to run for office.

“After that election, it was like a lightbulb came up over our heads. We helped him, but what are we doing for ourselves?” Adia Winfrey, a candidate for Alabama’s Third Congressional District, told Refinery29.

Winfrey, a psychologist who volunteered on Jones’s campaign, is one of three black women vying for three of the state’s seven US House seats, which are all up for grabs in November. Alabama has elected only one black woman to Congress, Democrat Terri Sewell, and she is defending a seat that she’s held since 2011. Meanwhile, Winfrey and civil rights activist Audri Scott Williams are seeking the Democratic nomination to unseat two Republicans in deep-red districts.

All the female newcomers face tough odds. Most of them are running against better-funded Democratic opponents in majority-white districts, and they are not getting support from their own political party — either at the state or national level.

Black female candidates are not pandering to conservatives

Only about two of the more than 70 black women running in Alabama are running as Republicans. The rest are Democrats, and for the most part, they are not softening their political views to please the state’s conservative voters. Their platforms and agendas vary, but they are raising progressive issues that politicians rarely bring up in Alabama politics: universal health care, gun control, prison reform, sexual harassment.

Audri Scott Williams is one of them. The civil rights activist, author, and former Army reservist is running for Alabama’s Second Congressional District, one of the few contested seats in November. She is openly gay, believes that universal health care is a human right, and wants to push for a $15 minimum wage.

“The worth of hard working American workers has been devalued by corporations that pay you the bare minimum while their CEOs and shareholders rake in hundreds of millions,” she wrote on her campaign blog.

Williams is vying for the seat currently held by Rep. Martha Roby, who flipped the seat red in 2011. But Roby’s refusal to support Trump after the Access Hollywood tape came to light was not well-received in her Trump-loving district and has led to a crowded GOP field of candidates to replace her (including one of Moore’s campaign advisers).

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added the seat to the list of congressional races it is eyeing to recapture in November. But it has not endorsed anyone.

Before unseating Roby, Williams would need to win against her Democratic opponent, Tabitha Isner, a business analyst from Montgomery who has raised far more money —$150,000 compared to Williams’s $30,000.

Winfrey, a psychologist from Talladega, is running for Alabama’s Third Congressional District, which is currently held by Republican Mike Rogers. This district is considered solidly red, and voters there haven’t elected a Democratic representative since 1997.

Winfrey is running as a pro-gun control candidate, in contrast to Rogers, who has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.

About a dozen black women are running for state office, and another two dozen or so are running for local seats. Many are running for seats that have never been held by African Americans. Ashley Smith, for example, is running for district judge in Lowndes County, which is 75 percent black but has never had a black district or circuit court judge.

This crop of candidates also includes a handful of very young women. Jayla McElrath, who just graduated from high school, is running as a Republican for a local school board seat in Cherokee County, a school district that is overwhelmingly white. McElrath says that school safety is her main concern, particularly in light of recent school shootings in Florida and Texas, and she wants to install security systems in all the district’s schools. “There is an absence of protection and defense, making all of our schools an easy target,” she wrote on her campaign’s Facebook page.

Black women are not getting support from Democratic institutions

The DCCC has not endorsed any of the Democrats running in Alabama House races, even the contested Second District.

Black women on the ballot in statewide races are not even getting support from the Alabama Democratic Conference, the state’s largest black political organization. The conference ended up endorsing the two white women who are opposing Williams and Winfrey.

“We were told that it’s because she wouldn’t win in a ‘majority-white state,’” Adela Duncan, Winfrey’s communications director, told Refinery29.

The DCCC, which is the political fundraising arm for House Democrats, has played a controversial role in House primary races across the country, spending money to defeat certain candidates in favor of others who it believes have a better chance to win the general election. The DCCC’s actions suggest it doesn’t seem to think many black women are electable. There are 43 black women running for House seats, as Axios points out, but the DCCC has only endorsed one: Lauren Underwood of Illinois.

That hasn’t dissuaded any of the women running for House seats in Alabama.

The surge of black women on primary ballots in Alabama is part of a larger trend shaping American midterm politics: an increase in women seeking political office across the country.

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen points out, Emily’s List, the Super PAC focused on electing pro-abortion-rights female candidates, released numbers showing that 34,000 women interested in running for office have reached out to the organization. Not all are running, but it’s a striking contrast to the 920 who reached out to the group in 2016.

In April, 309 women had registered to run for US House seats, surpassing the previous record of 298 set in 2012, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

The enthusiasm is largely viewed as a backlash to Trump’s election, and a result of the #MeToo movement. These were some of the themes that inspired many black women in Alabama to put their names on the ballot. But the barriers black women in Alabama face to get elected for statewide office are much higher than those facing women in other parts of the country. They would eventually have to persuade some Republican men, and white women who voted for Roy Moore, to cast a ballot for a Democrat, who happens to be a black woman.

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