‘Black Women Are Realizing the Power of Their Vote’
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The massive turnout of black women in 2017’s elections was only the start, predicts Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
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There’s nothing Republicans can do to win them back, she says, and they’ll keep electing Democrats to push the GOP from power.
Bottoms has a distinctive vantage point. In December, she won her first term, making her both the most prominent black woman to win a major election since Donald Trump was inaugurated and the most prominent black female executive in the South—and one of the few in the entire country.
There will be more, she said—and soon.
“Black women are realizing the power of their vote and of their influence,” Bottoms told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
“It’s taken what we are dealing with on a national level, I think, to really get us energized and not taking anything for granted, but I do think we are recognizing and exercising our power in a way that we’ve never done before, and that’s exciting,” Bottoms said. “We are becoming engaged, and we realize the danger of staying home.”
Black women pouring out in big numbers already put Ralph Northam in Virginia and Doug Jones in Alabama over the top. There’s a reason Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called them the “backbone” of the party back in December.
But with Bottoms winning—and black women also winning historic races for mayor in Charlotte, North Carolina, and New Orleans in 2017—Bottoms and others warn Democrats not to misread what’s driving them, or fall back into taking them for granted. They can’t stand Trump, but they’re going to need more than that to keep showing up.
“That’s the challenge we’ve seen in the Democratic Party. Black women are treated as monolithic, but then they receive underinvestment or very superficial investment,” said Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic leader in the Georgia state House and a candidate for governor who is a black woman herself. “The question is not who they will vote for. The question is how many will vote. The party and too many candidates have stopped at the beginning of that equation.”
The stakes are immediate across the midterms, at home in Georgia, too: Democrats see the glimmering of a path in the governor’s race—with Abrams in a primary against Stacey Evans, the star of a viral announcement video about growing up poor and making it as a lawyer, and who is white but has support from prominent black leaders like former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Bottoms suggesting she might be on board, too. But Democrats locally and nationally are still burned by putting their hopes in winning the House special election in the Atlanta suburbs last year which went national, brought in $50 million, and which Republican Karen Handel won anyway.
Though Bottoms has now signed on to the Georgia Democratic Party’s executive committee and pledged to campaign for statewide officials, she’s privately expressed surprise when people have pushed her to realize her responsibility to the party as the most prominent elected Democrat in the state.
“She understands Atlanta’s potential,” said DuBose Porter, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, who pointed out that Democrats have registered 200,000 voters since losing the 2014 gubernatorial and Senate races by about 200,000 votes. “And she understands what her role now has the potential of being.”
Bottoms’ election was a rough one. Though she had the support of outgoing Mayor Reed, eight candidates made it to the last debate of the first round of voting, including the Bernie Sanders-backed state Sen. Vincent Fort, who slammed her for personal financial issues and for having a policy vision for the city which he deemed as not progressive enough. In the runoff in December, she faced an independent white woman with ties to Republicans, and won by all of 821 votes out of about 90,000 cast. More stark was how the election results looked on a map, with the city visibly divided north to south—the wealthier, whiter parts of the city going for her opponent, and the blacker, less affluent part of the city pulling for Bottoms.
That an election in a heavily Democratic city was ever that close shows just how deep the fights dividing the party nationally affect races locally. Progressives and those voters who backed other candidates stayed home in the runoff, as Bottoms—who is neither a fire-breather nor a firebrand—failed to ignite movement enthusiasm.