Black Women Are Rising Up in Politics Nationwide… But What About New York?

There are currently 18 black women in the New York State Legislature.

Nationwide, black women are seeing more opportunities to run for elected office. Getty Images

Nationwide, nearly 600 black women are running for elected office in the United States this year.

In light of Public Advocate Letitia James launching her bid for New York State Attorney General on Wednesday—she would be the first black woman to hold statewide office if she wins—as well as New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray weighing higher office and Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins becoming the first black female majority leader if Democrats take back the Senate, is the movement spreading to New York, too?

Nationwide Momentum Picks Up for Black Women Running for Elected Office

Black women make up 3.6 percent of Congress, 3.7 percent of state legislators nationwide and less than one percent of statewide elected executive officials, according to a recent report titled, “The Chisholm Effect: Black Women in American Politics 2018.”

Higher Heights for America Leadership Fund—the sister organization of Higher Heights for America, a Brooklyn-based national organization that builds the political power and leadership of black women—and the Center for American Women and Politics authored the report.

Black women voters voted in large numbers for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, for former President Barack Obama in 2012 and for now-Alabama Sen. Doug Jones last year.

Dr. Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told Observer the Democratic Party likes black female votes but that it does not mean they like black female voices at the table.

“They don’t necessarily like black female voices and that’s a big difference and pretty soon you can’t keep getting the votes without the voice,” Greer said.

Most American states, she said, are majority-white, “not necessarily Democrat” and there are different types of Democrats.

“For almost all states, there’s no precedent of having black female leadership, so it’s not like you’re immediately considered for the role and also the kingmakers… oftentimes are white men who are ensconced in politics who think of other white men first and foremost,” Greer continued.

She also pointed to fundraising challenges for women candidates and candidates of color.

There are 594 black women running for office this year, according to Black Women in Politics, a database run by writer Luvvie Ajayi.

Glynda Carr, Higher Heights’ co-founder, said that there have been gains over the last 10 years.

In 2014, there was only one black woman mayor nationwide: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, then-mayor of Baltimore.

In the last five years, eight black women have been elected mayor in the 100 most populous American cities. Currently six black women head large cities: Catherine Pugh of Baltimore; Muriel Bower of Washington, D.C; Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, La.; Vi Alexander Lyles of Charlotte, N.C.; and Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta. In addition, Latoya Cantrell recently assumed office as the mayor of New Orleans.

And London Breed, who served as acting mayor of San Francisco following the death of Ed Lee, is running for mayor of the City by the Bay.

“When you do some additional research, Baltimore has actually had three consecutive black women mayors,” Carr said. “Not necessarily traditional pathways—some of them have been appointed… to have three consecutive black women there, we ought to be looking at why.”

Indeed, she stressed the importance of pipeline work, noting the five mayors were in other elected positions first.

In 2017, only two states had statewide executive elections. In New Jersey, Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, was elected lieutenant governor. She is the first woman of color to serve in a statewide elected executive office in New Jersey and the first Democratic black woman elected nationwide.

In the past year, state legislative elections in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as special elections and appointments, have led to a net increase of 10 black women state legislators across the country.

And if successful, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, would become the first black woman governor.

“Black women have not fared as well in statewide elected offices,” Carr continued.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn), the only black female New York congressional lawmaker, told Observer that she was motivated by issues at the federal level which affect her community, including comprehensive immigration reform and minority- and women-owned businesses.

Clarke holds the seat of the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y)., the first black woman elected to Congress. (Chisholm was also the first woman and African-American to seek a major party presidential nomination.)

She said black women have stepped up in leadership and activist movements.

“Black women are there to break the status quo, to be inclusionary in terms of addressing issues and concerns and opportunities for black communities and by extension all communities to be able to make progress,” Clarke said.

Black women are also stepping up to offer themselves in districts that are majority-white—”rebuking the stereotypes” of where black women can serve, as well as who they serve, she said.

“There are black communities within majority [white] communities where women are developing leadership, where black women are building coalitions and finding common cause and are stepping up in their leadership, so I anticipate continued growth in that regard,” she continued.

What’s Going on in New York State?

In New York state, 59 out of the 213 lawmakers in the state legislature are women—15 black women in the state Assembly and three black women in the state Senate.

Letitia James—the first African-American woman elected to a citywide position, who was a rumored 2021 mayoral candidate—would be the first woman and woman of color to hold the AG position.

Greer called it a “huge deal” and said James is qualified on paper but still has to run a statewide campaign—and call on upstate folks “to think outside the box as far as leadership.”

Still, a victory could have ramifications for the political process, in addition to helping female and minority candidates in down-ballot races, she argued.

“I think it will also be interesting to see how these informal rule changes will occur that have assisted men all these years, but once they realize that these informal backroom deals and gentlemen handshakes, how they are now possibly helping women and people of color, whether or not those types of behaviors will be altered just a little bit,” Greer explained.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins is the first woman to head a legislative conference in the state legislature and the first black female Senate minority leader (now that a group of breakaway Democrats has disbanded).

“If you look at the New York State legislature, there’s been an uptick of women that are elected and many of them came from New York City and particularly Brooklyn,” Carr said, referring to the Assembly.

Stewart-Cousins told Observer she was tapped to run for office because of her work in the community. African-Americans and women overall come to community service roles naturally, she explained.

“I realized the connection and how important this could be in creating real upward mobility in people’s lives by just removing barriers, and certainly I had enough of a treasure trove of barriers that were put before me as an African American woman and certainly African-American women that came before me,” she said.

When she first came into office, there was only one other African-American woman.

“People confused us, so I wore a scarf in order to make it easier for people to identify who was who and that’s why I’m still wearing scarves today,” Stewart-Cousins continued. “It became my trademark.”

Trump’s election, she argued, woke up African-Americans and women. She noted the work of Higher Heights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She speaks to organizations and goes to schools to directly speak to students and parents.

“You have to show up,” Stewart-Cousins added. “You have to be involved in organizations that are engaging African-American women and engaging people to participate in government, and you have to be willing to understand that the things you are doing in your local community could have larger implications if you want to bring it to a larger level.”

Stewart-Cousins said Chirlane McCray and Letitia James are “both talented,” called Rochester mayor Lovely Warren a rising star, and noted she is watching Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

Despite the fact that there has not been a woman president yet or woman mayor in New York City, she says there is hope.

“I know that African-American women are primed to step up and be those leaders,” she said. “There are many, many opportunities.”

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat elected in 2002, discovered while community organizing that most issues are “political decisions.” She was encouraged to run for an open seat in county government.

“Serving is not something that I dreamed of doing when I went to high school or college,” Peoples-Stokes told Observer. “So I think for black women, it’s more out of a need to see some things happen that are beneficial for your community. That’s why you make that decision to run.”

She pointed to Warren as a rising star and noted that the Buffalo City Council has no women. The Erie County city legislature has two African-American women.

She said she is a member of the Eleanor Legacy Committee and that Higher Heights is important because it focuses on black women but focuses more so on national elections.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties, she contended, need to step up to the plate.

“When they decide they need someone to run, they should not look over the fact that there are African-American women in respective districts that could be recruited, could be given the technical [resources]… to become a candidate,” Peoples-Stokes said.

Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte is “very excited” about James’ candidacy.

“I think that’s a great fit for her, and I think she would do a great job as she has been as the public advocate representing a very diverse city, and I think she has inspired other women of color to take on large roles like that,” Bichotte said.

Bichotte, who is a member of the state Assembly’s Women of Color Caucus and runs the Shirley Chisholm Democratic Club, said the caucus was formed to tackle issues in communities of color.

She has a woman in mind who she wants to support for a City Council run and is eyeing other young women for judiciary roles and district leaders.

“We have a number of women who are always in the background, who are pretty much doing the work a lot,” she continued, adding that they mobilize and organize in the community.

She also said lawmakers are pushing to have more women of color and people of color in upstate roles.

Higher Heights’ Glynda Carr said black women in New York face the same challenges as black women in other states: navigating the political infrastructure and gatekeepers, being prepared to raise the necessary amount of money—particularly in a “major media outlet” like New York—to be a viable candidate and navigating where the entry points will be.

She called for engaging black women at the local level, including community boards and state committee positions.

“Similar to national numbers, New York has shown a steady increase, slow, but an increase in black women running for office, which shows there’s an opportunity to build a long-term strategy,” she continued.

Rep. Yvette Clarke said she is “really happy” about Stewart-Cousins but hopes to see more black women congressional lawmakers from New York, similar to Ohio and California.

Recently Clarke had a conversation with Jasmine Robinson, an Afro-Cubana legal secretary and community activist challenging Staten Island state Senator Diane Savino (a former breakaway Democrat) at an event.

“I followed her career,” Robinson said, referring to Clarke. “For this woman to tell me that she’s proud of me, I would have to say that that was one of the best experiences hands down… [she’s] un-bossed and un-bought, that Shirley Chisholm kind of style.”

Robinson—who says she does not have the support of a “big political machine”—said that if she wins, it will be historic because she is a woman of color and her campaign is rooted in grassroots support.

She believes Trump’s election inspired women—especially women of color—to enter the political arena. But she noted the small number of black women in the state Senate, also praising Stewart-Cousins’ leadership.

She said groups like Dare to Run, a New York-based group that trains women on how to run for public office, and Higher Heights helped her navigate the process—but the Democratic County Committee was “absolutely no help to me.”

“I had to call the New York State Board of Elections to get information that I needed, and they were very helpful,” Robinson continued. “They took the time out to explain what I needed with the paperwork and whatnot and so I find that [the] county can be a hindrance.”

She also connected with Staten Island Councilwoman Debi Rose—the first African-American from Staten Island elected to the Council—and former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

How About the Big Apple?

Over in New York City, McCray is rumored to be weighing a bid for public advocate.

“I would think that Chirlane McCray will need to behave as any other person running for elected [office]… she will have to make the case that she is qualified and that she has done enough work to earn the votes of New Yorkers,” Greer said.

Bichotte said McCray running is a “good thing” and also praised Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, the first woman of color to serve as Bronx DA, and Brooklyn Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, the Council’s first black woman Majority Leader.

“That does position others to consider being the City Council speaker,” she said.

The number of women in the City Council dropped from 13 to 11 following last year’s election. But the election of Brooklyn Councilwoman Alicka Ampry-Samuel and Queens Councilwoman Adrienne Adams in 2017 brought the number of black women Council members to six.

Carr noted that James ushered in the ban on employers asking applicants about their salary history and that Stewart-Cousins has led her conference in “politically challenging times.” And she lauded McCray’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative.

“The 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s election to Congress shows the kind of leadership that has incubated in New York,” she said.

Afua Atta-Mensah, executive director of Community Voices Heard and a Working Families Party (WFP) leader, who is the child of Ghanaian immigrants, ran for district leader in Central Harlem in 2015 due to neglect of the West African population and lack of youth engagement.

She recalled hurdles she faced because she was not part of the established Democratic clubs and parties, who questioned her intentions.

“My intention was more so about building an infrastructure that can ensure that younger folks, blacks from the Caribbean, blacks from the continent would see [that] building a black political base was important to them,” Atta-Mensah said.

She wants to build a base of women of color with permanent interests.

“I also want to see black women as campaign managers, as strategic advisers, as consultants, doing it all as opposed to some half-hearted thank you after the election,” Atta-Mensah continued.

She called for public financing of elections and noted Clarke supported Brooklyn Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, Brooklyn Assemblywoman Diana Richardson and Ampry-Samuel—younger black women with diverse staff.

Larquana Bryan, who worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio and hopes to run for some office, praised McCray and pointed to small gains. But she called for more grassroots support as well as from elected officials, referring to “behind the scenes politics.”

“When you have people of color and women in those elected positions, the trends tend to represent the distribution of what their communities look like… but what we need to do is be able to create greater influence outside of ethnic connections,” Bryan said.

What Should Be Done Next to Help Black Women Get Into Politics in New York State?

Carr said Higher Heights launched a #BlackWomenLead webinar series in which black women connect with African-American women experts. Robinson urged black women politicians to offer mentoring or workshops to young women of color.

Bryan pointed to groups such as the New Leaders Council and other groups that support black women.

“I do think that New York… is being more open to difference, and I think New York is always a great place to be transcendent,” she said. “We do try to create the stage of what our world should look like in terms of equality, in terms of being open.”

Black Women Are Rising Up in Politics Nationwide… But What About New York?