Democrats Must Heed Voices of Color

Democrats Must Heed Voices of Color
AP Photo/Cliff Owen

After the recent election, millions of Americans were breathing a little bit lighter. Progressives scored victories all across the country, especially in Virginia and New Jersey — two states we care deeply about. After a year of countless attacks by this administration on progressive issues, the election was like a breath of fresh, EPA-checked air. 

While there have already been many postmortems written about the campaigns — what worked, what didn’t, etc. — one important fact has already been lost in all the back and forth. Communities of color, and especially women of color, once again helped Democrats secure victory. There are surely other lessons to be learned, but we hope that everyone has heard loud and clear that when you engage communities of color — by running candidates that speak to their issues and by running candidates of color — they will turn out. 

In New Jersey, Phil Murphy ran an aggressively progressive campaign, linking arms with his African American Lt. Governor and running mate Sheila Oliver, and never really looked back. He held a steady and commanding lead, and not just because he was running against Chris Christie’s Lt. Governor. Murphy consistently and continually did outreach to communities of color, not only campaigning but also listening and responding to their concerns.

The campaign in Virginia certainly had its ups and downs. Ed Gillespie ran a hate-filled fear-mongering campaign that damaged the top of the ticket. Meanwhile, from a progressive standpoint, Ralph Northam’s handling of the sanctuary cities and confederate statues issues was less than ideal. As we now know, the polls were wrong, and Virginians roundly rejected Gillespie’s attempt to run on Trumpism. But it’s the down ballot races that tell the important story. 

More than any year in recent memory, Democrats in Virginia contested and won many seats that previously seemed unwinnable. Turnout was up in all areas with contested seats, particularly where the candidate was a person of color. This is not the work of the top of the ticket, but the bottom. These delegate candidates knew that engaging with their entire base was the only way to win. They took the time to engage with their constituents earnestly, especially women of color, on all the issues. 

What did they learn? What issues were among the top for black, Hispanic and Latinx, and the AAPI community in this election? The economy and health care — not racism. 

People of color are certainly aware of President Trump’s race baiting. But, then again, we’ve been hearing that from politicians on both sides for a long time. Advertising the fact that Trump and candidates like Gillespie are flirting with white supremacy or embracing racist ideas isn’t enough to engage voters of color. For Democrats to adopt that strategy is disingenuous and, quite frankly, amounts to pandering to white liberal guilt.

Democrats do themselves a disservice when they claim that a white man at the top of the ticket is the only thing that caused a wave of voters this diverse. That demonstrates a continued lack of understanding of the Democratic base. Sure, there is an extreme abhorrence to Trump in communities of color. But that did not help push to turnout in 2016. What made the difference this time around was that down-ballot candidates connected with people of color and helped motivate others in these communities to turn out. Democrats must embrace this approach at the national level if they want this grassroots wave to continue in upcoming cycles.

Some final guidance. We’ve been pretty disheartened by some of the responses to fair critiques of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign. If listening to the critical voices of people of color within your party makes you annoyed or angry, perhaps you should ask yourself why. This is the base that pushed us to a massive victory statewide. Maybe it’s time to stop talking and start listening. After all, look at all the good that can happen when you do.

Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former Special Assistant to President Obama and proud New Jersey native, is Senior Vice President for Communications and Strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Constance Torian is a proud Virginia native and Events Manager at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The views expressed here are their own – get more on Twitter @dgibber123, @Ceee_Teee.

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