Women of color winning elections: Changing the system and challenging Democrats
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., top center, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., bottom center, pose for a group photo of House Democrats dressed in "suffragette white" for the State of the Union address, February 5. | Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP Images

PHILADELPHIA—The public dispute between Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is being portrayed by the mainstream media as a challenge to unity in the Democratic Party. Yet, as history continues to be made with an unprecedented number of women of color running for and winning public office, it may represent a surging social democratic grassroots trend that is increasingly challenging the party’s mainstream liberal faction for leadership. It’s seeking unity, but under a new direction, one not beholden to the status quo. And it’s a challenge being led by women of color.

In Philadelphia this week, at the largest Netroots Nation conference to date, with 3,700 participants, the first day featured a panel discussing this very shift in dynamics. A session titled “Young Women of Color Winning Elections” highlighted four elected officials, all young women of color, who spoke to the role that racism and sexism played in their campaigns and the personal and systemic challenges they continue to face now that they hold public office.

Moderated by the political director of People for the American Way, Lizet Ocampo, the group of speakers featured: West Virginia House of Delegates member Sammi Brown of District 65, Phoenix Elementary School Board member Elora Diaz, Democratic State Rep. Summer Lee of Pennsylvania’s 34th District, and State Rep. Anna Eskamani of District 47 in Florida’s Orange County.

The image of a leader

Each of the women addressed the need to challenge prevailing ideas about what a “politician” or a “winner” supposedly looks like. Eskamani, the first Iranian-American elected to the Florida legislature, asserted that there is a double standard women of color face when running for office. “[We are] often accused of identity politics,” she said, noting that there is power in being your authentic self. Eskamani advised activists and candidates to “never want to fit into a box,” especially when opponents are attempting to classify you as the “other.”

“I was told I couldn’t use the [so-called] ‘race card,’” Diaz stated. Detailing how comments on her youth and race began bordering on outright harassment, she proclaimed, “No matter what, you don’t quit, especially when you’re scared. I owned my age and identity. I was young, pregnant [at the time], and unwed.” Diaz explained that she found when she didn’t shy away from those parts of herself, voters identified and related to her better.

Brown, who is the youngest person in her state’s legislature, explained the uphill battle she confronted when she chose to run. “The Democratic Party in West Virginia doesn’t sound or look like me,” she noted. “There was support but I wasn’t looked at as a leader. I was told to wait my turn. I had to step up and say, ‘I am formidable.’” Lee, who became the first Black woman to represent southwestern Pennsylvania in the state legislature, asserted, “We don’t have to just settle for the suit or the image of who we think a politician is supposed to be.”

Challenging the status quo

Racial justice, and other issues directly affecting women of color, have often been seen as auxiliary issues—somehow secondary to whatever else might be seen as the primary struggles. Yet, as more women of color leaders continue to move center stage, calls are growing to focus on the systemic issues that plague the communities they belong to.

Brown explained, “If we’re going to break norms, then we have to do it systematically. [We have to] change the way we talk about politics.” When asked if that then makes her a “troublemaker,” Brown countered, “Damn right! I’m not here to be moderate. I’m here to burn it down.”

Lee spoke to the sense of powerlessness her constituents have felt for some time. “People have seen their communities the same—whether it be Trump, Clinton, Reagan, or whoever,” she said. “[We have to] make a home for people who felt that in traditional campaigns there was no space for them.”

“I’m poor, I’m Black, and I’m a socialist,” she proclaimed. “I weaponized my race, my gender, my identity. Those are the things that make me who I am. This is what makes me the candidate for the people,” she continued.

When I talk about socialism, and people say, “What about Venezuela? What about Russia?”, I counter with “What about Flint? What about Pittsburg?” We have the highest rates of income inequality. If that’s what capitalism is, I’m just not here for it.”

Speaking directly to People’s World on the need for systemic change and the ills of capitalism after the panel, Lee explained, “Our generation [millennials] has lived through the Great Recession. When we talk about socialism, we’re not asking for anything that is not a basic necessity. When I talk about socialism, and people say, ‘What about Venezuela? What about Russia?,’ I counter with ‘What about Flint? What about Pittsburg?’ We have the highest rates of income inequality. If that’s what capitalism is, I’m just not here for it.”

Challenging power within the party

All three women echoed sentiments heard recently by Ocasio-Cortez of feeling sidelined at times within the Democratic Party.

“Young Women of Color” panel at Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia, July 11. From left Lizet Ocampo, Summer Lee, Elora Diaz, Sammi Brown, and Anna Eskamani. | Chauncey K. Robinson / PW

Lee asserted that calling the Democratic Party a “party for all of us” is a fallacy. “We know how to tackle [overt] GOP racism. How do we tackle implicit bias in our own movement? The [bias] that coddles and hugs us but then doesn’t want us [women of color] to be leaders,” she questioned.

The other panelists chimed in, noting that at times they, too, have been told to be silent on issues for the sake of unity.

Lee noted that she believes there are two ways of running a campaign and being in office: Establishment or anti-establishment. She argued that the establishment was about protecting the self, while anti-establishment was about “bringing up our people.” Among attendees of the Netroots conference, it’s a common way of understanding the factional divide within the Democratic Party.

“[We have our own] political machine driven by the grassroots,” Eskamani added. The Florida legislator noted that the party in her state operates top down and said the first seat she was given in the House chamber was in a location that made it so most people couldn’t even see her. “We can’t be afraid to take up space,” she advised.

Recognizing power

As the number of women of color leaders continues rising, the question remains: Will other progressive leaders embrace these candidates as part of the fight against the right-wing tide in this country? Or will there be continued resistance to them by those more interested in maintaining the current ways that politics operates?

National women of color leaders such as Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez continue to face online harassment as well as not-so-secret reprimands from higher figures within their own party who dismiss their growing grassroots power as insignificant and solely based in the “Twitter world.”

Recent studies have concluded that people of color are set to be the majority of the United States’ population by 2045, with women of color poised to be the majority of women by 2060. Women are already the country’s largest voting bloc, and women of color are the fastest-growing segment of that group. This points to a new reality—a vastly altered political landscape in which women of color are set to be the most influential group of voters (and leaders).

Those are all trends that go far beyond the world of Twitter and social media; it’s real-world influence that will be felt not just at the polls but in the halls of Congress and other legislatures across the country. “If someone doesn’t respect your power, you don’t have to pander to them,” Lee noted at the panel.

As the session concluded, Ocampo gestured to the elected officials sitting on stage and reminded the audience, “These are what winners look like.”


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.