Black Gubernatorial Candidates Face An Uphill Battle

May 17, 2018
Originally published on May 17, 2018 3:31 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Not a single current governor in the U.S. is black. In fact, in the history of the United States, only two African-Americans have ever been elected governor. This year candidates in several states are trying to change that, as NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH MUSIC)

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: This is Stacey Abrams' church, just outside of Atlanta. The former minority leader in the Georgia legislature is now running for governor. The pastor reminds everyone to vote. And then they bow their heads and pray for Abrams.

UNIDENTIFIED PASTOR: Dear God, we pray that you bless her and that you bless your people because a change has got to come.

KHALID: It's not lost on anyone here the significance of what Abrams is trying to do. If elected, she would not only be one of the few black governors in American history. She would be the nation's first black female governor. Abrams steps up to the pulpit and quotes the scripture - a lesson on voting and power.

STACEY ABRAMS: I was sitting back there thinking about Esther Chapter 4 Verse 14. And it's a verse that says, you know, if you remain silent at this time, there will be salvation that comes for others. But you and your family may not see it.

KHALID: This year there are half a dozen black candidates running for governor across the country. And like Abrams, they are not trying to win over Trump voters. They're often digging deeper into minority communities.

ABRAMS: Georgia is one of the fastest-changing states in the nation in terms of diversity. We have to have leadership that actually pays attention to the broad coalition of Georgians that we have.

KHALID: Over 30 percent of Georgia's eligible voting population is black.

AIMEE ALLISON: Black people have been very loyal in the Democratic Party. They're brand loyal. And white Democrats have counted on the black vote for electoral success.

KHALID: That's Aimee Allison. She runs Democracy In Color. Allison lives in California, but she's one of many black women who've flown to Georgia to help Abrams get out the vote. Historically for black candidates, there have been two major roadblocks to the governorship.

QUENTIN JAMES: The number one challenge has obviously been fundraising.

KHALID: Quentin James runs The Collective PAC, which is focused on recruiting and funding black candidates.

JAMES: The other challenge I would say is just the challenge of race.

KHALID: James' PAC is supporting Abrams. But his point about money is not an isolated example. In Maryland, Rushern Baker is running for governor. He's one of the frontrunners. But still, he says it was hard to get people to support his campaign early on.

RUSHERN BAKER: The first issue for any person of color running statewide - the first thing they'll ask you about is money. We don't think you can raise the money. It's not even that you don't have the money. Or we're going to help you, or we're going to see how you do. It's an issue about whether in fact you have the ability to raise money.

KHALID: Then if the Democratic leadership gets over that hurdle, Baker says there will be questions about whether you can actually win. Part of the issue is that we still live in largely segregated communities. And black politicians often get their start with majority black constituencies as mayors or congressmen. It can be difficult to then translate that political reputation to a statewide office. But James, with The Collective Pac, sees something else. He says the Democratic Party will often clear the field for their favored candidate, but...

JAMES: That never happens for our candidates, right? No one, like, lines up to have our backs early on. Now, they'll get behind us if we win the primary. But it's such a cost to do so.

KHALID: But in a situation like Maryland, you've actually got three black gubernatorial candidates. And, sure, Baker says people often ask an annoying racially coded question to the African-American candidates.

BAKER: Oh, my gosh. Well, how are you going to distinguish yourself?

KHALID: But Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP who's also running for Maryland governor, says the fact that there are multiple black candidates is progress.

BEN JEALOUS: In a pluralistic diverse society, you can have a pluralistic diverse set of candidates where multiple racial groups have more than one candidate from their racial group. And the voters have a choice.

KHALID: Research has shown that when there are candidates of color on the ballot, it can motivate people of color to vote. Jealous, like Abrams in Georgia, sees untapped voter potential.

JEALOUS: What most Americans fail to realize is you also have swing voters in the black community who swing between voting typically for a Democrat and not voting at all.

KHALID: And these candidates say that's the thing about having leadership that looks like the base of the party. It's not just about representation. It's also about winning. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.