Can She Woo African Immigrants to Turn the Senate Blue?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these migrants could tip control of the Senate.
By Ray Glier
- Ethiopian native Bethlehem Fleming is identifying and trying to turn out thousands of voters from her homeland in Georgia’s pivotal Senate runoff elections.
- With some 30,000 to 40,000 African immigrant voters statewide, this constituency could be critical to close races.
Bethlehem Fleming, a native of Ethiopia, has carried around for almost three years President Donald Trump’s vulgar denouncement of African nations as “shithole countries.” It enraged her, but not as much as the president’s scornful sequel from the Oval Office on Oct. 23, when Trump said Egypt might just have to bomb Ethiopia’s $4.6 billion Blue Nile Dam to settle a water dispute.
“I think that galvanized Ethiopians in this country to vote for Joe Biden,” says Fleming, 45, a hospital administrator who lives in DeKalb County, Georgia. “Trump says these things about other countries he has no idea about and makes people mad, and they use their vote against him.”
Fleming, who has been an American citizen since 2008, settled her score with Trump on Nov. 3. Now she wants a more authoritative rebuke of his presidency. Fleming is aiming the grievance vote at his proxies, Republican candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, in the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5. Her community could be crucial to deciding which party controls the Senate, as Democrats would take control if they win both races.
Fleming will spend the next six weeks trying to make one-on-one contact with 4,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans in DeKalb County, which includes parts of Atlanta, and plead for them to vote for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in the runoff. Fleming’s work is a specialized version of former gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams’ high-profile efforts to register and turn out voters of color throughout the state in recent years. These efforts are part of the turnout game required in these pivotal runoffs, which will be decided by which side can lure a bigger proportion of its November voters back to the polls.
Ted Terry, who is on the executive committee of the Georgia Democratic Party, estimates there are 30,000 to 40,000 registered voters who emigrated from Africa, in a state Biden won by just 13,000 votes.
Fleming has a daunting task over the next six weeks because the Georgia voter registration application, which is how most voter data is generated, has a box to check that simply says “Black.”
Immigrants from Africa who are registered to vote may have black skin, but they identify as Ethiopians, Kenyans, Sudanese, Somalians and many other nationalities. That makes it hard for Fleming to connect with people from her country.
The task is finding all those Ethiopian Americans, as well as voters from neighboring Eritrea. Fleming is working with Mike Endale, a Washington-based software developer of Ethiopian descent, who has created a software program to cull the names “most likely Ethiopian” from the half-million voters on the voter rolls in DeKalb. There are efforts underway in neighboring Fulton and Gwinnett counties to do the same.
“Bethlehem is a hero in this get-out-the-vote effort because she is looking for a needle in a haystack, those few thousand Ethiopian and Eritrean voters among 500,000 or so voters,” says Jana Miles, a DeKalb County Democratic Party committee member. “She is a remarkable story.”
Once she finds Ethiopians, Fleming’s cultural cachet — she can speak in her native Amharic when she calls — can stir them to vote, not just because of Trump’s put-downs, but on policy issues as well.
“I can’t see their faces, but I can sense their faces light up by how they start talking to me,” she says. “We make a connection and they are excited, and then we start talking about issues like health care and immigration and how Senate Democrats can help them. A lot of immigrants depend on health care.”
Fleming has also created election flyers with Ethiopia’s bright colors of red, yellow and green, and native script on one side and English on the other. The flyers are handed out at GOTV events, or pasted to poles in immigrant communities. Fleming appeared regularly on the radio during the general election to encourage her fellow naturalized citizens to get out and vote, and she’s stepped up her efforts considerably for the runoff.
While a flood of national money is expected to make these among the most expensive Senate contests in history, it is a formidable task for Democrats to identify and then educate immigrant voters ahead of the runoff. A recent visit to south DeKalb shows the depth of their challenge. Elsa Food Mart, the Ethiopian market there, is a small, cramped bodega with shelves stuffed with reminders of home, like decorative plates and bags of wild rice. Interviews with several shoppers reveal they know there is another election but are unsure of the date, or why they are being asked to vote again.
Republicans have a history of winning Georgia runoffs precisely because Democrats see bigger drop-offs among their core voters. If these solidly blue parts of the state aren’t motivated, Democrats won’t have much of a chance. Plus, Republicans have made their own inroads this year with voters of color. Conservative groups like Libre, an offshoot of Americans for Prosperity, are flooding Georgia to woo Latinos to vote Republican in the runoffs.
In the effort to stitch together a winning coalition for Democrats, Fleming is leaning in with her needle. She has a full-time job and a family with two children, 12 and 15, but one Saturday, she still made 60 calls trying to touch base with Ethiopians and Eritreans.
Fleming, whose maiden name is Temesgen, came to the U.S. when she was 13 to live with an uncle. Her parents wanted her to have a better education than what she would have gotten in Ethiopia. She hasn’t left the U.S. since. Ethiopia, meanwhile, has been filled with political and civil strife in the 30 years she has been gone. There is now a civil war raging in the northeast of the country as government troops battle regional forces in Tigray, where hundreds have died and thousands have fled.
With antidemocratic power grabs — Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed the election indefinitely — and tribe pitted against tribe in her native country, Fleming knows what she doesn’t want to see in the U.S. By reaching out one by one to her fellow immigrants, she believes, she’s doing her part for a better future in her new home.