This Is the Year of Color for American Politics - OZY | A Modern Media Company

This Is the Year of Color for American Politics

Photo illustration of candidates (from left) Sharice Davids, Maria Elvira Salazar, Vennia Francois, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Liliana Bakhtiari.
SourceIllustration by Eva Rodriguez/OZY

This Is the Year of Color for American Politics

By Nick Fouriezos


Candidates of color are supporting one another like never before and gaining from new fundraising options.

By Nick Fouriezos

When Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset the fourth-highest-ranking U.S. House Democrat in June in New York, the primary victory was touted as a win for progressive values. Even more striking, though, was the image of a young Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx toppling a middle-aged, White, longtime incumbent. As the until-recently waitress said in her first campaign ad: “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.”

Now, women like her are upending that old political calculus, driving elections across the nation. Men are joining too, as candidates of color rally around each other. A week after Ocasio-Cortez won, she endorsed Abdul El-Sayed, the son of Egyptian immigrants running to become the nation’s first Muslim governor, and in July stumped for him in Michigan. In turn, El-Sayed and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Mexican-born congressional candidate in Illinois, announced mutual endorsements, with El-Sayed praising Garcia as “a courageous leader” willing to “stand up to our broken system.”

To replace that “broken system,” minority candidates are building a support system that counts on mutual support but also greater access to campaign cash — made possible by a wave of groups supporting them — than was  available in the past. BlackPAC spent $1.2 million this spring supporting eventual nominee Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial Democratic primary, after previously spending $2.1 million in the Alabama Senate race and $1.1 million in Virginia helping a slate including Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax in 2017. The Collective PAC has also backed 18 African-American candidates, putting a quarter-million in campaign contributions directly in their coffers while also holding training seminars for political newcomers. The Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Victory Fund is planning support for as many as 15 candidates, recently putting six-digit figures into organizing efforts in swing states like North Carolina and Virginia.

None of these funding groups specifically backing candidates of color existed during the last election cycle.

This chain reaction isn’t restricted to Democrats. In California, Korean-American immigrant Young Kim is running to replace veteran congressional Republican Ed Royce in Orange County. In South Florida, Miami Republicans are counting on Hispanic candidates in three statehouse races and a crucial congressional race.

These shifting winds are allowing new candidates of color like Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who is now fighting for a seat in Congress from Connecticut, to boldly hope that 2018 may be heralding something truly different for American politics. Hayes launched her campaign in May saying the wave of new candidates “gave me the courage to say, ‘You know what, maybe I will say yes this time.’” Seeing others run encouraged her “subconsciously,” says Sharice Davids, a Native American woman running for Congress in Kansas: “Three years ago, I don’t think the recognition of the need for [diversity] existed as much.” 


Demographics are part of the reason why parties are betting on candidates of color. Miami Republicans, for instance, are battling against the odds. Donald Trump’s record-low 2016 results (he performed worse than any GOP presidential nominee since 1944) in the region are a millstone on down-ballot Republicans, says Rey Anthony Lastre, a conservative-leaning political scientist who studies the Latino vote in South Florida.

Republicans must recruit candidates who “fit the profile of the districts they’re representing,” Lastre says, if they want to protect their House majority. He points to Maria Elvira Salazar, a pro-LGBT, pro–equal pay Latina woman with conservative economic and foreign policy views, drafted by the national party to run in Florida’s 27th Congressional District. The average voter in Miami is “a Hispanic woman around 55 years old,” Lastre adds.

Previously, such candidates of color weren’t seen as winning horses, suggests Quentin James, who founded the Collective with his partner, Stefanie Brown James. “People say they value diversity, they value gender equality, but faced with it, [they bring up] all these problems and questions,” says James. “A year ago, I don’t think the political apparatus was as such where they could break through like they can now.”

Indeed, none of these funding groups specifically backing candidates of color existed during or after the last election cycle. They all came up after the 2016 presidential elections. Reflecting on the rush of candidates, James notices a major driving force: the same cohort that played a central role in defeating controversial Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama last December.

“It’s driven by Black women not just seeing themselves as voters but as having a seat at the table,” James says. They’re creating what is quickly becoming the Year of Color.


In late July, 100 Black candidates gathered in Atlanta for a campaign school organized by the Collective: fresh-faced 20-somethings and wizened septuagenarians, university professors, activist organizers, college interns and airline employees. The sessions were focused on addressing “cultural barriers people of color face,” James says, that other candidates don’t.

Even longstanding liberal-bankrolling organizations have adjusted to the moment. After 2016, Emily’s List created a four-person team with a focus on local state campaigns. That team organized 24 training sessions in 24 cities last year. The rooms are “much more diverse” than years past, says Vanessa Cardenas, its director of national outreach: A third of the women in a Los Angeles event were Hispanic; in Atlanta, the attendance was four-fifths African-American; in Minneapolis, a large Indian contingent showed. They have borne fruit, from Gina Ortiz Jones, a Filipina Texan, to Lauren Underwood, a Black woman in Illinois, who both won their March congressional primaries and got their start at Emily’s List training seminars.

In the past, Democrat groups like Emily’s List would wait until the primary was over before endorsing — but by then, many minority candidates were phased out by their structural disadvantages. Candidates get deemed viable by how much money they raise, says Adrianne Shropshire, founder of BlackPAC: “That is a real challenge, particularly for folks who come from modest means.” This year, Emily’s List has more willingly jumped into the early fray, with some success — for instance, backing Deidre DeJear, now the Democratic Party nominee for secretary of state in Iowa, and Lucy McBath, a Black woman who won Georgia’s 6th Congressional District primary after joining the race motivated by her son’s shooting death.

“People didn’t have the networks to go deeper into communities to recruit a diverse set of candidates,” admits Cardenas, but says Emily’s List has “really progressed.” For Davids in Kansas, an Emily’s List–backed candidate, the support came in “the pieces that people don’t see,” Davids says, such as technical assistance and fundraising capacity building. “Them having people come here to Kansas and be on the ground has really been phenomenal.” 

Another challenge for minority-focused PACs: Does it matter if their funding comes mostly from wealthy White donors, rather than small-donor communities of color? That question faces BlackPAC, whose known contributions come mostly from mega-donors such as George Soros and the Hillary Clinton–affiliated Priorities USA Action. Only one African-American and two Latinos made the list of the top 100 U.S. political donors overall since 2009, according to a recent study by the Center for Responsive Politics, while Black billionaires such as Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey largely stay on the sidelines.

Asian-American voters and candidates are also throwing up questions for bankrollers. Nationwide, the Indian-American community has more than 100 candidates vying for office in 2018, says AAPI Victory Fund president Varun Nikore. What’s more, in the Virginia and New Jersey statewide elections, plus special elections across the country, Asian-Americans are turning out close to presidential levels, according to an AFL-CIO study. “This is completely unheard of,” Nikore says. (In comparison, that same report said African-American turnout was midway between presidential and midterm levels, while Hispanic voters were polling at ordinary midterm levels.) “No money is really being spent on Asian turnout, and yet they are turning out,” Nikore says. “It begs the question: What would happen if we invested a little bit of money?”


Liliana Bakhtiari knew what a Trump-idolizing state senator was after this spring, when he hitched his Georgia gubernatorial hopes to a “Deportation Bus,” traveling across the state in a retrofitted school bus with slogans like “Follow Me to Mexico” and “Fill This Bus With Illegals.”

She had seen similar candidates stir up racial resentment, but in the past nobody gave them the attention they craved. This time? Her social media pages were filled with outrage hate-sharing from her progressive peers who, in her view, were unwittingly spreading his message. “Republicans didn’t even give him the microphone. Democrats gave him thousands of dollars of free advertising,” she says.

Still, Bakhtiari knew some response was needed. She knew exactly how hard it was for candidates of color to enter such a heated political moment, having run for Atlanta City Council as the Muslim daughter of Iranian immigrants in 2017. So, the 30-year-old decided to recruit four other minority women, all artists, to buy their own bus at a public auction, which they are now painting with their own pro-immigrant messaging. As the pivotal November election approaches, Bakhtiari and her crew plan to barnstorm the state while drumming up the vote for Abrams, who’s vying to become the first female African-American governor in the nation.

Stirring up racial animosity has been a winning tactic for unscrupulous politicians throughout American history, most famously with Richard Nixon and the so-called “Southern strategy.” But as Trump — who has called African nations ”shithole countries” and defended White nationalists before disavowing them — implements strict anti-immigrant policies and rolls back civil rights protections, a curious reaction is emerging.

Rather than weakened, minority candidates have grown in strength. Both in numbers and in fundraising, they are producing a groundswell against the crucible of the president’s rhetoric and policies. Come November, it might not simply be a blue or red battle for statehouses and Congress, but a tidal wave of color.

Five Candidates of Color to Know

  • Ben Jealous: Formerly the NAACP’s youngest president ever, the civil rights activist served as a key African-American outreach surrogate for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and is now running for Maryland governor. Key quote: “Jobs stop bullets.”
  • Maria Elvira Salazar: A former Telemundo and CNN newscaster and one of the most trusted voices in U.S. Hispanic television, the Miami daughter of Cuban parents was drafted by Republicans in the competitive Florida 27th Congressional District.
  • Abdul El-Sayed: The 33-year-old son of Egyptian immigrants and former Detroit health commissioner is running on a progressive platform in Michigan to become the first Muslim governor in American history.
  • Sharice Davids: “Raised by a single mom, from community college to the Ivy League, from a waitress to the White House” begins the campaign ad for the lawyer running in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District to be the first indigenous congresswoman.
  • Vennia Francois: An Afro-Bahamian conservative and former gospel-singing star, the Orlando native worked as a policy analyst for two Florida senators and is now running to become the Republican nominee in Florida’s 7th Congressional District.

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