Over 30 years after Virginia’s (and the nation’s) first Black governor, L. Douglas Wilder, was elected, a Black woman has still not been elected governor anywhere in the nation. Four candidates currently campaigning for governor of Virginia are attempting to change that.
Four Black women have entered the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race. If any of them are elected, the commonwealth would become the first state with a Black female governor.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, are competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Former Roanoke City Sheriff Octavia Johnson is seeking the Republican nomination. Independent activist and educator Princess Blanding is running for the new Liberation Party, which she helped establish last year.
Former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-New York, made history in 1972 when she became the first Black woman to seek a U.S. presidential nomination for a major political party. Almost 50 years later, the road to electing a Black woman to a governorship or the presidency has yet to be traveled.
“The next time a woman of whatever color, or a dark-skinned person of whatever sex aspires to be president, the way should be a little smoother because I helped pave it,” Chisholm said in 1973 regarding her unsuccessful presidential bid.
Dearth of representation
Since Chisholm was elected, 50 Black women have served in Congress or federal office, according to the Center for American Women and Politics database. Ten Black women have held statewide executive offices such as lieutenant governor or attorney general, according to the same database. No Black woman has ever been elected governor, although former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, came close in a 2018 hotly contested election.
Carroll Foy said the nation’s history limits what some citizens view as a capable candidate.
“Unfortunately, people look to the past to try to dictate what can happen in the future,” she said. “When people see women of color running for higher office, we are seen as the exception and not the rule.”
Organizations dedicated to electing women to office, such as EMILY’S List, Higher Heights, and EMERGE, aim to make the paths to office more accessible in recent years, providing advice, contributions and peer support to women candidates.
McClellan said when she first ran for a House seat in 2005, she had very little guidance and few mentors.
“There was no collective PAC, there was no EMERGE, you know, groups that have since formed to help Black candidates and women candidates and Black women candidates. They weren’t there,” McClellan said. “I had to really do it on my own, with help from the handful of people who had done it before me.”
The media often poorly represents women in politics, according to Political Parity, a research group that recruits and supports women candidates. Often, media coverage surrounding women running for office adds unnecessary details about a woman candidate’s clothing, weight, qualifications, motherhood situation and emotional maturity, according to the same report.
“Whether it’s questions about their parenting or their husbands, it’s just questions that we don’t see male candidates get,” said Kristen Hernandez, deputy director of campaign communications for EMILY’S List, an organization devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office. “We’ve seen sexist rhetoric, misogynistic comments and racist tropes as well.”
McClellan said perhaps the most consistent troubling narrative she sees in the media surrounding her campaign are questions about her qualifications. McClellan said she has more experience than all her Democratic opponents combined.
“There never seems to be a question, when a white man runs for governor, but yet for us it’s, ‘Are you ready?’” McClellan said. “If I’m not ready after 16 years in state government, when would I ever be ready?”
McClellan said she also frequently sees herself and Carroll Foy lumped together in news articles, as they are both Black women who have served in the state legislature. A New York Times analyst hypothesized last month that McAuliffe might win the Democratic primary race because three of his competitors — McClellan, Carroll Foy and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — are Black, younger and generally more left-wing than McAuliffe.
Voters typically prefer candidates that most resemble themselves, according to a study published in an Oxford Academic Journal. This tendency suggests that Black women must also convince all constituents that despite being Black, they do not solely represent Black Virginians. Instead, most see themselves as the most qualified person for the job who just so happens to be a Black woman.
“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud,” Chisholm said during a campaign event in ’72. “I am not the candidate of the woman’s [sic] movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.”
Even now the persistent myth that Black candidates can only win in majority-minority districts continues to plague America’s political scene, according to the Brookings Institute, a public policy organization headquartered in the District of Columbia. But of the five non-incumbent Black women elected to Congress in 2018, all were Democrats and four won in majority-white districts, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
One of the biggest barriers to elected office is the ability to raise campaign funds. The ability to fund a campaign continues to be a major obstacle to success for many women, not just women of color, according to the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. The Center also found that candidates often receive party support based on their fundraising potential, which disadvantages candidates without notoriety, wealthy support networks or self-funding abilities. Donors who fund political campaigns are often wealthy, white and typically male, according to Demos, a Liberal think tank. These donors, according to the same report, also have different views and priorities, especially on the issues that matter most to Black women.
Blanding is the sister of the late Marcus-David Peters, a Black man shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer while he experienced what his family said was a mental health crisis. Blanding said fundraising is an ongoing struggle. She recalled looking at the first financial records report from the Board of Elections and said she could not help but “crack up laughing” at the amount she raised compared to other candidates.
“But guess what? I have volunteers who are working around the clock to get the same results that they are paying for,” Blanding said. “That means a whole lot more to me.”
Carroll Foy raised just over $1.8 million in the first quarter, while McClellan raised roughly half a million dollars, according to a Capital News Service analysis of fundraising reports. Carroll Foy resigned from her seat to fundraise. General Assembly members cannot fundraise until the session adjourns. Blanding raised almost $12,000 in the first quarter and Johnson raised $800. Altogether, all four women have raised just over half of what Democratic frontrunner and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe raised.
Aprill Turner, vice president of communications and external affairs for Higher Heights for America, said all women must run against a “boys’ club.” Higher Heights for America is a political action committee that seeks to mobilize and elevate the voices of Black women across the country. Turner said the path to elected offices has typically been paved by white men, and usually involves network connections and exclusive organizations that people of color and women have historically been unable to access.
“You’ll see men groomed in a different way, or almost appointed,” Turner said. “Like, ‘You’ve got next,’ and kind of that little boys’ network.”
Will the statewide glass ceiling remain intact?
Former Del. Winsome Sears, R-Winchester, is running for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Sears was elected to a majority-Black district in 2002, becoming the first Republican to do so in Virginia since 1865. If she won the seat she would be the first Black woman to ever serve as Virginia’s lieutenant governor. L. Douglas Wilder was the state’s first Black lieutenant governor. He then became the commonwealth’s governor and the first Black man in the nation to hold the title.
Carroll Foy and McClellan will both compete for the Democratic party’s nomination on June 8. Johnson competes in the Republican party’s unassembled convention taking place statewide on May 8. Blanding will make it to the November ballot if she collects 2,000 signatures by June 8, which she is confident she will achieve.
Carroll Foy feels confident she will win the election.
“We’re mobilizing and organizing more people of color, more people from the AAPI community, from the Latinx community, the Indigenous community, the millennials, more women than ever before,” Carroll Foy said, regarding her campaign. “We’re building the most diverse coalition of voters and supporters that Virginia has ever seen.”
Early voting is underway for the Democratic primary on June 8.
Written by Josephine Walker, Capital News Service. Top Photo: Four Black women are seeking a gubernatorial victory. If any one of them wins, they would make history as the first Black female in the U.S. to hold the governor’s seat. From left to right: independent Princess Blanding, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and former Roanoke City Sheriff Octavia Johnson.