The year was 1993: Stacey Abrams was a Spelman College student who’d been invited to speak at the 30th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington. Standing before a crowd of thousands who had assembled on the National Mall that August day, she delivered a passionate speech about jobs, justice, peace, and public service.
“Today I come to you as a young person, as a young woman, as a young Black woman to ask you to use us,” Abrams said in remarks captured on C-SPAN video. “Use the young people of the United States of America to pave a road that will last forever… pave a road that will let us become the foot soldiers.”
More than two decades later, Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018, continues to offer her service. After former Vice President Joe Biden — now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — announced during a March debate that he would select a woman to be his running mate, speculation and anticipation have reached a fever pitch.
Abrams was recently quoted in Elle magazine as saying she would be “honored” to be a vice-presidential candidate. “I would be an excellent running mate,” the former Georgia Minority Leader, Yale-educated attorney, and founder of Fair Fight told the publication. “I have the capacity to attract voters by motivating typically ignored communities.”
She is far from the only one vying for the role. While there are countless qualified women from a range of backgrounds who might get the nod — among them Sens. Elizabeth Warren to Amy Klobuchar and Catherine Cortez Masto — many Black women voters are demanding respect for their votes on a much higher level.
“We don’t want just a ‘thank you,’ but want to see a Black woman chosen as the vice-presidential running mate for the ultimate Democratic nominee,” says Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “Historically Black women have stood the test of time to not only be a key voting bloc for Democrats to win the White House and Congress, but Black women’s leadership has also helped in many of those victories.”
“African American women have been the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party in the last presidential election cycles,” adds political scientist Elsie L. Scott, PhD, director, Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University. “They have turned out in large numbers, supported the Party’s nominee, and brought family and friends to the polls.”
“We are demanding a return on our voting investment. That is in the form of policies that directly impact Black women, our families, and our communities, but we also are looking to claim seats at the decision-making tables, which is why we believe now is the time for a Black woman vice president.”
There is much at stake for Black women this election cycle, says Erika West, a principal with The Raben Group in the nation’s capital.
“Black women organize informally and professionally. We’re in the labor movement, at Party committees, and inside movements fighting for a range of rights and freedoms at the local, state, and national levels,” she said. “We care about the economy, health care, environment, and the other things that rank as priority across constituencies. We also care about criminal justice and because the system is rooted in and perpetuates inequality, our strategies for fixing it will be holistic.”
That sentiment was echoed by Glynda C. Carr, president/CEO and co-founder of Higher Heights for America. The national organization is dedicated to helping elect Black women and shape policies that impact them.
“We are demanding a return on our voting investment. That is in the form of policies that directly impact Black women, our families, and our communities, but we also are looking to claim seats at the decision-making tables, which is why we believe now is the time for a Black woman vice president,” said Carr.
Higher Heights has been advancing this conversation through its “#BlackWomenLead VP For 2020” campaign — which is a short list of potential candidates for our next vice president.
The list of Black women who could strengthen the Democratic ticket is long and impressive. These women are already viewed by many as leaders in their respective roles, with the experience and qualifications that could help Democrats to victory as a vice-presidential running mate in 2020.
Besides Abrams, certain high profile women’s names have bandied about for months. Sen. Kamala Harris, California’s former attorney general, was the lone Black (her roots are Jamaican and Southeast Asian/Indian) woman in the crowded Democratic primary field until she exited, citing fundraising challenges. Only the second Black woman in history to serve in the U.S. Senate, the Judiciary Committee member has proven formidable on issues around criminal justice, immigration, and women’s and children’s rights.
A recent poll commissioned by Donors of Color Action shows that Harris and Abrams are polling high in the battleground states of Michigan and Wisconsin among both Black and White voters.
There are several congresswomen being mentioned: Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Val Demings, who helped lead the impeachment hearings of Donald Trump; and Marcia Fudge.
Fudge spoke by phone to ZORA and acknowledged she has “been approached” but could not elaborate on specifics. “It should be a Black woman, be it me or someone else,” said Fudge, who serves on the House Committee on Agriculture and other key posts. “As a public servant, you do what is necessary to make people’s lives better. It is what I do, and what I would do” as a vice president, she said.
Demings told ZORA in a statement that she’s also ready to lead on another level.
“I grew up poor, Black, and female in the South. My mother was a maid and my father a janitor. But my parents pushed me to work hard, believe in myself, and reach for the American dream. The fact that my name is being called during such a time as this confirms that the American dream is attainable, if given the opportunity. […] If chosen, I will work hard every day to provide decisive, determined, and serious leadership that provides opportunities for all people, unifies our nation, and complements and supports our new president.”
Other potential candidates who have been mentioned include Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Maxine Waters; Nina Turner, the former Ohio state lawmaker and leader on Bernie Sanders’ campaign; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; and former National Security Advisor and Ambassador Susan Rice.
In a statement via a spokesperson, Rice told ZORA: “I would be honored to be considered by VP Biden. In any event, I will do my utmost to help elect VP Biden and defeat Donald Trump in the most important election in my lifetime.”
“If Joe Biden was wise, he’d understand that having a Black woman in the role of VP should not just be an option, it’s an absolute imperative.”
“There are many deeply qualified women reportedly under consideration, all of whom would serve the country ably. I think it would be great if VP Biden were to select a highly qualified woman of color who could help energize the electorate and maximize turnout,” she added.
Indeed, several political experts asserted that Black women once again proved how much their votes matter in the 2020 presidential primaries. While Rep. Jim Clyburn is credited with a pivotal endorsement of Biden in South Carolina, it was underscored by Black women voters bolstering him to victory in key Southern and battleground states.
“If Joe Biden was wise, he’d understand that having a Black woman in the role of VP should not just be an option, it’s an absolute imperative,” says Avis Jones-DeWeever, PhD, author of How Exceptional Black Women Lead.
“We showed up and showed out again in key Super Tuesday states like Virginia, like NC, Texas, Michigan, and of course Mississippi, and more. It’s not just about what’s owed, it’s about what’s required to win in November. Black women are the key constituency that will bring the enthusiasm and the turnout that will be needed to win, especially in key states that Hillary lost last time like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. When our turnout is maximized, we can and will be the margin of victory that has the might not only to save a campaign, but literally, to carry him into the White House. Doubt it? Ask Barack…” she said.
There’s no word on when Biden will announce his pick although one Capitol Hill insider said, “They haven’t selected who is in charge of the selection process yet.”
“I think that Black women are seriously being considered and there is a slightly more than 50% chance of one being selected,” said Scott. She noted the person would need to be “considered compatible with Biden, has requisite skills to make a good VP, brings skills that will balance the ticket, will attract voters to the polls, and does not bring a lot of negatives to the table.”
Kamau M. Marshall, a Biden for President spokesman told ZORA the campaign “will run a vigorous vetting process, but no other details are available at this time.”
“Joe Biden is familiar with the process of selecting a vice-presidential candidate, having been on the opposite end of the process in 2008,” he noted.
Tonya Williams is director of strategic communications for Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice, Democratic women candidates. She said the organization is “thrilled” by Biden’s commitment to choosing a woman as his running mate.
“It’s past time to break this glass ceiling. This challenging time has made even more clear the need for smart, compassionate, and strategic leadership, and there are many women leaders in the Democratic party who would be exceptional choices for the job.”