Ahead of the midterms, Capital B is talking to newsmakers from across the country who want to reshape American politics or galvanize Black voices in government. Our “Voices of Change” series will update periodically with insights from the candidates, activists, lawmakers, and political insiders who you should know.
Laphonza Butler made history in September when she became the first Black woman to helm EMILY’s List, an organization that supports the political campaigns of pro-choice, Democratic women. Founded in 1985, the political action committee focuses on raising money and strategy to get women into office.
Among the group’s featured candidates this year: U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida, who is running to unseat Republican Sen. Marco Rubio; Senate candidate Cheri Beasley of North Carolina, the former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court; and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. It also has targeted community activists to develop them for political office, announcing this week the fourth round of its Ignite Change Fellowship.
The group generally doesn’t take policy positions beyond its focus on pro-choice candidates. But last month, Butler publicly rebuked Sen. Kyrsten Sinema after the Arizona Democrat opposed the filibuster rule change needed to pass a federal voting rights bill.
“Electing Democratic pro-choice women is not possible without free and fair elections,” Butler said in a statement rescinding EMILY’s List’s endorsement of Sinema. “Protecting the right to choose is not possible without access to the ballot box.”
Capital B spoke to Butler this week about the challenges of getting more women – Black women, in particular – into office amid a threat from the political right to many of those candidates’ core issues, including the future of Roe v. Wade. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: Democrats hoped the voting rights bill would pass ahead of the midterms. That has not happened. What is needed to ensure Black voters have the turnout, the motivation to participate in the midterm elections without these hoped-for protections?
Laphonza Butler: First and foremost, organizations like EMILY’s List, candidates and campaigns have to understand that Black voters are not a monolith. There is not a single thing that is the magic bullet. From a candidate perspective, it’s being able to speak to the issues that are most important and relevant to those voters in that district.
Yes, the voting rights legislation is a setback, but in my history and experience of working in communities all across the country – where Black voters live and work every day – is that the setbacks are just that: They are setbacks and not the end of the road.
As we head into the midterm elections, we’ve got to see the Black community as committed Democratic voters who are not monolithic, who want to be spoken to authentically and met where they are on the issues that are important to them. We’ve got to talk about what we are for and not focus on the setbacks. We need to make sure we’re telling communities where our candidates are intending to take the country moving forward.
The past few years have seen a lot of success for Black political candidates, a lot of Black activists gaining political positions. What does it take for those who are used to galvanizing Black communities in the streets as activists to turn that into a more formal approach – getting into politics. How do you help newly minted Black politicians make that switch?
The magic of being a successful elected official is care and organizing and listening – and being clear about why it is that you are engaging in public service. [Activists] have already demonstrated the care: They care about their communities, they care about what needs to be changed in their communities or in their districts.
What we want to do at EMILY’s List is to make sure that we’re able to help those activists be seen as qualified candidates for public service. We work with them to make sure that they are ready to turn those activist skills to securing the trust of people to move from following them in a picket line or in a march, to following them into public office and casting their ballot for them. We help them build sophisticated campaigns to communicate effectively. They know their districts, so we’re able to talk to them about communities to target and messages to speak with those communities.
But our job as we see it is to help support the inherent skills of the activist and help her turn those activist skills into skills that will translate into votes. And to help her build those fundraising networks, those early resources, so that people in the community have confidence that she is not only an activist but capable of putting together the kind of resources to win and make a difference.
It’s clear that part of what spurred so much support for these activists-turned-politicians was the fear that came out of the Trump years. How do those efforts that you’re making change to make sure that the motivation of that period for Democrats does not die down?
What we experienced at EMILY’s List right after the 2016 elections was more than 60,000 women reached out to us from all over the country and wanted to offer themselves for public service. From a tactical point, we have created online communities for them to connect with each other, we have offered online training and made it accessible no matter what community that person is reaching out to us from, we have made sure that we are working to expand the state and local work of EMILY’s List.
In the past, our top focus has been federal races. This year, to continue the momentum of women wanting to run for office – and the diversity of women that want to run for office – we’re making sure we have the organizational infrastructure, a programmatic focus to support them in their elections on a state and local level, which we see as so important to playing defense as well as offense on a policy perspective heading into these midterms.
So the increased scale of women that we saw who wanted to run for office in 2016 has informed how we make the resource that is EMILY’s List available and accessible to women all over the country, no matter what office they are running for.
As a leader of this organization, who comes as a Black woman, what efforts are you making to increase the diversity of the candidates you are working with, and what insight do you have into the hurdles that Black women are having to overcome to gain the funding and the systems that white women have had access to historically?
I was raised in a small town in Mississippi. I went to a historically Black college. I spent the first 20 years of my professional career working for working men and women in the labor movement of all backgrounds. So I bring those kinds of real-people experiences to an organization that already has an incredibly rich 40-year history of promoting and supporting women who want to run for public office.
Traditionally, women of color have faced barriers in terms of fundraising. We have to be an organization that is dedicated not just to equality in terms of how we support our candidates, but dedicated to equity. Our candidates don’t all start from the same line or network in terms of their access to resources. So, first, making sure that our candidates from all kinds of backgrounds know that there is value in their network, and making sure that they are asking their network. And then, introducing them to broader networks that EMILY’s List has built over their 40-year history and making sure they’re able to connect with those supporters and those donors.
I hope that my presence as the leader of EMILY’s List is a source of inspiration for a candidate that is thinking to herself that maybe she doesn’t belong, that maybe her journey isn’t what it takes to be an elected official. Presence and representation matters and it doesn’t go out of style. So making sure that we are continuing to be present in demonstrating that representation is part of how we are communicating that everyone can belong at an organization like EMILY’s List.
A lot was made about the role that Black women played in terms of coming out and electing certain candidates in recent years. A lot of hoorah around how important that constituency is. What creates so much turnout among Black women and how do you think those motivators are playing this year?
When Black women show up at the ballot box, or when Black women show up at the PTA, or when Black women show up at their church meeting, it is not just for themselves. What makes our participation so powerful is that we bring along the desires of our children, we bring along the dreams of our cousins, we bring along the pain of our neighbors, and I think what keeps us showing up and what keeps us in the journey to justice is that we know that – but for our engagement – our neighbor’s pain may not have a place. But for our showing up, our children’s dreams might be deferred.
We absolutely are a demographic in this country who has experienced oppression and have been so critical in liberation, that we won’t give up. The journey to justice, the destination is where we’re really trying to get to.
Look at what happened to Black women participation in South Carolina when Joe Biden’s presidential race was indeed on the ropes. Look at what happened in the election of Sens. [Raphael] Warnock and [Jon] Ossoff in Georgia when the Democratic majority [in Congress] was indeed on the ropes. Look at what happened when George Floyd lay dying on the streets of Minnesota: Look who took the video, look who testified, look who led the marches. It is our resilience and commitment to be the voice for so many others, and the people around us. Our whole community is why we keep showing up.
As we head up to the midterms, the moment has seen quite a backlash to a lot of the progressive efforts. The things that have gotten those activist candidates elected are now experiencing a backlash: Roe v. Wade and voting rights, for example. How do your candidates address that? How do they galvanize in light of the setbacks that they are experiencing right now?
We’ve gotta roll up our sleeves and do the work. In a time when our nation and the globe is facing a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a generation – we can’t stop working to ensure an equitable recovery, getting federal dollars invested locally. These are not easy challenges to resolve.
To assume any voter can break through the challenges of finding new ways to work and working remotely, not knowing when or if your child is going to be able to go to school and stay in school, not knowing what the challenges are going to be around the corner, we can’t leave any vote or take any vote for granted. In my experience, candidates who are able to build the deepest relationship of trust are the candidates that are most likely to be successful. And we have to make sure that we communicate that we are still fighting. Despite the setbacks, we made some progress.
And frankly rejecting this language of failure. We are in some of the biggest global challenges that our generation has ever seen, and despite that, there are changes that are being made, there are laws that are being passed. Not at the pace that any of us would have wanted, but the way we actually get to that pace and the way that we actually build momentum is to continue to stay engaged, to continue to go to that ballot box, to continue to offer ourselves as candidates for public service. Be a part of the change that we want to create.