Women of color eye historic firsts nationwide in races for mayor, governor, US Senate

For the first time in 199 years, a Black woman is leading Boston.

June 7, 2021, 5:03 AM

BOSTON -- In the birthplace of the American Revolution, women of color are making new history.

For the first time in 199 years, a Black woman is leading Boston, and all the candidates in this summer's campaign for mayor are people of color, including four women.

"It's an incredible, incredible time in our city's history, in our country's history," said acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey in an interview with GMA3.

"What I think is unique about our leadership is that Black women have always had to make a way out of no way. That is just what we do. It is what is in our DNA," said Janey, who in March broke Boston's long succession of white Irish American or Italian American men leading City Hall after former Mayor Marty Walsh joined Joe Biden's Cabinet as labor secretary.

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey speaks with ABC News inside City Hall about her first months on the job after breaking a 199-year legacy of only white, male mayors.
ABC News

The nationwide movement for racial justice that erupted after the murder of George Floyd last year has galvanized women of color chasing political power in state and local races from Seattle to Richmond, Virginia, to Boston.

So far this year they have broken barriers to the vice presidency and the halls of Congress, where a record 49 women of color are lawmakers. Sights are now set on big city mayorships, governorships and U.S. Senate seats where no woman of color has served before.

"In both 2018 and 2020 we saw barrier-breaking races where women, and more specifically women of color, were achieving notable firsts. That seems to be continuing in these off-cycle elections in 2021," said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

"We've had to make the case to women of color who have been at the front lines of all sorts of activism and political activity outside of formal structures that they should throw their hats in the ring and that they will be supported," Dittmar said of the stubborn legacy of exclusion dating back more than a century.

Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as her husband Doug Emhoff holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/AP

In New York City, civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley is on the hunt to succeed outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, while in Seattle, two women of color -- Colleen Echohawk and Lorena Gonzalez -- are top contenders for mayor.

Florida Congresswoman Val Demmings said last month that she will challenge incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio next year -- a bid to become the state's first Black U.S. senator and only the second woman to represent Florida in the Senate.

In North Carolina, the state's first Black woman Supreme Court chief justice, Cheri Beasley, has joined the race to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr this fall.

"I'm very much aware that there are only 24 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate. There are zero African American women," Beasley told ABC News. "North Carolina is a diverse state and we want to see the same reflected in the leadership."

PHOTO: In this Dec. 14, 2020 file photo Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court Cheri Beasley, center, swears in Presidential electors of North Carolina's Electoral College as they gather to cast their votes at the State Capitol Building in Raleigh, N.C.
In this Dec. 14, 2020, file photo Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court Cheri Beasley, center, swears in Presidential electors of North Carolina's Electoral College as they gather to cast their votes at the State Capitol Building in Raleigh, N.C.
Gerry Broome/AP, FILE

South Carolina state Sen. Mia McLeod said last week she's mounting a historic bid for governor, joining two Black female candidates in Virginia seeking to become the first in the nation to lead a state.

"We have never had a Black woman lead this nation or any state in this country in 2021, but we're going to change that," said Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former Virginia state lawmaker and public defender, foster mom and one of the first women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute. "It's not enough to have bills and budgets written for Black women. We need them written by Black women, and that's what you're seeing -- the groundswell."

Jennifer Carroll Foy prepares for a debate at Virginia Sate University in Petersburg, Va., April 6, 2021.
Steve Helber/AP, FILE

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan said the symbolism of her bid for governor is not lost on her, even though her and Foy's campaigns are considered long shots.

"That I could break this glass ceiling in the former capital of the Confederacy is extraordinary," she told ABC News ahead of Tuesday's Democratic primary vote. "The arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice, but it needs help from people and from us. And this is one more step in bending that arc."

Sen. Jennifer McClellan speaks during a press conference in Richmond, Va., April 8, 2021.
Bob Brown/AP

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who grew up in the city's public housing projects and went on to Princeton and University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, said the death of George Floyd in 2020 was a jolt to legions of women of color in political power nationwide.

"The painful murder we all witnessed of George Floyd, I often say -- I didn't need to witness that as a Black woman, as a mother of two Black boys, to know that we had work to do here in the city of Boston with respect to policing reform and health disparities. And so I say if not now, then when," Campbell said.

"The beautiful thing," Campbell added, "is that there are folks who are becoming more conscious that racism is real, that discrimination is real, that these inequities exist and they want to do something about it, regardless of their demographic."

Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell says the racial justice movement triggered by the murder of George Floyd has galvanized local women of color to seek greater political influence.
ABC News

Many women of color candidates say they hope a sea change in public consciousness on race will erase persistent doubts about electability that they've faced throughout careers in public service.

"When I ran, people said there's no way -- Boston doesn't elect women, Boston doesn't elect young people, Asian Americans," said Michelle Wu, the first Asian American elected to Boston's city council and now a candidate for mayor. "In some ways I've had to learn from scratch just how much government matters in the daily barriers that my family was facing and how much politics shapes every bit of the systems that we are all struggling with."

Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, a small business owner, former teacher and the nation's only Tunisian American in elected office, called the competitive mayoral race a "sisterhood" of change-makers.

Boston mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George speaks with ABC News inside her Dorchester, Mass., small business. She is the nation's only Tunisian American elected official.
ABC News

"There is, as you know, a debate about whether or not I count as a woman of color, whether or not Arabs qualify for this distinction, and it is certainly the struggle my dad had here," George said in an interview inside Stitch House, a yarn shop in Dorchester she's owned since 2007. "So I feel like this moment for me personally has been in the making for many, many years."

Many of the political trailblazers told ABC News that they find inspiration in the women who have gone before them -- Shirley Chisholm, Michelle Obama, Stacey Abrams -- and in their own strong mothers and grandmothers.

"I take inspiration every day from my mom, a woman who is still -- although she struggles in, lives with mental illness, the strongest person I know," said Wu.

Michelle Wu is the first Asian American woman elected to Boston's city council. The mother of two and daughter of immigrants is running for mayor in 2021.
ABC News

All said they now feel a special responsibility to deliver.

"Many people always ask, is this something you always wanted to attempt doing, did you always want to be mayor? And, you know, I didn't see that for myself because I didn't see it in anyone else," said Janey. "There's always that pressure and that burden of being the first, and certainly being the first, you want to create more opportunity for others."

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