Nearly two years into the racially charged Trump administration and widespread exposure of sexual harassment and assault of women in public life, women of color have been engaged and eager to change the face of the Democratic Party and Congress. They now find new urgency in the recently announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose swing vote seat will likely be claimed by a hard-line conservative this year.
President Donald Trump announced his list of replacements for Kennedy, many of whom are White social conservatives hostile to organized labor and young enough to steer the direction of the court for decades. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation grows more progressive and racially diverse. Many of Trump’s nominees have been vociferous about their intent to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision and roll back LGBTQ rights, including same-sex marriage.
“I think the bigger wake-up call is that the courts will not save us,” says Fayrouz Saad, who is running to replace the retiring Michigan Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Trott in the suburban 11th Congressional District. Trump carried Saad’s district in 2016, but only by single digits. If enthusiasm among Democrats extends into November, Saad could be one of the new Democrats hoping to turn the House blue.
“It’s this election. It’s truly make-or-break,” says Saad, formerly an employee of the Department of Homeland Security and director of Detroit’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. “We need to win up and down the ballot this fall, undo the abuses of the Trump administration legislatively, in the next Congress, and get him out of office.”
Saad is particularly passionate about what she considers the partisan bent of the Supreme Court, and if elected to Congress, plans to speak up to counter regressive decisions from the court with new, more progressive laws. She says she fears a court acting as the legal arm of the Republican Party, undermining Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act, and even rolling back the more popular parts of the New Deal such as Social Security.
Elliot Mincberg, senior fellow and senior counselor for judicial watchdog organization People for the American Way, echoes Saad’s concern.
“The social safety net that started with the New Deal is very much at risk,” Mincberg says. He points out that most judges on the court nominated by Republican presidents are members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that hews to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution. The group accepts contributions from organizations like Koch Industries Inc. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, both of which oppose many environmental regulations and fight for legal immunity for corporations and their shareholders.
Checking Republican control over the Supreme Court is only the most recent call to arms, however. Months before Kennedy’s announcement, a diverse group of candidates was already looking to change the argument in Washington, D.C. Georgia resident Lucy McBath is running to replace Republican incumbent Rep. Karen Handel in a conservative district that Trump narrowly carried by only 1 percentage point in 2016.
“At this point in time it’s necessary for the American people to think about what’s important to them.”
McBath became a passionate gun control advocate in 2012, after her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a Florida gas station over the volume of the music coming from his car. She entered the race as a Democrat for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. McBath is also a two-time breast cancer survivor who consequently rates health care high among her legislative priorities.
“Having access to viable health care is extremely important, and that’s the right of every individual. They should be able to thrive and live healthy lives without having to worry about whether they have access to health care,” McBath says on her website.
Like McBath, Saad plans to advocate for health care, gun control, and a host of other progressive policies for which she believes the nation is starving. Both are also passionate about immigration reform, and were alarmed by the White House’s recent policy of detaining migrant children separately from their parents and guardians. The Supreme Court’s recent upholding of Trump’s travel ban, despite the president’s blatantly anti-Muslim rhetoric in the months leading up to the court’s decision, is particularly galling to Saad.
“The GOP stole a SCOTUS seat so they could keep the mechanics of bigotry intact for a generation,” Saad says. “The Muslim ban is the most egregious example.”
Lauren Underwood is a former senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a registered nurse. She comes from a similarly progressive side of the political spectrum and is challenging a Republican incumbent in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. Underwood’s district is majority White and currently represented by Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren, but Trump only won the district by 4 percentage points in 2016.
Like Saad and many other first-time candidates, Underwood is seizing upon gun control and immigration issues, but she is equally astounded that the congressional majority continues to ignore the “existential threat to life on earth” posed by greenhouse gas buildup, despite near-unanimous warnings from climate scientists.
“These are important issues to many Americans’ day-to-day lives, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to Congress,” Underwood says.
“It’s about hearing young people out, hearing what’s going on in their lives and speaking to those issues.”
Underwood said her concerns and those of other women of color are more aligned with voter priorities, so there is good reason for candidates to flaunt their progressive ideals. While Democrats in purple or red districts have a history of toning down their liberal rhetoric, she no longer recommends playing it cool while the U.S. is on the cusp of remaking the country in a more patriarchal and nationalist mold. Progressive values, she says, are not the kinds of things to stuff in a closet right now.
“At this point in time, it’s necessary for the American people to think about what’s important to them,” Underwood says. “If they want health care, we have to fight for it. People like health care services. They want to [be able] to retire with dignity, and to have clean air and water, but popular programs and rights exist only because people fight for them.”
Mariah Parker, a newly elected city commissioner in Athens, Georgia, also demands loud-and-proud progressive advocacy, especially now. Parker is a hip-hop artist and political newcomer, and at 26 is arguably one of the youngest and most progressive politicians to win in Georgia. She advocates for affordable higher education, health care for all, fair housing, and expanded public transportation. Her fierce activism on issues regarding poverty, criminal justice reform, and education culminated last month in the inspiring photo of her taking the oath of office upon the steps of Athens City Hall, one hand resting upon The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the other curled into a raised fist.
Parker said she knew her message would resonate with new, younger voters, so she marched right out to the streets to snag them. “Habitual conversation” and “voter registration” are the lifeblood of modern campaigns, she says. Campaigns also have to actively target younger voters, Parker adds, who have a natural numerical advantage as they supplant the aging population. But they first must be convinced that they actually possess power.
“It’s about speaking with my district. It’s about hearing young people out, hearing what’s going on in their lives and speaking to those issues in terms of policy and letting people know that, yes, we actually can start working on that and, yes, things actually don’t have to be the way that they are—and the first steps toward ensuring that things change is casting that ballot,” Parker says. “But more than that, it’s about building those relationships with people, showing them that I’m here and that I care and that we can do something about it.”
Parker won her seat by 13 votes. That’s 13 votes that might not have been cast had she failed to connect with those 13 voters. The value of footwork in a woman’s campaign, she says, can’t be overstated.