Democrats have every right to feel optimistic after a major win in Alabama, but keeping up momentum will require more than taking black voters for granted
The recent upset in the special election for US Senate in Alabama has Democrats fantasizing about a 2018 wave election, and rightfully so. When you couple the Doug Jones narrow win in Alabama with the big victories in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats have every right to feel optimistic.
There is, however, one obvious similarity in each race: strong African American turnout fueled Democratic candidates to victory.
Boosting African American turnout will continue to be the key to Democratic victories in 2018. And I encourage Democrats to use the campaigns of two, young progressive mayors in the deep south as a blueprint for effective engagement with black voters.
Chokwe Lumumba, the self-described revolutionary mayor of Mississippi’s largest city, is just as forceful in his plan to fill Jackson’s potholes as he is about Mississippi’s oppressive state flag.
Randall Woodfin became the youngest mayor in the history of Birmingham by campaigning on aggressive blight elimination and a comprehensive public safety plan that allowed him to crack the code on black infrequent voters, particularly 11,000 that had never voted in a municipal election.
The 63-year-old grew up in the working-class city of Fairfield, just west of Birmingham, an area once dominated by the steel industry. His father was a steelworker and he spent time working in a mill when not in school
Democratic roots and the KKK
Jones got his start in government as an aide to the last Democrat to serve a full term in the Senate from Alabama, the late Howell Heflin.
Years before running for the Senate himself, Jones became known for prosecuting two KKK members for the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 which killed four black girls.
After his appointment as US attorney in Birmingham in 1997, Jones led a team of federal and state attorneys during trials that resulted in the convictions of Thomas Blanton Jr in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002.
What do Lumumba and Woodfin have to do with Democrats in 2018?
Both campaigns reassembled the Obama coalition in high-population areas where Democrats must run up the score in order to win statewide races. The Obama coalition is re-emerging in places like Jackson and Birmingham. And it’s being led by young, black politicians, and maverick black political firms like Pine Street Strategies.
It is no coincidence that the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County came out for Jones at a rate that nearly matched Hillary Clinton. The value of these races extends beyond votes, as many Woodfin campaign staffers, organizers and volunteers brought invaluable experience to efforts to elect Jones.
Bold candidates like Lumumba and Woodfin enhance Democratic voter files with newly identified voters, ultimately leaving behind campaign infrastructure that can be inherited and leveraged in future statewide races.
So, what is the playbook for 2018 that gets Democrats the turnout they need to support a wave election?
It starts with having candidates like Woodfin and Lumumba. Young, progressive candidates of color like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Ian Conyers and Jermaine Reed. Each bring with them personal narratives that can establish credibility with millennials and voters of color, tapping into the excitement of the progressive base benefiting Democrats up and down the ballot.
Photograph: Marvin Gentry/Reuters
This playbook must also prioritize black engagement from start to finish of the campaign. This means engaging black voters around a real policy agenda that is responsive to their needs. For example, Woodfin promoted a comprehensive policy platform during the campaign that spoke directly to the concerns of black voters. Moreover, hiring the right campaign strategists who actually know black voters and understand how to craft and deliver a message that resonates with us is key.
Finally, Democrats have to govern in a manner that prioritizes black voters. We expect more than election-year church visits and endorsements from senior black politicians. We want to see senior African American staff – especially in the US Senate given their shameful record on diversity.
We also want to see statewide candidates and elected officials engaging trusted black media outlets and journalists the same way they do traditional outlets.
Let me be clear: the days of assuming that we will turn out and be election-day accessories only to be forgotten after the swear-in are long over. We will support your primary opponent or stay home if you continue to ignore us.
A wave election is there for the taking for Democrats in 2018, but it will require a dramatic shift from the traditional Democratic playbook of taking African American voters for granted.
Alabama is leading the way. And a new generation of young, black politicians are leading the way. It is time for the Democratic party to listen.
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