The Collective PAC is the nation’s largest organization focused on increasing Black political power and engagement. The first candidate the PAC endorsed was Vice President Kamala Harris back in 2016 when she was running for the U.S. Senate. Since then, the PAC has helped more than 120 Black candidates win general elections at the local, state and federal level.
Ms. reporter Lisa Rabasca Roepe spoke with Stefanie Brown James, founder of the Collective PAC, about why 2018 was a turning point for Black women running for office, how teaching civics in school would help bolster voter turnout, and what the PAC is doing to help get the third Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate and the first elected as a governor.
Lisa Rabasca Roepe: For those who aren’t familiar with Collective PAC, can you tell me a little bit about it? When it was created and why it was created?
Stefanie Brown James: The Collective PAC was started in August 2016. My husband Quentin and I founded it as a direct response to both the injustices, and the outrage and activism we were seeing across the country following Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson [Missouri] at the hands of the police, and the uprising we saw with Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore. These cities, many of which were majority Black cities, did not reflect their communities in terms of who was holding seats of power.
We did our first round of endorsements in 2016 and we are happy to say that Kamala Harris, who at that point was just running for the Senate, was one of the first candidates we endorsed as well as Val Demings, who now is eyeing a run for Senate in Florida. We started very small with just five candidates.
Roepe: I understand Black women in particular are reaching historic highs as mayors in the United States. Can you tell me more about that and also why is that so important?
James: There weren’t many Black women mayoral candidates on the radar until about 2018. 2018 is really a defining moment in Black politics because you had so many Black candidates running for both Congress and for mayoral positions, many of whom were Black women. We have seen an uptick ever since 2018.
Tishaura Jones is now the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis, Missouri. In Lima, Ohio, Sharetta Smith is positioned to become the first Black woman mayor of that city. It also shows you that geographically across the Midwest and across the South, especially, you’re seeing these Black women mayoral candidates emerge. But I think it really signifies that Black women are able to be relatable and forward-thinking in ways that speak to all the residents in their cities.
Roepe: What was it about 2018? Is it the Trump effect?
James: I think some of it is the Trump effect. But a Trump effect in the sense of, “If that dude is the president, what in the world am I doing not running with all of my qualifications and commitments to the community?”
I think in 2018 we saw more people wanting to be of service to their community and understanding that doing that through an electoral lens was one that could really push the needle on addressing how our cities are governed and how resources are spent. 2018 felt like a launching pad for people to embrace their experiences and power, and to say, “I want to use that to be of service to my community.”
“Some of it is the Trump effect. But a Trump effect in the sense of, ‘If that dude is the president, what in the world am I doing not running with all of my qualifications and commitments to the community?'”
Roepe: Can you talk a little bit about why local elections are so important?
James: If we, as a country, showcased and stressed the importance of local and state government more than what we do, we would be able to bolster voter turnout. Because there is such a lack of civics education in our country—it is not quite known amongst the community, the importance of mayors and city council members.
You know, with all the protests that have been happening around the country around police misconduct and violence, a lot of people don’t know that in many cities the mayor is the one who puts in place the police chief. The police chief is the one who oversees how that police department operates. The voters decide on who the mayor is. And so, at the heart of the decision-making process, there are the voters. Someone who was elected locally is actually deciding what the school curriculum is going to be, what kind of treatment process your water goes through and when your trash is picked up. I think once we’re able to make that connection more clearly, we’ll see a lot more people involved and engaged in voting and civic engagement.
“With all the protests that have been happening … around police misconduct and violence, a lot of people don’t know that in many cities the mayor is the one who puts in place the police chief.”
Roepe: Tell us about the PAC’s plans to help get a Black women elected to the U.S. senator or as a governor.
James: At The Collective PAC, we really work to be supportive of Black candidates early in their races. Our goal is to raise money so we can write checks to help your campaign do what it needs to do to reach voters. We were one of the first organizations to support Stacey Abrams when she ran for governor. We also want to serve as a signal that other progressive organizations need to come out early and often to support Black candidates as well.
For Black women candidates that are running on a statewide level, there are few hurdles to overcome. One is fundraising. To run for U.S. Senate you’re talking about raising upwards of $10 million. You need both a network and a rolodex of people you can go to and say, “Hey, can you max out and give me $5,000; $13,000; $20,000?” Oftentimes, there are not folks in our community who are able to do that and so it takes a little bit more for them to fundraise.
There also are disparities in fundraising. You can have a Black woman candidate and a white woman candidate with the same background and experiences, and that Black woman candidate statistically will receive less money than her white counterpart. There’s a lot that Black women have to overcome to run for statewide positions, including being able to sell themselves as a person who can represent an entire state, not overlooking the fact that the majority of our states are white. For instance, Florida, where Val Demmings is running for a Senate seat, is over 70 percent white. These women have to go out with their very Black selves and show why they’re the best person to represent that voter, who maybe has never had a conversation with a Black person before.
“You can have a Black woman candidate and a white woman candidate with the same background and experiences, and that Black woman candidate statistically will receive less money than her white counterpart.”
Roepe: Conventional wisdom says the incumbent presidents tend to lose ground during midterm elections. Do you have a predictions or plans on how you’re going to approach the 2022 midterm elections?
James: The first is to start in 2020 to protect our incumbents. For example, Lucy McBath, a congresswoman from Georgia who holds the seat that Newt Gingrich once held, which is a majority white district, was able to win in 2020. She is the number one person on the Republicans’ list to get out of congress. The same with Lauren Underwood in Illinois. The 2022 race is over a year away but we’re raising money now.
The second is constantly making sure that we’re talking about the successes of our candidates. Mayor Randall Woodfin, for example, in Birmingham, Alabama, the youngest mayor ever elected in Birmingham, was able to overturn marijuana convictions in his city. We want to be able to talk about the importance of the victories that these mayors have and to keep that front and center for voters so that they understand we need to have these folks in office because they’re coming in with different ideas to create new policies and a new way of doing business.
Roepe: What do you think are some of the misconceptions people or even the media have about Black voters?
James: One major misconception is that all Black voters vote Democratic all the time, that we are the most liberal, the most monolithic demographic of voters when in reality it isn’t true. But Black people, if we are viewed as being partisan, it’s not about politics; it’s about the policies that we believe in. It’s not that Black voters are just beholden to the Democratic party; it’s that oftentimes the leaders who are touting policies that we think will progress our communities forward are Democrats. And as we’ve seen, especially over the last few years, rarely are there policies coming from the other side of the aisle that are working to benefit, uplift and progress forward the Black community.
“I know where Black people are today versus where we were 50 years ago, 100 years ago and 400 years ago. I see that progress and I see the role that I specifically can play and that the Collective can play in pushing that at hyperspeed.”
Roepe: What keeps you motivated to do this work? Because I’m sure at times it can feel like you’re really pushing a boulder uphill.
James: I used to love Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake growing up, so I think I just perpetually live in a land of sugarplum fairies and cotton candy. I’m pretty hopeful. But realistically, I am most hopeful because I joined the NAACP when I was 14 years old so I feel like I was trained through the organization. That has also helped to open my eyes to the real Black history and the real American history. And to know where Black people are today versus where we were 50 years ago, 100 years ago and 400 years ago. I see that progress and I see the role that I specifically can play and that the Collective can play in pushing that at hyperspeed.
Even 60 years ago, Black people weren’t able to vote. Through the 19th Amendment, women receive the right to vote but that didn’t include my grandma and my great-grandma. But now look at what we’re doing and look at the progress we’re making. I stay focused on having one hand in the past and my feet focused on the future. I truly believe that God has made Black people so resilient that we can push forward fast and hard, but it has to happen collectively. I have a 3- and 5-year-old, two little Black boys, and I know the future that I will work to have them have and I want that for all Black children and all children in this world. That’s what really keeps me motivated.