The massive turnout of black women in 2017’s elections was only the start, predicts Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
There’s nothing Republicans can do to win them back, she says, and they’ll keep electing Democrats to push the GOP from power.
Bottoms has a distinctive vantage point. In December, she won her first term, making her both the most prominent black woman to win a major election since Donald Trump was inaugurated and the most prominent black female executive in the South—and one of the few in the entire country.
There will be more, she said—and soon.
“Black women are realizing the power of their vote and of their influence,” Bottoms told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
“It’s taken what we are dealing with on a national level, I think, to really get energized and not taking anything for granted, but I do think we are recognizing and exercising our power in a way that we’ve never done before, and that’s exciting,” Bottoms said. “We are becoming engaged, and we realize the danger of staying home.”
Black women pouring out in big numbers already put Ralph Northam in Virginia and Doug Jones in Alabama over the top. There’s a reason Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez called them the “backbone” of the party back in December.
But with Bottoms winning—and black women also winning historic races for mayor in Charlotte, North Carolina, and New Orleans in 2017—Bottoms and others warn Democrats not to misread what’s driving them, or fall back into taking them for granted. They can’t stand Trump, but they’re going to need more than that to keep showing up.
“That’s the challenge we’ve seen in the Democratic Party. Black women are treated as monolithic, but then they receive underinvestment or very superficial investment,” said Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic leader in the Georgia state House and a candidate for governor who is a black woman herself. “The question is not who they will vote for. The question is how many will vote. The party and too many candidates have stopped at the beginning of that equation.”
The stakes are immediate across the midterms, at home in Georgia, too: Democrats see the glimmering of a path in the governor’s race—with Abrams in a primary against Stacey Evans, the star of a viral announcement video about growing up poor and making it as a lawyer, and who is white but has support from prominent black leaders like former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Bottoms suggesting she might be on board, too. But Democrats locally and nationally are still burned by putting their hopes in winning the House special election in the Atlanta suburbs last year which went national, brought in $50 million, and which Republican Karen Handel won anyway.
Though Bottoms has now signed on to the Georgia Democratic Party’s executive committee and pledged to campaign for statewide officials, she’s privately expressed surprise when people have pushed her to realize her responsibility to the party as the most prominent elected Democrat in the state.
“She understands Atlanta’s potential,” said DuBose Porter, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, who pointed out that Democrats have registered 200,000 voters since losing the 2014 gubernatorial and Senate races by about 200,000 votes. “And she understands what her role now has the potential of being.”
Bottoms’ election was a rough one. Though she had the support of outgoing Mayor Reed, eight candidates made it to the last debate of the first round of voting, including the Bernie Sanders-backed state Sen. Vincent Fort, who slammed her for personal financial issues and for having a policy vision for the city which he deemed as not progressive enough. In the runoff in December, she faced an independent white woman with ties to Republicans, and won by all of 821 votes out of about 90,000 cast. More stark was how the election results looked on a map, with the city visibly divided north to south—the wealthier, whiter parts of the city going for her opponent, and the blacker, less affluent part of the city pulling for Bottoms.
That an election in a heavily Democratic city was ever that close shows just how deep the fights dividing the party nationally affect races locally. Progressives and those voters who backed other candidates stayed home in the runoff, as Bottoms—who is neither a fire-breather nor a firebrand—failed to ignite movement enthusiasm.
Bottoms says she was never going to pretend to be something she’s not. And she chalks up some of the struggles she faced as a candidate to an insidious mix of tacit sexism and racism.
“There were a lot of critiques and criticisms toward me that just would not have been thrown towards a man: ‘Will she be her own person?’ ‘Can she lead?’ ‘Will she be a puppet?’ Things that I know are never asked of men or weren’t asked during this race, and in my own right, I’ll put my résumé and my professional accomplishments up against anyone,” she said. “It’s often perpetuated against African-American leaders, that you can’t be accomplished and you can’t drive a nice car—you must be corrupt; there has to be something to it. And that was more concerning to me, just the underlying code words and language that was used.”
It’s literally impossible to drive through Atlanta without thinking of the civil rights movement, taking Andrew Young International Boulevard or passing signs for the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the way to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Bottoms has lived the recent history of the city. Her father, Major Lance, was an R&B sensation when she was a girl. She remembers seeing women scream when they saw him on stage—which puzzled her, because in her eyes, he wasn’t the Jackson 5. She also remembers coming home one day at 8 years old and seeing police swarming the house, arresting him for selling drugs when his music career hit the skids, and then visiting him in jail over the next three years.
“What always struck me is … the prisons were full of men who looked just like my Dad,” she remembered.
Bottoms’ mother was and is a more looming presence in her life, who was so broke after separating from Lance that she couldn’t afford to buy new clothes and went to work as a file clerk dressed in the Ultrasuede suits she’d stocked her closet with to look the part of a musician’s wife. When her mother was working a second job, she’d curl up in her bed to feel close to her, and learn with her older brother and sister how to stretch the couple of dollars left for lunch.
At first, she was reluctant to go public with many personal details, and though she told part of the story during the campaign, she went deeper in the Off Message interview than she ever had before.
She became a lawyer, worked her way up to be a local judge, realizing one day that she was serving alongside a man who’d been the prosecutor who sent her father to jail. After a brief stint on the Atlanta City Council, she jumped into the mayor’s race, backed by Reed, as he had been backed by outgoing Mayor Shirley Franklin eight years earlier.
She’s eager to return the favor, boosting the much-rumored idea that Reed will run for Senate in 2020 against David Perdue, capitalizing on presidential election-year coattails—“whatever he runs for, I think that it will be a nice next chapter, whatever it may be,” she said.
And she’s hoping that Democrats are fighting hard in Georgia’s presidential race by then. “I don’t think the resources have ever been put into the state in the way they need to be to make us truly competitive,” Bottoms said.
Put the money in, Bottoms said, and “absolutely” Georgia will be competitive.
“You’ve got to realize that it’s different than in Alabama, where Trump carried it with 65 percent. He carried Georgia by 51 percent. Georgia’s in play, the numbers are there if we turn out our base,” Porter said. “African-American women have always been a big part of it, and they definitely will be this year.”
Abrams, who for years has argued that Georgia could be competitive by lighting up voters who are already in the state, is hoping for a major turnout in her race this year, putting in the effort to appeal to black female voters she says other campaigns haven’t shown up with.
“The numbers bear out the capacity” for Democrats to win she said. “This is not a far-fetched idea. Winning an election is math.”