In a lively discussion that jumped from policy issues and race-baiting campaign ads, to music and Black skin tones, three African American gubernatorial candidates drew a capacity crowd during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference.
Stacey Abrams, 44, former House Minority Leader, is the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia; the tax attorney and entrepreneur is single. Ben Jealous, 45, a former NAACP president is the Democratic nominee for Governor in Maryland; he’s a divorced father of two. Andrew Gillum, 39, the mayor of Tallahassee is the Democratic nominee for Governor of Florida. He’s married with three young children.
The groundbreaking African American candidates each pulled off tough primary wins in their respective states, and hope to make history again in November.
While there was a Black governor during Reconstruction in the 1800s, only two African Americans have ever been elected governors in modern political times: the first was Doug Wilder of Virginia in the `90s; later came Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.
As the trio discussed their respective campaigns’ at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center last Thursday, there was frequent applause, humor and the kind of familiar vibe that can happen in predominately Black spaces.
“This is a historic conversation and we know that,” said lawyer and CNN political analyst Angela Rye who served as moderator of the `5000 Role Models of Excellence Project’ Gubernatorial Forum. “Just knowing the significance of this moment that we can have three at the same ….time. That is such an incredible, awe-inspiring thing.”
Abrams faces Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Secretary of State. She is running in a state Donald Trump won in 2016, but a recent poll shows her with a slight lead. If victorious in November, Abrams would become the first Black woman governor, ever, in U.S. history.
Jealous is running against a popular Republican governor, Larry Hogan, but has earned endorsements from Maryland’s largest labor unions in a historically blue state. Gillum is battling Ron DeSantis, a former Congressman who’s gotten vocal support from Trump.
While Abrams, Jealous and Gillum have similarly progressive platforms around education, the economy and healthcare—each favors preservation of the Affordable Care Act, for instance—they each have signature issues.
Jealous recently unveiled a plan designed to lower prescription drug costs. Gillum, who spoke emotionally of shootings in his state that have killed Black men, wants to eradicate “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Abrams would like to set up a $10 million small business fund for budding entrepreneurs and small businesspeople who’ve not had access to capital. “No, not everyone has a bank,” she said, noting that race is often “implicit” in who gets loans.
That wasn’t the only foray into racial politics on the agenda. Gillum’s GOP opponent came under fire for a “monkey it up” comment he denied was race-baiting. There was also a separate robocall reportedly from a neo-Nazi group that referred to “Negroes” complete with exaggerated dialect (`I is Andrew Gillum’) and jungle noises in the background.
Abrams noted one campaign commercial that slammed her candidacy featured tap dancing, something she doesn’t believe is a coincidence given historical stereotypes. “You could have used a ballerina. Or [had] merengue,” she said wryly.
“We all know that race still matters in this society,” said Gillum. “The challenge that we have, frankly, as three black candidates running in states that are not majority Black, is that we have to figure out a way to communicate these things in such a way that even the majority White population can have some empathy for. …I don’t believe all White people are racists.”
Later, the candidates riffed on race and their own appearance.
“Look, I have natural hair,” Abrams said of her twist-outs, generating loud applause. “I am of a very rich brown hue.”
“I’m richer,” Gillum said of his complexion as the audience cracked up. “It’s the only thing I’m rich at.”
Jealous, who is bi-racial, quipped good-naturedly: “No comment. Just move on.”
The candidates each gave credit to those who’ve helped pave the way for their journeys—from family and teachers, to pivotal movements in our nation’s history to Barack Obama’s historic election. That acknowledgment seemed to continue when Rye closed by asking what theme song they’d play if victorious on election night.
Abrams, whose parents are ministers, chose “Amazing Grace.” Jealous selected the folksy “This Little Light of Mine” explaining it gave his mother comfort when she helped integrate her public school.
Gillum drew cheers for his anthem: Migos popular rap “Walk It, Talk It.”
After the forum, audience members gave the candidates high marks.
“This was an hour of deep pride and the ultimate inspiration for me,” said Dr. Arline Woodbury, a physician based in Atlanta. “They are committed, highly qualified, and proof that our political talent runs deep. These three candidates are the epitome of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”
Karen Pandy Cherry and her husband, Chad Cherry, drove all the way from Florida to attend the conference. The couple, who are parents, civic activists and owners of several culinary and lifestyle enterprises, were impressed by all the candidates.
“Whatever we have to do to help get Gillum elected we will,” said Chad, who won a Community Genius Fellowship in 2017 from BMe, an organization that works to uplift and shift the narrative around Black men.
Adds Karen: “When I hear Andrew talk, I almost feel the space he’s inhabiting. He’s very sincere.”
Dr. Thelma Daley of Baltimore is an educator who’s held leadership roles in her sorority and multiple Civil Rights organizations.
“This is a kind of magical era, to think that we can have a Black gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, Florida and Georgia,” she said. “It gives us hope, gives us faith. And we have to be very passionate about moving the vote so we can change the course of history.”