This past fall, a record number of Black men and women ran for U.S. Senate and governor seats. The unprecedented candidates had the potential to increase diversity in the nation’s top elected offices, which are still overwhelmingly held by White men.
Since Reconstruction, voters have elected just seven Black senators and two Black governors. This year, 16 Black candidates — 13 Democrats and three Republicans — were major party nominees, from Florida and across the Deep South to traditional Midwestern battlegrounds like Wisconsin. While some posted strong poll numbers and fundraising totals with little success, they all waged credible campaigns that challenged long-held attitudes about whether Black candidates could be competitive in statewide races.
With the exception of Congresswoman’s Val Demings quest for the Senate, Florida had no big African-American names on the ballot. Demings, 65, who was raised in Jacksonville, recounts how she was told as a young child that she was the “wrong color” to “amount to anything.” She said proved her skeptics wrong by becoming the first member of her family to go to college, and the first woman to lead Orlando’s police department.
“Is it easy? Hell no, it isn’t easy,” Demings said. “But we didn’t build a great nation on easy. We built a great nation on hard work.”
Those slim numbers may one day change as hopefuls for political change emerge every year. One thing is for sure, candidates seeking those seats all bore a trail with a foundation that began with an idea. That same audacity of hope begins somewhere, with the “eye on the prize” often beginning at the grassroots level of local offices.
Eugene Ford III, originally from south Florida, is one such hopeful. The political newbie pitched his name in the hat as a political newbie for the Soil & Water Commission. His goal is to facilitate a bridge between economics and agriculture and make Jacksonville a leader in sustainable, eco-friendly capitalism.
“I want to help create jobs and business opportunities while protecting our city’s environment,” said Ford.
Cosby H. Johnson, a 36-year-old Black man who last year was elected mayor of Brunswick, Ga., said the nation’s contentious political culture is nudging more African Americans into statewide elections.
“Our country has gotten so crazy and divisive that it has pushed very normal people who would otherwise say, ‘I am going to leave that to the [politicians]’ … to now say: ‘Hey, I am going to give this political thing a try,’ ” said Johnson, who previously worked for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.