Waiting for Women of Color Governors
By Kira Sanbonmatsu | May 12, 2020
Kira Sanbonmatsu is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
The 2020 women presidential candidates are no more. But Joe Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has pledged to choose a woman as his vice-presidential running mate. The possibilities include two well-known women of color: Senator Kamala Harris, who ran for president and previously served as California’s Attorney General, and Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia state legislator and the Democratic party’s first Black female gubernatorial nominee.
The possibility of a Democratic woman vice presidential candidate is a positive development. But the list of potential vice-presidential nominees calls attention to the dearth of women of color with statewide executive experience.
Numbers Show a Pipeline, but Few Women of Color in High Office
Abrams would have been the first Black woman governor in U.S. history. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) is the nation’s third and currently sole woman of color governor. Republicans Nikki Haley (SC) and Susana Martinez (NM) are the only other women of color to have served as governors.
The numbers are not much better if we include other statewide executive positions such as Attorney General and Secretary of State. Data from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) reveal that only 16 women of color hold a statewide executive elective position, constituting 4.5 percent of all such officeholders.
Looking back at the “firsts” for women elected to statewide executive office, nearly all were accomplished by White women.
Looking back at the “firsts” for women elected to statewide executive office, nearly all were accomplished by White women. While only three women of color have ever served as governor, a total of 41 White women have done so.
Women of color are better represented at other levels of office, including Congress and state legislatures. At the local level, as well, women of color are running and winning at historic levels. These women could easily be tapped to serve their states.
2018 Proved Women of Color Can Win
The 2018 midterm saw the election of a record number of women to Congress and state legislatures. For statewide executive officeholders, women of color made progress too, including Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James, New York State’s first Black woman and first woman of color to win a statewide position. But much more progress is needed across the country.
To date, CAWP has identified a dozen women of color (out of about 70 women total) who are seeking statewide executive office this year. But no women of color are running for governor.
Most women of color elected to statewide executive positions are from racially diverse states. But women of color can win in majority-white states and districts, meaning that many more women of color should be recognized as viable, statewide candidates in a broader range of states.
Women of color can win in majority-white states and districts, meaning that many more women of color should be recognized as viable, statewide candidates in a broader range of states.
The women who won in 2018, including Representative Jahana Hayes of Connecticut and Arizona State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, as well as Tish James of New York, show what is possible.
The historic number of women of color currently serving in state legislatures (542 legislators), speaks to the potential for future statewide candidates, as does the current group of women of color in Congress.
Removing Barriers Is Both Urgent and Necessary
One challenge facing women of color candidates is financial. Across levels of office, women of diverse racial backgrounds face difficulties raising money for their campaigns—in part because they lack the well-heeled financial networks of other candidates. For example, data from the Center for Responsive Politics showed that women of color 2014 congressional candidates raised an average of $109,836 from women donors whereas White women raised $234,912 and White men $161,060. Men donors gave women of color candidates $223,123, compared with $457,461 for White women and $533,816 for White men. In addition, gatekeepers may overlook candidates who do not fit the profile of previous officeholders.
For these reasons, campaign trainings and organizations aimed specifically at women of color, such as Higher Heights for America, can play a vital role in helping identify and support more diverse officeholders. Donors, campaign activists, party leaders, and interest groups should cast a broader net as they search for talent and back candidates in statewide primaries.
When officeholders reflect the American public, it’s more likely that the perspectives, policy views, and concerns of the people, broadly understood, are incorporated into the policymaking process. With the country facing the dual crises of COVID-19 and economic collapse, diverse experiences, perspectives, and talents are sorely needed in government. And with the absence of presidential leadership, the responsibilities and challenges facing the states have perhaps never been greater.
Kira Sanbonmatsu is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. Her most recent book, coauthored with Kelly Dittmar and Susan J. Carroll, is A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Presence Matters (2018).