Into a New Generation of Black Candidates
Trymaine Lee: Protests for racial justice have gripped the nation for nearly a month now. And as people look to sustain the movement, a movement that most recently traces its roots to the killing of Trayvon Martin and the uprising in Ferguson, they are turning to the polls. People voted in Democratic primaries in New York, Kentucky, and Virginia on Tuesday.
And in each of those states, Black candidates were on the ballot. In Kentucky, Charles Booker, a young Black state representative, challenged Amy McGrath, the moderate former Marine, for a shot at Mitch McConnell's seat in the senate this fall. Results from that race are still coming in. In New York, a huge potential upset. Former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman holds a commanding lead over Eliot Engel, a three decade incumbent for New York's 16th Congressional District.
Archival Recording: What's your number one agenda item when you get to the House of Representatives, if you do?
Archival Recording: Racial and economic inequality. You know, America needs a reckoning. We need to reckon with our history and we need to reckon with the impact of slavery and racism on every American institution.
Lee: And in Virginia's 5th Congressional District Tuesday night, Cameron Webb, a Black physician who campaigned heavily on access to affordable health care trounced his three primary opponents. He'll face off against a Republican in November.
Cameron Webb: Now I'm a physician. I'm a healer by background and focused my entire career on being at the intersection of health care and social justice.
Lee: All of these candidates entered their races well before a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, killing him. But when voters mailed in their absentee ballots or showed up to their polling places on Tuesday, masks on, gloves on, a demand for change was on the ballot, too. It's not just these three states. There are hundreds of Black candidates running in local races, state races, congressional races all across the country in 2020. After weeks of protest, will we see a wave of Black candidates elected as an answer to those calls for change?
Archival Recording: We have been living this life forever and now they see what it is and they wanna stand with us. They wanna support us. And we need to embrace them.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, the fight for electoral justice that has sprung from a mass movement against racism.
Archival Recording: I think the activists' movement have really changed the condition of electoral politics in this country. I'm so grateful for that.
Lee: In order to win an election, you need a strong candidate. But you also need someone to help get them there. How many candidates are you working with?
Jessica Byrd: So we have about five candidates that we're working with now. But also I lead a Black campaign school every year. Each year, we train about 1,500 Black candidates and their staff to run for office, to build power across regions and across the country.
Lee: Jessica Byrd and I go way back. I had to create a podcast just to finally catch up with you after so long. (LAUGH)
Byrd: It has been a long time. I actually remember meeting you about five days before Ferguson.
Lee: The way Jessica tells it, she was practically born in a voting both. Her family didn't have much money and to make some extra cash, her mom worked at the polls on Election Day.
Byrd: I have this vision that is just implanted in my mind of my dad in the morning. At about 7 AM, he would take me in one hand and some Shea butter in another and on Election Day, he would take me across the street to my mother and she would do my hair while she would sign in voters. And I remember at the time, this big red velvet curtain and they would pull it behind them and I could just see their feet. (LAUGH)
And so I'm, you know, all through elementary school, I'm sitting on her lap as she's doing my hair and I'm saying, "What are they in there doing? What are they voting for? How do they know what to vote for? How do they know to come here? How do they know you?" And so I got really addicted to understanding what was happening in those booths. And my first campaign was when I was 17. And I loved it.
Lee: Like Jessica said, we met in 2014 just days before the protest in Ferguson, Missouri when the city rose up after 18-year-old Michael Brown (BACKGROUND VOICE) was shot and killed by a white police officer.
Archival Recording: Just hold it there, Ryan. We're gonna go back to Trymaine Lee because there seems to be some movement there on the street.
Archival Recording: Oh. (BLEEP) Oh. (BLEEP).
Lee: I was there--
Archival Recording: Trymaine--
Lee: --covering the protest for MSNBC.
Archival Recording: Do we have Trymaine Lee?
Lee: Yeah. Yeah. There's a fight. Oh, (BLEEP).
Archival Recording: Control room, figure out what's going on with Trymaine Lee and let me know.
Archival Recording: MSNBC's Trymaine Lee is in Ferguson. Last night, he was covering the protests when police fired teargas.
Lee: I've tried to get away from the smoke. I can barely breathe. My nose is burning. My lungs are burning. I can't open my eyes and I'm burning. Just can't escape it.
Lee: As I was reporting from the streets, Jessica was working for Emily's List, a political action committee that aims to get Democratic women elected to office.
Byrd: And I really felt like what I was doing mattered. And it's not to say that it didn't. But what Ferguson did, as I was sitting in my cubicle (CONFRONTATION RECORDING) with tears streaming down my face and I was watching my friends be teargassed.
And I was watching Lesley McSpadden's face, Mike Brown's mother.
Lesley McSpadden: You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many Black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway. They're gonna try to take me out anyway.
Byrd: And I was remembering that Ferguson had a Democratic mayor and a Democratic city council in a state where Claire McCaskill at the time was a U.S. senator, where they had a Democratic governor. And I was remembering that the entire city of St. Louis is democratically controlled. And I started to think about that binary and where transformational political power lived. And in that, in that questioning, I thought, "Jessica Byrd, are you doing your work unapologetically enough? And are you of use to Black movement and this uprising?" And the answer at that time was no. You know, I wasn't.
And so I just got so uncomfortable in a good way. And I grew so much in that year that I felt like my skin was falling off and my brain (LAUGH) was just exploding around the idea that so much of what I thought was transformational was really just transactional. And that in order for me to really show up with this skill for Black movement, that I had to, at all times, be working towards the transformation part.
Lee: That year of discomfort meant going off on her own to start a political consulting firm in 2015 called Three Point Strategies.
Byrd: It's an entirely Black women led staff and we work to build the progressive leadership of Black women and elected leaders as well as we anchor the work of the movement for Black lives as they engage in electoral strategy as just one tactic in a toolbox of many to build power for Black people and to really transform our communities and the way that we have relationships with our government.
Lee: Ferguson changed Jessica's life. But the Black Lives Matter movement, which was essential to what we saw in Ferguson, it actually started after the killing of another young black teen over 1,000 miles away in Sanford, Florida.
Archival Recording: Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was visiting family in this upscale gated community near Orlando.
Lee: There's likely no Ferguson without Trayvon Martin.
Archival Recording: George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, called 911 saying the teenager looked suspicious. Zimmerman told--
Lee: Trayvon was shot and killed in February 2012. He was just 17 years old. I went to Florida soon after. Back then, I was with The Huffington Post.
Archival Recording: Trymaine, good to have you with us tonight. What are the latest developments from Florida? What can you tell us?
Lee: Well, first of all, it's what kind of began as a kind of an angry whisper is now a roar. And now it seems the community is galvanizing in a way and I've been around the block and I've never seen anything like this. Not with Sean Bell.
Archival Recording: No.
Lee: Not with Oscar Grant. It's just this crazy ground swell.
Archival Recording: Would you say--
Lee: That's when I met Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mom.
Archival Recording: We're gonna hear from the mother first. (BACKGROUND VOICE)
Sybrina Fulton: I stand before you today not knowing how I'm walking right now because my heart hurts for my son. Trayvon is my son. Trayvon is your son. (BACKGROUND VOICE)
Lee: Sybrina and I stayed in touch over the years.
Fulton: How are you doing?
Lee: I'm good. How are you feeling today?
Fulton: I'm pretty good. Pretty good.
Lee: Yeah. Yeah. Good to see you.
Lee: Since her son's death, Sybrina has been on a journey that's led her to activism and most recently, to politics. But when I called her up earlier this week, we started at the beginning of it all.
Fulton: You know, I, kind of, struggled with God and told God that he had picked the wrong person. He had picked the wrong teenager. He picked the wrong mom, the wrong family. You know, and then you question God. You go through the process of questioning God and saying, "Why?"
Lee: Back then, I'd look into her eyes and see an ocean of hurt and pain and sorrow. And I couldn't help but pull back. Never wanting to drown in them. I'd been a police and crime reporter for a long time. So I've talked with many families after tragedies like this. But what I saw in her face would almost always bring me to tears.
Fulton: I just couldn't imagine just losing a child. And so I would cry a lot. I was depressed a lot. But I would listen to people when people would tell me how strong I was. But I didn't feel the strength in me. And so I had to speak that into existence. I told myself that I was strong. And then one day I looked in the mirror and so I became. And this is how I decided to move to my next chapter because if you wrote a book about Sybrina Fulton, you couldn't leave out chapter five where I lost my 17-year-old unarmed son. And so what becomes important is what did I do after chapter five?
Lee: Sybrina became an activist. She started several foundations to help families who lost children to gun violence. She joined Michael Brown's mother and other Black women whose children had been killed to speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. (APPLAUSE) This group became known as the Mothers of the Movement.
Fulton: First of all, I'd like to say it's an honor to be here, to stand with these mothers and be amongst you. I am an unwilling participant in this movement. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.
Fulton: The work that I do is definitely connected to my son. You know, I could never take that away from who I am. That's who I've become.
Lee: Last year, Sybrina took her work a step further and announced she was running for office. What made you decide where you said, "You know what? I'm dealing with the burden of all this, but I need to put it to use somehow"?
Fulton: Well, I think it was actually a moment. I was in New York at Reverend Sharpton's National Action Network conference a year ago in April in 2019. And I was talking to the audience and I was telling them, as an activist, as a community activist on a national level, I said, "Sometimes you have to do a little more. Sometimes you have to not only protest and sign petitions and rally and call your elected officials, but sometimes you have to run for office."
And I got this gut feeling because I had been praying on that for a while. And I just didn't do anything about it because I wanted to see a sign. I just wanted to know that what I was doing was a good decision and that I was moving in the right direction. But only when I said those words about having to run for office that I got this feeling.
Lee: She decided to stay local, to run for a seat on the Miami Dade County Commission. That job means you're one of 13 commissioners responsible for the operation of the county government, representing nearly three million people.
Fulton: It wasn't until, you know, I thought about that I'd worked for Miami Dade County for 24 years. That would be a perfect fit for me being an employee working in five different departments and just living here in Miami Dade County. I went to elementary, middle school, high school, and college here in the same district that my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and now I live here. You know, I don't wanna move into a different area. I wanna stay right here and fix whatever the problem is. But I just think that we've been doing things so continuously the same way, doing the same things over and over. We need change.
Lee: In addition to gun violence, Sybrina is also prioritizing better transportation and affordable housing as part of her platform. In August, she'll face off against another Black candidate, Miami Garden's mayor Oliver Gilbert for the District 1 seat.
Fulton: Well, we all know that politics can be an ugly monster. But I'm willing to tackle it. I'm willing to just do my part. And I'm willing to do what it takes and just do my best.
Lee: After the break, how this moment of protest is shaping Sybrina's campaign and the campaigns of Black candidates everywhere.
Lee: Sybrina Fulton has noticed a shift since her campaign launched almost a year ago. These days, she's getting more attention.
Fulton: I think it helps, you know, to know that this is something that I was already a part of. This was something that I was already passionate about. So I just think that, you know, this is a good time. I mean, the fire is hot as far as racial discrimination and racial profiling, racial equality. We need to make changes now. We can't wait. We can't let things die down. We just gotta strike while the fire's hot.
Lee: Political strategist Jessica Byrd said the recent killings and protests that have defined the past month have shaped candidates' campaigns all across the country. In some cases, it's as simple as more financial support. Many Black candidates are seeing a surge in online fundraising. But the activism we're seeing right now, it's also allowing these candidates to rise on bolder, more progressive platforms. For the first time, police budgets can be openly questioned.
Byrd: You know, we are working with women who have been walking the tightrope privately for a long time, who have had their kids pulled over while they were on the campaign trail and they're frantically talking to them on the phone to make sure they're safe while then moving into a legislative process where they have to feed the budgetary power of the police knowing that they don't make them feel more safe. What movement has done is bring the conversation in the mainstream so that our elected leaders and our candidates can engage with it in public.
Lee: Sybrina was one of those candidates. In an interview earlier this month, she said she didn't support defunding the police. But she told me that her thinking has evolved.
Fulton: Well, I actually think that when people hear defunding the police, they think what I thought when I first heard it. Like, you're gonna get rid of the police? Like, who are we gonna call--
Fulton: --when we dial 911? You mean nobody is coming? But that's not actually what it means.
Fulton: You know, once I started doing a little research, I understand. And it definitely means they wanna reallocate some of the funds to other areas. And I think that is a smart move. I think that is something we need to look at because if we need counselors to deal with our young people and we need social workers to deal with our people with mental illnesses, then that's a position we need to take away from the police officers. You shouldn't be the judge and the jury right there on the street and take somebody's life.
Lee: Despite this recent wave of support, running as a Black candidate isn't easy. I asked Jessica about this. Are there, like, specific challenges when working with a Black candidate or specific challenges they face?
Byrd: Well, I would say some universal challenges, to start there, is that often times Black candidates are not considered viable until there is a public swelling of support, that a mainstream institution, that the D.C. Democratic committees, the local Democratic parties and infrastructure often times requires Black candidates to outperform anyone they're running against.
Lee: It almost sounds like life. (LAUGH)
Byrd: Just like in regular life. Exactly. Just like in regular life.
Lee: You've gotta be good good.
Byrd: You gotta be real good. And by the time folks actually are starting to tell, in particular, local candidate stories, it's three and four days before an election. Right? Like, I mean, it's egregiously late. In the same way that the investment in Black voters is often times around the knock and drag and not actually a multiyear long term investment.
Lee: Just as a journalist from covering this stuff aggressively, I have been called in recent days a race hustler, which is wild. But I can only imagine what it must be like in this era for candidates.
Lee: The energy and attention that bubbles up from moments like this where candidates can, you know, bolster their platform is based on what we see happening, how do you advise them about handling those kinds of accusations that they're taking advantage of the moment in some way?
Byrd: Yes. When you are confident in the campaign strategy that you're running and you are clear that there is a specific formula that gets you to the win, you do not have to run on their terms. You don't have to run on your opponent's terms. And so what I often coach candidates to do is to focus on what they know is true. What people want in this country is to believe in something and to see themselves in their government. And so if a candidate stays true to themselves, provides an affirmative vision for the future, then people will come out and want to vote and to be with them and to fight through the voter suppression in this country in order to have that vision.
Lee: Sybrina knows the leap from activism to electoral politics opens her up to the ugliness we sometimes see in elections. But she isn't just up against criticism as a candidate. She's up against her past. Running in this moment, Sybrina is forced to confront the trauma of what happened to Trayvon over and over again.
Fulton: Sometimes it's overwhelming because you think about your own situation. There's no way you can't think about your own situation. And so certain things are triggers. And so when I heard about the case in Brunswick, Georgia with Ahmaud Arbery where he was minding his own business, he was running down the street, they had no right to stop him and question him about anything at all. It's the same comparison with Trayvon. This is ridiculous how we have allowed this to continue to happen. But I'm just hopeful that change is coming, changes are gonna be made, and this will stop.
Lee: So can this push for racial justice sustain this momentum for Black candidates through the primaries all the way to November? Can the hundreds of candidates who are running in 2020 actually win? Jessica points to a recent example, the Me Too movement.
Byrd: I think that modern protests consciousness, activist movements have really changed the condition of electoral politics in this country. I'm so grateful for that.
Lee: In response to that moment, a record number of women ran for office during the 2018 midterms. But more than that, a record number won their races.
Byrd: I'm grateful for Me Too and I'm grateful for the movement for Black lives in all the ways that we have the streets, in my opinion, build their own microphone. And they say, "This is what we wanna talk about." And what the ballot box always shows is the results of that microphone. And I believe that we saw it in 2018. I think that we've seen it throughout this primary process, even through coronavirus. And I believe that we're gonna have an incredible surge of energy in November and all of these movements have been waiting to get back in the ring with Trump and we're going to and we're gonna win.
Lee: Sybrina shares Jessica's optimism. I imagine, Sybrina, people like you who have already sacrificed so much, are willing to sacrifice more to get into public office. Do you, in your heart, believe that you'll win? Like, do you feel good about this?
Fulton: I feel like I'm already sitting there.
Lee: Yeah. (LAUGH)
Fulton: I have a good feeling about it. I just really, truly believe in the future of Miami Dade County and I really believe that people want to see positive change. And so I'm the change that they're looking for.
Lee: So I've known you for a while now and, again, seeing the strength in you now and seeing how far you've come, and I just wonder what Trayvon is thinking (LAUGH) as he watches you move through this space. What do you think he's thinking?
Fulton: You know, I have another son, an older son, Jahvaris. And I can tell you definitely what he's thinking because Jahvaris is thinking the same thing. He's very proud. Very proud. Smiles a lot and is like, "I wanna make my kids proud of me." I want him to know that even though my chapter five was me losing his brother or Trayvon to know that chapter five I lost him, I want them to pay attention to what I did in chapters six, seven, eight, nine, and ten.
And I want them to look at me and I want them to always say, "She was strong. She held her head up." I cry when I need to cry. And they know that. And I want them to be strong as well. I want Jahvaris to be happy. I want him to be safe. But I want him to feel confident that he can go through whatever it is in life and still come out on the winning team.
Lee: We're still in the throes of this moment. Change isn't easy. And it doesn't always come quickly. There are no Black governors in America. And there are only three Black senators. But this Congress has 57 Black members in all, its highest number ever. Nine of them were elected just two years ago. Here's what we know. The political discourse around race is changing.
Black candidates across the country are getting new attention in the primaries. People waited for hours to vote in Georgia earlier this month. Ballots are still being counted in Kentucky. But the state is on track for record voter turnout. And a number of Black candidates have signed up to run for office in the weeks since George Floyd was killed, showing momentum is growing, not slowing down. Trayvon Martin's killing, the Ferguson uprising, the movement around George Floyd, these flashpoints build on each other.
Fulton: I think each area, it should look like the community. Police officers need to reflect what's in the community. The politicians need to reflect what's in the community. I just believe that that's what needs to happen.
Lee: Now the challenge for Black candidates is turning this protest energy into a seat at the table. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. And I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.