Last week’s 2018 midterm elections signaled an increase in diversity and voter participation across the country. An estimated 113 million people across the country voted, setting a new midterm record for voter turnout. Nearly 48 percent of eligible voters hit the polls this midterm, with nearly two-thirds of eligible voters in Minnesota taking to the polls.
While politicians across the country aimed for blue and red to color the 2018 midterm elections, it was decidedly Black and pink waves that impacted the landscape. And Black voters showed up and showed out across the country, even helping to push historically red states and seats closer towards the blue line.
“It was really good to see our people be more excited about the process,” said Anika Robbins, founder of Black Votes Matter MN, a nonpartisan organization aimed at increasing civic participation and leadership development in the Black community. “We saw more participation. We saw people going in families, as a unit, to vote,” Robbins said.
And the election was full of historic wins, especially right here in Minnesota.
Ilhan Omar will be the first-ever Somali American to serve in Congress. Keith Ellison is the first African American elected to statewide office in Minnesota, and Mike Elliott will be the first Liberian American to serve as mayor of Brooklyn Center. There was also an increase in Black and Brown representation and wins across all levels, from city councils to school boards, as well as beyond just Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Nationally, a record-breaking number of women also ran for office with more than 100 women set to become the largest female congressional class in history. Over 30 are first-time elects. It also marks the first time that more than 20 Black women will be among those ranks.
Omar joins Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib as two of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Connecticut’s Jahana Hayes and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley are the first Black woman elected to represent their states in Congress. Another notable winner was Lucy McBath, a Black woman gun control advocate who won a Georgia House Seat against GOP incumbent Karen Handel. In 2012, McBath’s teenage son Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael Dunn after Dunn reportedly became angry over the teen’s loud music. McBath’s win was embraced by many as a sign of hope and triumph over tragedy.
Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar are the first Latina women to serve in Congress from Texas. Another Latina, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and Debra Haaland (New Mexico) and Sharice Davids (Kansas) will become the first Native American women to serve in Congress.
These firsts come 50 years after Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress and 24 years after Sharon Sayles Belton became both the first Black and first woman elected to serve as mayor of Minneapolis.
But, while the nation is set to experience its most diverse Congress, primarily in the House, in race, gender and even age — and even more representation among other political seats — voters must continue to work for change.
“There is still a big equity issue in Minnesota —across several things: education, health, criminal justice reform,” said Robbins. “There’s an affordable housing crisis in Minneapolis. How do we make sure that people have access to basic things? We’re not even talking about anything luxurious. We’re talking about basic necessities: housing, food, safety, feeling like the police are really here to protect and serve us, too.”
Robbins said changes come from not just voting for representation, but also learning the system and what elected and government officials are responsible for.
“We can’t vote and be like, ‘Well, I did my part.’ If you want to see movement with them, it also helps to know who makes decisions about certain things,” she continued. “We have to be informed, we have to ask questions, we have to identify areas to serve, and just become more involved and commit to see it all the way through.”
Patrice Bailey, outreach coordinator, Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage (CMAH), agreed. “What you’re starting to see is people that are more informed about the issues, knowing how those issues impact them and their families,” he said. CMAH is a State council focused on increasing Black equity and participation in Minnesota’s political, social, and economic resources.
“The whole 2020 conversation starts right now,” he added, noting CMAH is looking to work with the new and existing elected officials on new agendas, new policies and community participation. The question, Bailey said now is, “How can they, as voters, hold elected officials accountable on the issues that they said that they were going to campaign on? People need to be thinking about, ‘What does that look like for me?’”
That, said Robbins, includes knowing things like who makes health decisions, who controls the police and whether your concerns are federal or even county-based.
“When you understand what the issues are, who’s responsible for that issue area, then you know who to engage when you have issues,” said Robbins. “Just that basic information is the beginning of empowerment.
“And, when any of your representatives say, ‘Hey, come up to the Capitol, we’re presenting this,’ you might want to show up because one of the things that representatives tell us is that ‘The community didn’t come out, so we didn’t think it was that important to them.’”
For those doing the work, it means more than posting selfies with “I Voted” stickers or holding signs at a protest.
“What’d you do after the protests, though?” Robbins asked. “Did you go to city council when they were debating on the budget? Did you go to the Capitol when they were trying to pass the bill to fine protesters? Did you go to school board meeting when they were trying to divert money from Northside schools and invest them in the Southwest area schools?
“What are you doing when the cameras are off, when you may or may not get credit for the work that you do? If you’re not doing it for the reasons of long-term prosperity of future generations and are not comfortable being one of the nameless, faceless, then this may not be for you. And, our situation may stay the way that it is.”
Noting that many may still be looking for the fun and “soul food” aspect of the movement, she warned the work can be mundane and slow moving.
“People want immediate results, but a lot of the things that we see — you know, ban the box, even the Voting Rights Act — these things started years in advance and then they morph,” she said. “We have to resign ourselves to the fact that a lot of what we want may not be overnight successes. We have to commit to our cause and to the process of pushing an agenda all the way through to the finish line.
“We think it’s going to be these grandiose actions, [but] it’s really not that. It’s consistent movement, consistent action. It’s volunteering, phone calling, writing letters to legislators, attending meetings, talking to your city council member, building power within your neighborhood through neighborhood organizations,” she said, adding those efforts require community leaders to work together outside of silos.
“We have to be willing to partner and collaborate across lines and leverage the talents and expertise of each other to keep it going.”
But, she noted, the hard work has paid off and continues to do so. “Last year, with just a little bit of a spike in voter turnout, we flipped the city council in this [Fourth] ward right here.
“I’m proud of our work. I’m proud of seeing more of us get involved. Now we just need more of us to run for office.”
For more information on Black Votes Matter MN, visit www.blackvotesmattermn.com
For more information on the Council on Minnesotans of African Heritage, visit mn.gov/cmah.
Stephenetta Harmon is a Black beauty editor, curator, and digital media and communications expert who builds platforms to celebrate the power, impact, and business of Black beauty. She is the former EIC for Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (2018-19) and current host of MSR Forefront, a digital roundtable series. She is the founder of Sadiaa Black Beauty Guide, the premier directory dedicated to Black-owned hair and beauty businesses. Find her at stephenetta.com.