When Dr. Adia McClellan Winfrey, a Democrat competing for a U.S. House seat in Alabama’s 3rd District, was first exploring her run, she met with a higher-up in the Democratic Party. The official, who himself was Black, told her matter-of-factly that although she’s a highly qualified candidate, there’s no way she could win.
“He told me there’s no point in continuing it,” Dr. Winfrey tells Refinery29. “‘You can’t win because you’re Black.’ It was really an eye-opener. That meeting showed me where our country really is. It made me understand that what I’m doing is bigger than any one Congressional seat, it’s bigger than me as an individual.”
This is exactly the kind of indignity — said behind the scenes, and incredibly infuriating — that pervades the experience of running for office as a Black woman.
Energized by Doug Jones’ triumph over Roy Moore in December’s special election — he’s the first Democrat to represent the deep-red state in the Senate in over 20 years — an unprecedented number of Black female Democrats in Alabama are running for office, many for the first time. At least 70 have launched campaigns across the state for everything from the board of education to district judge to the U.S. House of Representatives. This reflects a national enthusiasm: According to the Black Women In Politics database, there are currently 590 Black female candidates, with 97 running for federal seats.
Dr. Winfrey was an active volunteer in Jones’ campaign and says she was proud to help turn her home — Talladega County, where her family has lived for seven generations — blue. After 98% of Black women voted for Jones (never forget: 63% of white women voted for the guy accused of molesting kids!), she decided it was time to step out of the shadows and run herself.
“It’s a conversation I’ve had with so many other Black women who volunteered for Doug Jones: When are we going to be the candidates? After that election, it was like a lightbulb came up over our heads. We helped him, but what are we doing for ourselves?” says Dr. Winfrey, who holds a doctorate in psychology and has developed a hip-hop therapy program called H.Y.P.E. (Healing Young People Thru Empowerment) to help heal young people overcoming abuse, dealing with depression, or involved in the juvenile justice system.
If she wins, Dr. Winfrey — who grew up with parents involved in the civil rights movement and marched in anti-KKK rallies as a teenager — wants to focus on access to healthcare, allocating funds to education, and expanding agricultural development. A mother of four, she’s horrified by the idea of arming teachers in schools that Republicans have floated and, like so many moms, wants some common-sense gun laws passed — yesterday. She and her opponent Mallory Hagan, the only two candidates in the primary race on June 5, have similar views on the issues and share a common desire to unseat Republican Mike Rogers, who’s been in office since 2003. (His greatest hits include an A rating from the NRA and calling Robert Mueller’s investigation a witch hunt.)
But the first-time candidate says she’s faced unforeseen challenges as a result of her race. Aside from the aforementioned pushback from higher-ups in the Democratic Party (the Alabama Democratic Party did not return requests for comment), she says she has gotten “zero” support from the state institutions she thought were supposed to help candidates like her — echoing the concerns of Black women around the country. The Alabama Democratic Conference, the state’s largest African-American political organization, endorsed Hagan over her, which stung.
"He told me there's no point in continuing it. 'You can't win because you're Black.'"
Dr. Adia Winfrey, U.S. House candidate in Alabama's 3rd District
“We were told that it’s because she wouldn’t win in a ‘majority-white state,’” says Adela Duncan, Dr. Winfrey’s communications director — also a first-timer to politics. “She kept her head up and said, I’m still going to fight ‘til the end.” The ADC also endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. (The ADC didn’t return requests for comment.)
Although there’s no polling data, all together this adds up to Hagan being the favorite in the race in all the traditional ways — money, endorsements, media.
Audri Scott Williams, the first Black woman to run for a U.S. House seat in Alabama’s 2nd District — Dr. Winfrey’s neighbor — can relate.
Like Dr. Winfrey, she wasn’t endorsed by the ADC and hasn’t gotten much local media coverage. She says she thinks money is part of the issue: It's hard to be seen as a serious candidate when your opponent outraises you. The ADC endorsed Williams’ opponent Tabitha Isner, who has so far raised $150,000 compared to Williams’ $25,000. Both Williams and Dr. Winfrey have all-volunteer staffs and have had to get creative on limited funds.
People also told her she’s “not electable” because she’s a Black woman. Williams, a former U.S. Army Reservist and human rights activist, wants to challenge this narrow notion of “electability.”
“It is time to shift unfounded beliefs, assumptions, and spoken narratives that marginalize the perception of Black women’s electability,” Williams says. “These false and unchallenged perceptions make it extremely difficult for candidates to overcome financial challenges that can disproportionately affect campaign networking, organizing, and marketing.”
In rural Alabama, there’s another reason she feels people don’t always perceive her as a viable candidate: She’s a lesbian, who has been in a relationship with her partner Karen for 15 years. “You don’t feel safe in certain places — we have a lot of work to do.”
At the end of the day, though, Williams has more in common with her potential constituents than one might think. She's a mother of three and grandmother of 15. She says voters care most about issues, and that's her focus. She would love to talk your ear off about healthcare (especially the closing of rural hospitals), women’s rights, a $15 minimum wage, and common-sense gun reform. After all, one of her Republican opponents is Rich Hobson, Roy Moore’s former campaign aide who did an AR-15 giveaway during Memorial Day. (“That was...in poor taste,” Williams says.)
When it comes to Black women in politics who’ve already “made it,” Williams says she admires Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama’s 7th District, who is running for reelection this year. Rep. Sewell was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress in Alabama in 2011, and had her own obstacles to overcome. “As a congressional intern during the late ‘80s, I remember walking the halls of the Capitol and not seeing many Black women in any role, let alone as elected officials,” Rep. Sewell says in an emailed statement. “When I was first elected, making my voice heard as a Black woman surrounded by older white men was a challenge. In order to be heard in that environment, I always had to speak louder, engage faster, and prepare more than my colleagues.”
What’s happening in Alabama echoes a shameful nationwide trend: Black women — a huge, powerful voting bloc for the Democratic Party, 94% of whom voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 — are lacking institutional support in races nationwide, according to a recent Axios report. Only one of over 40 challengers for U.S. House seats, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, had the backing of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. So, as exciting as it may be that so many Black women are running, the lack of support may severely hinder their chances of advancing beyond the primaries. (Underwood, with her DCCC backing, has raised over $590,000, compared to the $12,000 Dr. Winfrey has raised.)
“Unfortunately, a lot of times when people think what’s a great, qualified candidate who can raise the most money, it defaults to a straight, white man,” says A’shanti Gholar, political director of Emerge America, the training program for Democratic women — of which Williams is a recent graduate. “That puts women of color at a disadvantage.” She also points out that most organizations don’t hand out endorsements until after the primary, so that’s when the big bucks come.
The one bright spot is that 2018 has already been a trend-bucking year, Gholar adds, citing Stacey Abrams’ historic win in Georgia's Democratic primary, which paved the way for her to potentially become the first Black female governor in the U.S.
Everyone we spoke with for this story mentioned Abrams, a progressive, charismatic leader who grew up poor in Mississippi and was sparked to activism by the Rodney King riots. Dr. Winfrey cites her as one of her biggest inspirations: “I was over-the-moon excited when she won.” Williams says Abrams’ win has helped prove that Black women can “break through the glass ceiling called electability.”
Stefanie Brown James is the cofounder of Collective PAC, which helped elect Abrams. The group, which has also worked with U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, as well as Underwood, raises money and conducts training on effective campaign strategies for Black candidates. The goal is to reach a point when the number of Black elected officials statistically represents a community’s population: Currently, 90% of elected officials in the U.S. are white. One way to help elect more candidates of color is to make sure there is racial diversity in the Democratic Party at the state level, says James. According to a report by Inclusv, only 14.5% of staffers are African-American — which doesn’t reflect the makeup of the party overall.
“‘Electability’ is a horrible excuse for not supporting people,” James says. “In this day and age, it’s ignorant — just look to Barack Obama to shut down the argument of ‘electability.’ He was elected not once, but twice. Look at Stacey Abrams.”
Editor's note: On Monday evening, after the publication of this story, HuffPost reported that Dr. Winfrey has not been licensed as a clinical psychologist, although she holds a doctorate in psychology.