New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley’s 16-hour day starts with exercise, self-care and staying on top of the news. A normal day consists of media interviews, phone calls to donors and meeting with voters.
As a Black woman, Wiley would make history if she’s elected, however, her road to City Hall is different from other candidates.
Despite an Ivy League education, years of experience as a civil rights attorney at the federal level, major endorsements, serving as counsel for the current mayor, chairing the Civilian Complaint Review Board and 25 years of government work, she still has to explain herself.
“I have people asking me why anyone should believe that I can manage inside government,” she told the AmNews. “I have people asking me why someone like me could handle the weight of city government. I have people ask me how I could manage a budget. There are men in this race, who have never managed inside city government before, never been in a senior level of government position before.”
Wiley says as a candidate she’s experienced everything from “mansplaining” to even racist and sexist attacks on social media. As a first-time candidate, she said that when she made the decision to run, she was prepared for the smoke. “It’s kind of a constant and pervasive thing that I’ve had to manage in my career, not just in this run, and I think that all Black women do,” Wiley said. “It’s not so much that I think that my day is different from other candidates in the race, it’s the amount of time I have to spend and energy explaining to people that I actually can win.”
Stacy Lynch is running for her first time for City Council in Harlem’s 7th District. The seat is currently held by a white male, Mark Lavine. Data from the U.S. Census shows the district is over 26% Black and 19% white. The remaining 50% are Latino. Lynch is the daughter of late political consultant powerhouse Bill Lynch and told the AmNews she’s running because public service was always a part of her life. She feels the best place to do that is in the City Council.
If she wins, Lynch wants to make history as the first Black female City Council speaker. Prior to running for office, Lynch was deputy director of intergovernmental affairs for Mayor de Blasio She said support for Black women candidates needs to come from within the community in order to level the playing field.
“I think we need more support internally from our own,” Lynch said. “We need to figure out how to build institutional support because I think we’ve lost that. Most Black women support each other, but then there are some who have their own issues. I’m the type of candidate that wants to fix the sister’s crown because if you make it, I make it too.”
Brooklyn City Council candidate Crystal Hudson is running to take the 35th District seat, which is currently occupied by Laurie Cumbo, a Black woman. She said she decided to run after spending nearly 10 years as the caregiver for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Hudson said she experienced firsthand how difficult it is for working families to get access to services,
resources and even just basic information. Also a first time candidate, she said she’s also experienced racism and sexism. If elected, she’ll make history as the first openly gay Black woman ever elected in New York City. She’s raised more money for her campaign than any other woman running for City Council.
“Black women, in particular, face discrimination both because of their gender and because of their race in a way that that nobody else does,” Hudson said. “It’s a lot to deal with. There are other candidates lying about me putting out misinformation, attacking my character. As a Black woman, the old adage is you have to work twice as hard to be even considered half as good.”
The path laid by late Congresswoman Shirley Chisolm and Manhattan Borough President and State Senator Constance Baker Motley are proof that Black women have been running for public office in New York City for decades. It wasn’t until 1974 that Mary Pinkett became the first Black woman elected to the City Council representing the 28th District, which would eventually become the 35th District, in Brooklyn.
It’s inevitable that nearly all women will face political sexism when running for office and Black women candidates often find themselves at the intersection of racism and sexism. The mistreatment can come from the media, another candidate or party leader.
Siobhan “Sam” Bennett was a candidate for mayor in Allentown, Penn. and ran for Congress, but faced blatant sexism. She is former CEO of the Women’s Campaign Fund and She Should Run and the founder of non-partisan project “Name It. Change It.” Bennett says women can use incidents of racism and sexism to their advantage by reminding voters of their qualifications.
“The most important thing is to respond to it,” she said. “If you respond to it, you undo any electoral damage that has been experienced. When sexism comes your way, the voters are reminded you’re a woman and that hurts you electorally. Once you respond to it, you regain all those lost votes and voters say ‘I like her, she can stick up for herself. Going in, women of color have the huge burden of being female first and the added burden of being Black.”
The nation’s climate of toxic rhetoric, racial injustices and activism over the last four years has inspired more Black women to run, according to Kandice Harris, regional director of the political organization Run for Something. The influence was later cemented by Kamala Harris’ 2020 historic nomination to the vice presidency.
“I think what’s making Black women want to step up and run are the things that we’ve seen since 2016 in the news as far as Black Lives Matter and all the other movements that we see in our communities,” Kandice said. “A lot of Black women are realizing that to see the changes that we want to see now, we have to take that next step and run for office.”
Women of any race have more at stake when they decide to run for public office. Sharon Nelson, who is CEO of the nonprofit Civically Re-engaged Women, trains women on how to run. She says women have to prepare themselves for the journey of being judged heavily on their personal life more so than men.
“Things that women get questioned on are really different than what men get questioned on,” Nelson said. “For example, if the woman has children, there are questions like ‘well, who’s raising the children’ because, by default, that’s traditionally a woman’s job. This is the stuff that women get judged upon. Instead of highlighting her gifts, and what she’s bringing to the table, it’s a scenario where she’s never good enough or smart enough where she can’t make this invisible cut.”
Dr. Antoinette Wilson, who chairs New Jersey City University’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department, agrees and said Black women candidates face social judgement outside and even inside their own demographic.
“I don’t think that Black women get the support of brothers,” Ellis-Williams said. “You don’t have them stepping up in the way that the expectation on the other side happens. There is still the demand that Black women must do everything for the community, with the community, and by the community. Externally, there’s always this performative aspect that you have to jump through some more hoops or maybe you’re not capable of certain things.”
In the City Council, Black women currently hold only eight (15%) of the 51 council seats. A Black woman has never been elected mayor or comptroller of the city. Letitia James broke barriers in 2014 when she became the first Black woman elected to a citywide office as public advocate. She would go on to become the first African American and the first woman elected as New York State Attorney General.
“More and more of us are running for office but you’re still going uphill because you’ve got a double whammy against you,” said Harlem Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, who served on the City Council from 2006 to 2016. “In Harlem, for example, when a man runs, women are the ones who actually do the work. For some people there’s a disconnect. A Black woman has a much tougher time running for public office in the city, state or the federal level.”
Data from the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) says that women make up 28.6% of all of New York State’s municipal officeholders. In 2019, seven Black women were serving as mayors of the nation’s 100 largest cities, including Chicago (Lori Lightfoot) and San Francisco (London Breed). In the last five years, 10 Black women have been elected mayors of those cities.
Navigating New York City’s complicated and powerful political party structure can be hard for women. Existing “gatekeepers” aren’t often open to women and people of color who are seen as “outsiders.”
“When you’re the new person breaking in, that can be really hard when the gatekeepers exert a lot of power and control,” CAWP Director Debbie Walsh said. “What then is connected to that is the money piece. That, especially in a place like New York, running for city council could cost you. Money becomes a challenge. We know in surveys of women candidates that women raise comparable amounts of money to men in comparable races, but it may be harder for them, they may not be as tied into money networks.”
Walsh points out, for example, that it might take a woman candidate 10 phone calls to raise $1,000 where, in a man’s case it could take one phone call. While “gatekeepers” call the shots on who runs and gets support, Walsh said political parties can support, recruit and groom, Black women to run in winnable places.
“Both parties need to do the work,” she said. “But particularly, the Democratic Party owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Black women around this country for many of its wins including the current presidency and a Senate with a majority of Democrats. One of the things that the Democratic Party can do to repay that is to make sure that Black women have a seat at the table.”
New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand founded the Off The Sidelines PAC in 2012 to support women candidates. She told the AmNews that she wants governing bodies all the way up to the federal level to mirror the nation’s demographics. Off The Sidelines has raised around $1.4 million for women of color candidates and endorsed 40% women of color out of the 106 women candidates in 2020.
“We need to recruit more Black women candidates, and then, when we find them, we need to help them win and, structurally, we need to get money out of politics,” Gillibrand said. “If you can have publicly funded elections, through a frame of the democracy dollars, you would transform who ran for Congress, who ran for local office, and who won and who participated in those elections.”
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that during the 2020 election, the 113 Black women candidates running on all tickets raised $81 million in the first three quarters, compared to nearly $811 million raised by their 379 active white women counterparts across party lines. Black women candidates often run in lower income communities resulting in structural impediments to raising more money.
Glynda Carr is the CEO of the Higher Heights for America PAC, the only political action committee dedicated to electing Black women at the federal, statewide and mayoral level. She says Black women have seen incremental gains in the last decade when it comes to running for public office. But aside from the financial barrier, Carr said Black women face what she calls “the test of viability and electability.”
“Black women have to prove more than our counterparts about being able to put together a winning campaign,” she said. “The unique nature of Black women’s leadership is that we’ve been able to do personally and professionally more with less. We’ve seen high profile elections where Black women have run competitive races and have won without institutional support or with less money from their opponents.”