Now more than ever, states are on the frontlines in defending our democracy

Now more than ever, states are on the frontlines in defending our democracy and fighting for the soul of our country. With this Kavanaugh confirmation, it’s clear that our national level system of checks and balances is compromised. We’ll fight like hell the next 31 days to try to re-balance the scale in Congress, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. November is not the finish line. It’s never the finish line.

We need to invest in building power in states so that elected officials at all levels and everywhere can and will be held accountable. Just look at the role that the Alaskan Native community played in Murkowski’s decision to vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And we have to stop making excuses for not investing more in states – they’re too blue, they’re too red, it’ll take too long, there’s not enough capacity…the list goes on. Let’s build that capacity.

In 2016, Virginia was the only southern state to go for Hillary Clinton. That same year, across the state, in every locality, Virginians handedly rejected a right to work amendment that was on the ballot. A year later, Democrats won all three statewide seats and flipped 15 House seats, electing the most diverse freshmen class ever. And everywhere I go, people ask me how that wave was possible. What’s the silver bullet?

Let me tell you a secret. There is no silver bullet. Virginia is where it is today, not just because of the demographic shifts or a 45 backlash, but because of the organizing, advocacy, communications and voter engagement infrastructure that was built over the last decade, through the hard work of state and local organizations and other stakeholders with deep commitments to our state.

And I’m proud to say that New Virginia Majorityplayed a role in that sea of change. It wouldn’t have been possible for us if someone didn’t believe in our grand experiment. We were founded 11 years ago because someone believed in our vision – that a new Virginia and a new South was possible. With a $50,000 grant and a guiding philosophy of “fail fast” (let’s be honest – I had no clue what I was doing when we started this thing), we have built our organization into the largest POC-led civic engagement organization in Virginia. And we’re winning.

We’re not alone. Across the country, strong state-based organizations exist and are being built -in southern states like Georgia, Florida, Texas; midwestern states like Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri; in the southwest in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. I could go on and on. Invest in states. Invest in these groups. We’re on the frontlines. And we’re ready to fight. Who’s with us?

 

(Photo Credit: New York Times / Chet Strange)

Virginians decided yesterday, and we decided to move forward

In 2006, Mazie Hirono was elected to the U.S. Senate. She was the first and only Asian-American woman U.S. Senator and the first woman Senator from Hawaii. A year ago, today, the people of Washington’s 7th Congressional District elected Pramila Jayapal to the United States House of Representatives. Pramila Jayapal was the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress. On the same day, in Minnesota, Ilhan Omar won a Minnesota House seat, making her the first Somali-American legislator in the history of the United States. Yesterday, Virginia voters decided to smash a few more glass ceilings, and elected Danica Roem, Elizabeth Guzman, Hala Ayala, Kathy Tran, Dawn Adams, Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Here’s the list of firsts. Danica Roem is the first openly transgender person to win elective office in Virginia. Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala are the first Latinas elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Elizabeth Guzman is also the first social worker and the first AFSCME member elected to the House of Delegates. Kathy Tran is the first Asian American woman elected to the House of Delegates. Dawn Adams is the first open lesbian elected to the House of Delegates. Jennifer Carroll Foy is the first public defender elected to the House of Delegates. That’s a lot of firsts, and that’s a whole lot of women.

Who voted these first women into office? Extrapolating from those who elected Ralph Northam to be the next Governor of Virginia, women. 61% of all women voted Democratic. 91% of Black women voted Democratic. 58% of women with college degrees voted Democratic. 54% of married women voted Democratic, and 77% of women who are not married voted Democratic. The turnout yesterday was the highest in 20 years for a gubernatorial race. That’s a whole lot of women.

There were other firsts in the Commonwealth. Voters elected Chris Hurst, a first-time candidate and a leading gun control advocate. Voters also chose Justin Fairfax, the first African American elected to a Virginia statewide office since 1989.

Thanks to the great work of Governor Terry McAuliffe and New Virginia Majority, thousands of formerly incarcerated people – including LaVaughn Williams and Brianna Ross – voted for the first time.

Virginians decided yesterday, and we decided to move forward, not back. Virginians decided to remember and honor Heather Heyer, whose last, and lasting, public statement was, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” In the words of Sojourner Truth, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” And Mary Harris Jones roars in response, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!” We’re outraged, we voted, and we’re going to keep on voting, organizing, mobilizing, and moving the agenda forward.

 

(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Chet Strange) (Infographic: The Washington Post)

In Virginia, Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and 206,000 more people just won back the right to vote!

Raja Johnson and Terry McAuliffe

Sometimes, as in Virginia this past week, democracy happens, and when it does, it’s largely thanks to the work of women of color organizing. Last Friday, Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting and civil rights to 206,000 people who had been disenfranchised permanently, thanks to Virginia’s lifelong voting ban on former prisoners. As the Governor explained, “I believe our commonwealth can not achieve its full potential until all men and women act on this fundamental right and participate in the decisions about their own children’s education, about their taxes and every aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, Virginia has had a long and sad history of effectively suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women at the ballot box … I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history of injustice and embrace an honest clean process of restoring the right of these men and women. And so today, I will sign an order restoring the civil and voting rights of every single individual who has completed his or her sentence as of this day.” On that day, Raja Johnson stood with Governor McAuliffe as he spoke, and Kimberly Carter watched on television. These women, and thousands of others overwhelmingly women of color, will finally be able to vote, and so a chapter in Virginia’s decades long war on women of color may be drawing to a close.

In 1999, Raja Johnson, an 18-year-old Black woman, made a mistake. She was convicted of grand larceny. In 2014, Governor McAuliffe restored her right to vote. According to Johnson, “It sort of did something on the inside…and it gave me that motivation to go on. I’m about to graduate. I’ll have an associate degree in two months. In June I’ll be going for a bachelor’s degree. So, it’s sort of made me feel more like a citizen, just having my right to go back.” About ten years earlier, Kimberly Carter, a woman in her late teens, was arrested on a drug charge. Today, Kimberly Carter is 45 years old. Last Friday, Kimberly Carter watched Governor McAuliffe’s speech and then went and filled out a voter registration card: “You make a mistake, 20 years later you’re still paying for it.”

According to Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, “It is a historic day for democracy in Virginia and across our nation. The disenfranchisement of people who have served their sentences was an outdated, discriminatory vestige of our nation’s Jim Crow past.”

Virginia’s current code of lifelong disenfranchisement began, in 1902, as a racist attempt to keep newly enfranchised Black populations from voting. For over a century, the Commonwealth actively sustained and intensified that racism. According to Governor McAuliffe’s office, “It is estimated that 1 in 5 of the African American voting-age population is disenfranchised in Virginia because of this provision.” While the lifelong voting ban in Virginia has always been an assault on African Americans, and then on communities of color more generally, in recent years, it has also been the preferred weapon of State in a war against women of color. The so-called war on drugs targeted women of color, in particular through conspiracy laws, which have caught women for the crime of intimate relationships with someone involved in the drug trade. That’s the reason Virginia’s rate of incarceration of women has soared to 146 per 100,000. With the war on drugs, Jim Crow became Jim and Jane Crow.

It’s time Virginia returned the right to vote to those who paid their debt, a debt was largely the result of racist legerdemain. It’s past time to stop the war on communities of color, and in particular on women of color. It’s time for Virginia, and all the States, to pay back their debts to the unfinished project of democracy. Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and hundreds of thousands in Virginia and millions across the United States are saying that the time for democracy-to-come has passed. It’s spring, and it’s time for democracy here and now.

The crowd responds to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of voting and civil rights to 206,000 neighbors.

(Photo Credit 1: New York Times / Chet Strange) (Photo Credit 2: Richmond Times-Dispatch / Mark Gormus)

Day 4 of #‎LiveTheWageVA: This has been an entirely humbling experience for me

 

This is “Live the Wage” week, an effort to highlight what it’s like for working women and men making the minimum wage of $7.25/hour. (Find out more at www.livethewageva.org. or, on Twitter, at #‎LiveTheWageVA.) If the question is whether or not people CAN live on minimum wage, many folks would probably say yes. In fact, 1.2 million American workers live on minimum wage. But it takes a lot of planning, sacrifice, and hard choices to make it work. Sometimes that choice boils down to which bills you will pay this month, how much food you can put on the table, or whether or not you can visit a doctor.

The question is whether or not people SHOULD HAVE TO get by on $7.25/hr. If you are working hard and playing by the rules, you should be making enough to support yourself and your family. No one is guaranteed success in America, but everyone deserves a fair shot to succeed and make enough to pay their bills.

Truth be told, I’ve been there. My family has been there. I don’t have a lot of vivid memories from my early childhood, but one that sticks out for me is from a time that my dad took me to visit my mom at the end of her work shift, cleaning tables at a local McDonalds. She gave me some French fries, and oh my god, they were so tasty! Seeing me happy made her smile, but underneath that smile, was a woman who knew that this wasn’t the American dream. My parents both worked low-wage jobs. My dad also worked in the food industry as a line cook at Skillagalee in Richmond.

My dad ended up taking out a bunch of loans so that he could get a bachelor’s degree, since none of his academic or military background in Vietnam translated to a meaningful job in America. For years, my dad lived and studied in Connecticut, while my mom continued to make things work in Virginia. He graduated and still couldn’t find a job. So they borrowed more money and opened up a restaurant. A successful restaurant. By my fourth grade year, they were able to buy a house in the West End of Alexandria, Virginia. The American dream!

But success came with sacrifice. They worked around the clock, and closed the restaurant between 2 and 4 every day so that they could race home and spend at least some time with my sisters and me as we came home school. Often, they were so tired, they would nap during this break. Who could blame them?

I share this more as a reminder to myself. Because I have forgotten what it’s like to have to be consciously aware of my spending habits. As challenging as this week has been for me, I know that it is nothing compared to the reality for people who are actually living on minimum wage. I get to end my challenge at the end of this week. But my fight for economic and social justice will never end.

 

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Ralph Northam)