Josephine Walker

Glass Ceiling on Statewide Offices Remains for Black Women

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Four Black women have entered the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race. If elected, the commonwealth would become the first state with a Black female governor.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, are competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Former Roanoke City Sheriff Octavia Johnson is seeking the Republican nomination. Independent activist and educator Princess Blanding is running for the new Liberation Party, which she helped establish last year.

Former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-New York, made history in 1972 when she became the first Black woman to seek a U.S. presidential nomination for a major political party. Almost 50 years later, the road to electing a Black woman to a governorship or the presidency has yet to be traveled.

"The next time a woman of whatever color, or a dark-skinned person of whatever sex aspires to be president, the way should be a little smoother because I helped pave it," Chisholm said in 1973 regarding her unsuccessful presidential bid.

Dearth of representation

Since Chisholm was elected, 50 Black women have served in Congress or federal office, according to the Center for American Women and Politics database. Ten Black women have held statewide executive offices such as lieutenant governor or attorney general, according to the same database. No Black woman has ever been elected governor, although former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, came close in a 2018 hotly contested election.

Carroll Foy said the nation's history limits what some citizens view as a capable candidate.

“Unfortunately, people look to the past to try to dictate what can happen in the future,” she said. “When people see women of color running for higher office, we are seen as the exception and not the rule.”

Organizations dedicated to electing women to office such as EMILY’S List, Higher Heights and EMERGE aim to make the paths to office more accessible in recent years, providing advice, contributions and peer support to women candidates.

McClellan said when she first ran for a House seat in 2005, she had very little guidance and few mentors.

“There was no collective PAC, there was no EMERGE, you know, groups that have since formed to help Black candidates and women candidates and Black women candidates. They weren't there,” McClellan said. “I had to really do it on my own, with help from the handful of people who had done it before me.”

Media representation

The media often poorly represents women in politics, according to Political Parity, a research group that recruits and supports women candidates. Often, media coverage surrounding women running for office adds unnecessary details about a woman candidate’s clothing, weight, qualifications, motherhood situation and emotional maturity, according to the same report.

“Whether it's questions about their parenting or their husbands, it’s just questions that we don't see male candidates get,” said Kristen Hernandez, deputy director of campaign communications for EMILY’S List, an organization devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office. “We've seen sexist rhetoric, misogynistic comments and racist tropes as well.”

McClellan said perhaps the most consistent troubling narrative she sees in the media surrounding her campaign are questions about her qualifications. McClellan said she has more experience than all her Democratic opponents combined.

“There never seems to be a question, when a white man runs for governor, but yet for us it’s, ‘Are you ready?’” McClellan said. “If I'm not ready after 16 years in state government, when would I ever be ready?”

McClellan said she also frequently sees herself and Carroll Foy lumped together in news articles, as they are both Black women who have served in the state legislature. A New York Times analyst hypothesized last month that McAuliffe might win the Democratic primary race because three of his competitors — McClellan, Carroll Foy and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — are Black, younger and generally more left-wing than McAuliffe.

Voters typically prefer candidates that most resemble themselves, according to a study published in an Oxford Academic Journal. This tendency suggests that Black women must also convince all constituents that despite being Black, they do not solely represent Black Virginians. Instead, most see themselves as the most qualified person for the job who just so happens to be a Black woman.

“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud,” Chisholm said during a campaign event in ’72. “I am not the candidate of the woman's [sic] movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.”

Even now the persistent myth that Black candidates can only win in majority-minority districts continues to plague America’s political scene, according to the Brookings Institute, a public policy organization headquartered in the District of Columbia. But of the five non-incumbent Black women elected to Congress in 2018, all were Democrats and four won in majority-white districts, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Fundraising obstacles

One of the biggest barriers to elected office is the ability to raise campaign funds. The ability to fund a campaign continues to be a major obstacle to success for many women, not just women of color, according to the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. The Center also found that candidates often receive party support based on their fundraising potential, which disadvantages candidates without notoriety, wealthy support networks or self-funding abilities. Donors who fund political campaigns are often wealthy, white and typically male, according to Demos, a Liberal think tank. These donors, according to the same report, also have different views and priorities, especially on the issues that matter most to Black women.

Blanding is the sister of the late Marcus-David Peters, a Black man shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer while he experienced what his family said was a mental health crisis. Blanding said fundraising is an ongoing struggle. She recalled looking at the first financial records report from the Board of Elections and said she could not help but “crack up laughing” at the amount she raised compared to other candidates.

“But guess what? I have volunteers who are working around the clock to get the same results that they are paying for,” Blanding said. “That means a whole lot more to me.”

Carroll Foy raised just over $1.8 million in the first quarter, while McClellan raised roughly half a million dollars, according to a Capital News Service analysis of fundraising reports. Carroll Foy resigned from her seat to fundraise. General Assembly members can not fundraise until the session adjourns. Blanding raised almost $12,000 in the first quarter and Johnson raised $800. Altogether, all four women have raised just over half of what Democratic frontrunner and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe raised.

Aprill Turner, vice president of communications and external affairs for Higher Heights for America, said all women must run against a “boys’ club.” Higher Heights for America is a political action committee that seeks to mobilize and elevate the voices of Black women across the country. Turner said the path to elected offices has typically been paved by white men, and usually involves network connections and exclusive organizations that people of color and women have historically been unable to access.

“You'll see men groomed in a different way, or almost appointed,” Turner said. “Like, ‘You've got next,’ and kind of that little boys’ network.”

Will the statewide glass ceiling remain intact?

Former Del. Winsome Sears, R-Winchester, is running for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Sears was elected to a majority-Black district in 2002, becoming the first Republican to do so in Virginia since 1865. If she won the seat she would be the first Black woman to ever serve as Virginia’s lieutenant governor. Fairfax, who currently holds the seat, was the first Black man elected to serve in this position.

Carroll Foy and McClellan will both compete for the Democratic party’s nomination on June 8. Johnson competes in the Republican party’s unassembled convention taking place statewide on May 8. Blanding will make it to the November ballot if she collects 2,000 signatures by June 8, which she is confident she will achieve.

 Carroll Foy feels confident she will win the election.

“We're mobilizing and organizing more people of color, more people from the AAPI community, from the Latinx community, the Indigenous community, the millennials, more women than ever before,” Carroll Foy said, regarding her campaign. “We're building the most diverse coalition of voters and supporters that Virginia has ever seen.”

Early voting is underway for the Democratic primary on June 8.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Legislation hopes to expand broadband access for low-income students

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in an effort to expand broadband internet access to low-income students across the commonwealth. 

Senate Bill 1225, proposed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, authorizes school boards to appropriate funds to partner with private companies for the purpose of implementing and subsidizing broadband internet access for low-income and at-risk students. 

“Distance learning during the pandemic has left these students struggling not just with homework but with classwork and lessons as well,” Boysko said before a House panel.

The reduced rate broadband would be eligible for students who qualify for child nutrition programs and other programs that are recognized by the school board as a measure to identify at-risk students. That means programs that are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as the schools’ breakfast, lunch and after school snack programs.

These broadband programs already exist, but Boysko said the bill clarifies that school boards can enter into partnerships with private broadband companies and permits the companies to promote the service. Boysko said there are nearly 600,000 students who qualify for those supplemental programs, though 215,000 people are currently utilizing them.

One plan offered to qualifying families is $9.95 a month, according to a Comcast representative who spoke in favor of the bill. 

Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education said students without access to reliable technology are experiencing the brunt of the pandemics’ drawbacks.

 “If you don't have high-speed home Internet, and if you don't have a device, then you are in a world of hurt,” Lovell said. 

More than 20% of households in Virginia lack high-speed internet, according to a recent analysis by Future Ready Schools, a research project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national nonprofit committed to improving education outcomes. This translates to almost 394,000 children without an efficient network to complete their instruction. The same organization reports that over 200,000 students are without internet in households that earn below $50,000 annually. Future Ready Schools also found that 8% of Virginia households have no computer devices. This impacts over 140,000 students. 

Lovell said access to a cell phone instead of a computer is an insufficient way of learning. He challenged adversaries to complete work without access to a desktop.

“They should try to write a five-page research paper on any topic they would like … and try to do it on their cell phone,” Lovell said.

Disparities in academic performance can be seen within different races, income levels, English-language proficiency, learning disabilities and sex, according to Education Week, a news organization devoted to education news. 

Lower-income students are less likely to have access to a quality remote learning environment; devices that they do not need to share; high-speed broadband internet; and parental supervision during school hours, according to Mckinsey and Co., a consulting firm to governments and organizations.

Rural students are also suffering from a lack of broadband internet access.

Keith Perrigan, president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, said during a Fund Our Schools virtual rally earlier in the week that access to broadband internet is perhaps the biggest equity issue faced by the state’s rural students. Fund Our Schools is a coalition of education advocates that work to increase Virginia public schools funding.

“Students are driving 10, 12, 15 miles to get to their nearest Dollar General who will allow them to sit in the parking lot and tap onto the Wi-Fi,” Perrigan said. “And you have students in other parts of the state that sit in their living room and have access to the internet at their disposal all the time.” 

Boysko said her bill is not going to solve the problem of rural broadband infrastructure. Other bills will expand access to infrastructure building. She said the bill is primarily for urban and suburban areas where families can’t afford to pay for the internet but there’s existing broadband infrastructure in place.

Both the House and Senate budget bills propose $50 million per year from the general fund for two years for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. The funds will supplement the construction costs of expanding access to areas that are presently unserved by broadband providers. The Department of Housing and Community Development will work with the Broadband Advisory Council to designate unserved areas that require funds. 

Boysko also sponsored SB1413 that will make permanent a pilot program that permits some electric utility companies to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide broadband capacity to unserved areas of the state.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers Pass Bills to Collect Data on Pretrial Detention

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this week that lawmakers said will increase transparency and equity in the judicial system, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will create a centralized, publicly-accessible data collection system on pretrial detention. Senate Bill 1391 and House Bill 2110 both passed Thursday.

Pretrial detention is the practice of holding a defendant in jail until trial. It is used, officials say, to guarantee the defendant appears in court and to ensure public safety. The compiled pretrial data would be distributed annually by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, or VCSC. 

The bills require the VCSC to compile and share data on the sex, age, race and zip code of an individual charged with a crime. The individual’s criminal background will also be included in the report without their name. No case identifying information could be accessed through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or made publicly available, per the bills.

Maisie Osteen, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the bills are a tremendous opportunity to understand release conditions like bond or pretrial services. She said they also illuminate trends in the racial, gender and economic demographics of people in jail. 

“This is the heart of transparency,” Osteen said. “It's opening up the actual raw data to the public in a downloadable, accessible format.” In Virginia, 46% of the total jail population is being held pretrial, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Lucas and Herring drafted the bills at the Virginia State Crime Commission's recommendation. The lawmakers used data from the commission’s 2017 Pretrial Data Project, which sought to study the different types of release mechanisms involved in pretrial services, such as bond or pretrial holdings. Of the individuals included in the data, 40% were Black, though this group makes up 20% of the commonwealth’s total population. 

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, said the commission’s new role was the first step in creating a more equitable Virginia. The institute provides information on current criminal justice issues and works to reform pretrial policies.

“The point of the bill is for advocates to take what they already knew was true about the way the system operates in terms of its disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Burdeen said. “And surely, its disproportionate impact on poor Virginians of all races.”

Being in jail before trial can drastically destabilize the accused and their families, according to a 2020 National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) study. The research found that as a result of pretrial detention people were more likely to lose connections to employment, housing and family. 

Osteen said most people are held pretrial because they can’t make bail and are more likely to have non salaried employment. She said they stand a greater chance of losing employment after a few days of being unable to report to work. This financial instability can then lead to a loss of housing or loss of children.

The NLADA study also found that those held in pretrial detention are more likely to be rearrested for new crimes, and more likely to have longer prison sentences. 

Osteen said that when a judge sees a defendant who “looks like a criminal” it can lead to harsher sentencing.

“I've heard judges say, honestly, ‘It's just easier to send somebody to prison if they show up in a prison or jail outfit, then I already know they've been plucked from their lives,’” Osteen said.

She said the judges are less likely to feel as if sentencing is the destabilization factor because it has already happened to the defendant.

Osteen said she is excited by the potential impact data collection will have on understanding the commonwealth’s justice system. She wishes the legislation included information about why judges decide to detain a defendant or not, a standard not currently required, Osteen said.

According to the VCSC, this legislation will cause a significant increase in the agency’s workload. The agency expects it will need additional funding to finance two new salaried positions.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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