Black Democrats are trying to revive the party in Trump territory

Chris Jones would appear to have a perfect biography to run for governor, a position that is wide open in Arkansas for the first time in eight years.

He is both an ordained Baptist pastor and a nuclear engineer who can talk about his faith as easily as he does about scientific concepts. He is upbeat and likeable, as evidenced by his announcement video which quickly went viral nationwide.

There is a catch, however. Jones is a Democrat in a state that has gone from red to very red in recent years. donald trump won in 2020 with 62% of the vote. And it’s black, where blacks make up just 16.5% of the population and no African American has ever won statewide office.

Additionally, if he wins his party’s nomination, he will likely face a nationally known personality: Sarah Sander, Trump’s former press secretary and daughter of the former governor. Mike Huckabee. She has already raised more than $13.6 million.

Most experienced politicians view the race as far from distant, but it represents a shift in thinking about how the Democratic Party can rebuild in central states where it nearly disappeared as white rural voters migrated to mass to the GOP.

In years past, Democrats in the region have generally tried to win over independent and moderate voters by fielding white establishment candidates. This approach produced little. Now they hope to engage voters who weren’t involved in the process, especially blacks, Latinos and young people.

“It’s clear to me that people are ready,” Jones said during an interview in his hometown of Pine Bluff, a predominantly black town an hour south of Little Rock. “There’s a time when people say of all the barriers and all the ceilings to break, here’s one we want to break.”

This year, dozens of black Democrats are running for office in places Trump easily won. Many are political newcomers driven by protests against police tactics after the murder of george floyd, or the advances of black Democratic candidates in once solidly red states like Georgia.

“The ball is moving down the court in terms of further progress,” said Tolulope Kevin Olasanoe with the Collectif PAC which recruits and supports black candidates.

Jones is one of two black candidates vying for governor of Arkansas in May’s Democratic primary, which also includes an Asian American. Two black Democrats are also candidates for the Republican-held Senate seat Jean Boozman.

African Americans are among the top Democratic challengers for several Senate seats held by Republicans, such as Cheri Beasley in North Carolina and Val Demings in Florida. In Kentucky, Charles Booker makes a tough bid to unseat the Republican senator. Rand Paul. from iowa Deidre De Jear is the only Democrat to challenge the Republican governor. Kim Reynolds.

Black voters and elected officials already wield considerable influence over the Democratic Party in blue states, but some say it’s time for African American candidates to take the lead in attracting new voters elsewhere and elevating major social issues.

In Oklahoma, where the party is on a long losing streak, many Democrats hailed the decision by the state’s People’s Commissioner of Education, a longtime Republican. Joy Hofmeister, to switch parties and challenge GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt as a Democrat. While this likely improved the party’s chances, many African-American activists were infuriated that Hofmeister, who is white, withdrew support from the black candidate. Connie Johnson.

Hofmeister “is not coming to any Black Lives Matter protests,” said Joshua Harris-Till, a black party organizer and candidate for a seat in the United States House. “We’re probably not going to see his veto power like some of these insane gun bills. We’re not going to see her defending a woman’s right to choose.

In Arkansas, Jones, who had never run for office, kicked off his gubernatorial bid with a video highlighting his roots in the state and contrasting Sanders’ frequent curbs against the ‘radical left. », criticism of the president Joe Biden and echoes of Trump.

He dubbed his platform “PB&J,” which he says stands for preschool, broadband and jobs.

Sanders, he charged, engages in “the kind of politics that fan the flames of an angry mob ready to mow down cops in order to attack school kids at Little Rock Central High,” a reference to the desegregation crisis of 1957.

Sanders’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Jones’ remark and essentially ignored him and his other gubernatorial rivals.

Jones’ announcement video showed him entering a church and using his minister’s stole to tell his family’s story. Jones, the son of two preachers, attended Morehouse College on a NASA scholarship and later went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to running for governor, Jones led the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs.

The idea that Jones’ candidacy will boost Democrats is met with skepticism in Arkansas. The state’s last Democratic governor, Mike Beebe, won all 75 counties in 2010, but the party’s last nominee won less than a third of the vote.

“Generally speaking, the team that starts talking about voter turnout and more so voter registration is the team that has already guaranteed a loss,” said the University’s political science professor. from Arkansas. Janine Parry. Whites make up 73% of the state’s voting-age population, compared to about 64% nationally.

Parry, however, noted that such races could help build a bench of candidates and broaden the electorate as the state’s demographics change.

Jones faces a huge fundraising shortfall. Sanders broke fundraising records while Jones reported less than $200,000 on hand in his latest deposits.

But he actively campaigns, organizes voter registration drives and even ventures into seemingly hostile territory like Harrison, a town in the Ozarks that has struggled with racism and white supremacy over the years.

Win or lose, he insists the effort is worth it.

“Anytime you can bring in candidates who can elevate the voices of those who haven’t been part of the process before — whether it’s black, Latinx, disabled, veterans, you name it — who have been locked out of the process, that’s going to be helpful,” Jones said.


Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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