What to Know in Washington: Black Women Pursue Change in Senate

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Of the 2,002 people who have served in the Senate, two have been Black women. The 2024 election may add at least one more.

Black Democratic women are strong early competitors in Delaware, Maryland, and California. A couple others are underdog candidates vying to succeed retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

That such a small cohort is noteworthy after 234 years of Senate history shows what a colossal challenge top statewide elective offices have been for ambitious politicians who are Black women.

“A lot of people I talk to are shocked when I tell them that, one, there are no Black women in the Senate, and two, that there only have been two since 1789,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only Black woman among the major candidates for the seat of retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D). And if two seems like a low number, consider how many Black women have been elected governor of a US state: zero.

Despite gains in downballot races, the top jobs have been more difficult to achieve. Black women hold 374 seats in state legislatures, making up 5% of state lawmakers nationwide, according to Black Women in American Politics 2023, a report by the group Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

One of the dynamics that distinguishes the 2024 campaign cycle is the strength of the candidacies of Black women candidates. That wasn’t the case in 2022, when there were four Black women Senate nominees, the most ever. All four were Democrats in uphill contests. All four lost.

In Florida, then-Rep. Val Demings (D) was defeated by Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in a landslide election year for Republicans. In North Carolina, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) fell to Rep. Ted Budd (R) in a close race.

The 100-member chamber has had no Black woman since Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) ascended to the vice presidency in January 2021 after four years in the Senate.

“We should never be in a situation where there are zero Black women in the US Senate ever again,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder and president of Higher Heights, which advocates for more Black women in political office. Read more from Greg Giroux.


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To contact the reporter on this story: Kayla Sharpe at ksharpe@bloombergindustry.com

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