Black voters are not a monolith, we are diverse thinkers and we too can be progressive voters for candidates we connect with.
This past spring Democratic primary, we saw the same Black voters elect moderate Cherelle Parker as the Democratic mayoral nominee and re-elect progressive Councilman Isaiah Thomas to Philadelphia’s City Council, whose campaign I served on as the Senior Advisor. I spoke to thousands of voters this year while knocking doors here in Germantown and if diversity was a person, it would be the Black voter.
I grew up in a household in Germantown, headed by my grandmother who, like many of our neighbors, was a huge supporter of Bill Clinton. This is the same woman who would later vote for Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton. The 2008 election was the first time I saw my grandmother vote against the clear Democratic establishment candidate.
The message of change resonated with my grandmother, and I’ll never forget the feeling of hope in Germantown reverberating from the Obama campaign when the then-Senator Barack Obama visited Vernon Park. At the time, I was a 17 year old senior at Germantown High School. For the first time, I saw myself, a black man who was speaking before me, asking for my support in order to be the next president of the United States.
There are so many voters like my grandmother, who was loyal to the Democratic Party until the day she passed, who also are willing to consider another Democratic candidate when that candidate feels comfortable and familiar to them. Someone that shares the profile of the community that we live in as far as race, origin and culture.
Obama may not have been a totally familiar face, but his approach to community engagement connected with the everyday organizing taking place in our local Black communities. Visiting barber shops and BBQs in urban neighborhoods were a few ways Black voters felt connected to his candidacy.
When I ran a grassroots, community-oriented campaign for State Representative last year, I felt that same connection to Germantown voters.
What I learned from that campaign trail, was that voters appreciate when they see candidates in their community. In eight short weeks, our campaign was able to connect with thousands of voters whether it was with people I attended school with, neighbors who I shared parking spots with, or the community members I frequently see in local shops around Germantown.
I ran as a progressive Democrat, but I was able to garner support from the very same folks who had voted for President Obama, Councilman Isaiah Thomas, and would later vote for Cherelle Parker for Mayor. All of these candidates take up different spaces on the political ideology spectrum; we all have different lived experiences, but the consistent theme that drove voters to choose our names on the ballot was the connection to direct voter engagement.
This past election cycle, Black voters showed that they preferred candidates they see themselves in and candidates who they find in their neighborhoods. The same voters who re-elected Councilman Thomas, who passed driving equality in his first term, could be the same voter electing Cherelle Parker for Mayor, who is willing to use “a constitutional version of stop and frisk.”
At this point, with so much apathy on the rise from elected officials, there is a deep appreciation from Black voters for the candidates who show up for them in the community, who they can actually get to know. There is no magic formula to connecting with Black voters other than to talk to them. Black voters are not moved by titles like “progressive” and “moderate”. They are inspired by candidates who speak directly to them and their issues.
I saw a headline that stated black folks are “low information” voters. In fact, they are high-information voters. The more Black voters know about you, the more they’ll feel comfortable voting for you. It’s these campaigns that need to be willing to put boots on the ground and do the work to earn their vote.
Thoughts? Questions? Please leave them in the comments below.
For more information about voting in Philadelphia, and about new progressive policies and legislation being considered and implemented in the city today, contact the office of Isaiah Thomas, Councilmember-at-large for City Council (215-686-3446).