By Sean Pittman
With so many political advantages now favoring Democrats, there are still disturbing signs that the party might somehow blow it in 2018.
The Democratic Party has yet to fully appreciate the new wave of black candidates seeking office, particularly in congressional races. Instead of fostering a sense of openness, the party’s “win-at-all costs” approach to party primaries is undermining its efforts to engage black Democrats.
Take Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which features two qualified candidates hoping to unseat the incumbent Republican, Brian Mast.
Lauren Baer is a former corporate litigator and Obama administration official; she’s white. Pam Keith is a former Navy JAG officer and NextEra Energy attorney; she’s black. The party primary is still under way, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign has made a choice: Baer.
Truth is either candidate will face a challenge running in this Republican-leaning congressional district in the general election, but Keith isn’t exactly a neophyte. She ran in the 2016 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, losing to former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy who went on to be defeated by Marco Rubio, the incumbent Republican.
It’s bad enough that the DCCC jumped into the Florida primary, favoring one Democratic congressional before the voters could choose. However, Keith isn’t the only candidate to get short shrift by the DCCC.
According to Quentin James, the co-founder of Collective PAC, a political action committee that supports black candidates, the Democratic Party’s congressional political arm passed over four other viable black candidates, a missed opportunity to reach black voters.
“We were hoping to see a number of the candidates we identified elevated to the DCCC’s Red to Blue Program,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We are confused as to why they aren’t.”
In a compromise, James and the DLCCC agreed to move two black candidates in more competitive congressional races in Illinois and Texas into the party’s Red to Blue program. Keith is still on her own.
The move is a good first step. However, when it comes to primaries, let the voters make the choice. Anything else is an affront to the party’s name – ‘democratic.’
Democrats must find and support qualified black candidates for public office, and the party should work more closely with black political incumbents and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to develop voter registration drives and get black people to the polls. We have already seen strong evidence that high turnout among black voters generates success in elections. Whether it is electing the first Alabama Democrat to the US Senate in over 25 years, or propelling Keisha Lance Bottoms into office as the Mayor of Atlanta, black voters have proven to be worthy of political resources.
The party can also help itself by staying neutral in primary elections. Credible black candidates should get a fair shot to campaign among Democrats without worrying about overt favoritism from the party.
It’s not like the party lacks the issues to win. A historically unpopular president combined with a sycophantic, out-of-touch Republican Party have Democrats giddy about taking back the U.S. House of Representatives, possibly the U.S. Senate and a number of gubernatorial contests, including the Florida governor’s race.
The recent school shooting in Parkland that sparked the #never again student movement is an opportunity for the party to unite all victims of gun violence – from schools to the streets -- to push any candidate for sensible gun laws. The recent debacle over Trump’s trade war, the Dreamers, opioids offer plenty of fodder for aspiring Democrats.
The issues and the enthusiasm are clearly in place. All the party has to do is get out of its own way by staying neutral in the primaries so that viable Black candidates, all candidates can compete, and voters can have the final say.
Sean Pittman is the Senior Partner of Pittman Law Group, a Tallahassee-based law firm with statewide operations that specializes in government, administrative and corporate law.