November 24, 2004

Commentary

Candidates of Color Win Office With Racial Justice Message

by Libero Della Piana

Just ten days after George W. Bush was sent back to the White House for four more years, over five hundred scholars and activists gathered in Berkeley, California to discuss the implications of the election to communities of color and opportunities for winning legislative and electoral battles to expand civil rights. While the Race and Public Policy conference focused on policy initiatives from language access laws, to attempts to blunt the curtailing of immigrant rights, it also featured recently elected candidates of color like Rep. Grace Diaz of Providence, Rhode Island.

1,300 home daycare workers in Rhode Island, including Diaz, and are fighting for union recognition from the State of Rhode Island who hires them to provide care for the children of those on public assistance. The health insurance plan daycare providers won from the state in 1996 was the first in the country.

Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri’s stonewalling of the union is in part what inspired Diaz to run. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District Council 1199, who the daycare workers seek to affiliate with, was active in the Diaz campaign as was the State AFL-CIO, the local National Organization of Women PAC and various other community and labor organizations.

On election day Diaz was sent to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in a majority Latino district becoming the first Dominican American woman elected to statewide office in the U.S. Diaz is a single mother and full-time daycare provider who just fourteen years ago immigrated to the U.S. with $40 in her pocket. She was elected with a whopping 89% of the vote after soundly defeating the two-term Democratic in a three-way race for the primary.

According to SEIU organizer Chas walker, the basis for Diaz’s victory was multiracial organizing and intense volunteer effort. The incumbent Leon Tejada, also Latino, was accused of largely ignoring the English-speaking African American population in the district. Diaz attempted to overcome years of mistrust. “She built real ties between Blacks and Latinos,” said Walker. “She spoke to all the constituents.”

Grace Diaz’s victory wasn’t the only electoral upset that put a voice for racial justice voice in office. African American David Soares won a hotly contested battle for District Attorney of Albany County, NY on November 2. A grassroots and electoral coalition of Citizen Action, local unions, the Working Families Party and others helped Soares defeat incumbent Paul Clyne in the Democratic Party primary forcing Clyne, his former boss, to run as an Independent in the general election, eventually dropping out in favor of the Republican candidate.

Soares ran on a campaign of reforming the Rokefeller Drug laws, which many organizations say are draconian and disproportionately incarcerate young people of color. Interestingly, Soares agenda of reforming the Rockefeller laws wasn’t a stealth agenda, it was the central theme of his campaign—and it worked.

One piece of Soares campaign literature read, “Democrat David Soares offers our young people hope. Paul Clyne offers them jail.” On one side, the postcard sports a photo of Soares talking with a group of youths; on the other there is an eye peering through the grill of a jail cell. Soares campaign literature runs counter to the lock ‘em up imagery of political campaign for the past two decades.

Soares victory has been heralded as the biggest recent political upset in New York State and has put other district attorneys on notice. Additionally, as DA of Albany County, the seat of New York State government, Soares will be responsible for trying corruption in the statehouse. The repercussions could change state politics.

On November 2 voters sent nine Native Americans statewide to office in Montana. Voters made Barack Obama only the third African American in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. They elected Ken Salazar to the U.S. Senate from Colorado. The list goes on. As communities of color gain political capital, they are supporting and electing their own candidates versed in their issues.

But just electing Black, Asian, Native American and Latino candidates into office isn’t enough according to Diaz. Accountability to constituents and to the issues that effect them is essential. As she said in her panel presentation at the Berkeley conference, “the racial justice movement doesn’t end when you get elected. We need to build unity of the community, building from the root.”

Libero Della Piana is the Editor of RaceWire. His writes frequently on issues of race and social change.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage