In the nearly 20 years that she has been a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Cheryl Lamar has rarely missed the spectacular Pink Ice Gala, an annual event that she regularly marks on her social calendar.
Lamar, the president of a real estate development firm in Woodbridge, Virginia, joined the sorority — better known as the AKAs — in 1998 as a graduate member of the Gamma Nu Omega chapter in Columbia, South Carolina. She has since moved to suburban Washington, D.C., but makes return visits — like clockwork, on the fourth Friday evening in January — for the big party.
But this year’s January 25 event wasn’t a typical sorority ball. What made this year’s Pink Ice Gala special for Lamar and all the AKAs who attended was its guest of honor — U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), an AKA who had just launched her campaign for the Oval Office. Four days earlier, Harris jumped into the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. To the sisters of AKA, founded in 1908 as the first Greek-letter sorority of college-educated black women at Howard University in Washington, D.C., it was a historic moment.
Harris, who pledged the sorority as a Howard undergraduate in 1986, made sure the 37th annual Pink Ice Gala was one of her first stops on the campaign trail — her AKA sisters, her first constituency.
Lamar was enthralled by the spectacle of it all. She said she’d never seen anything like Harris’ appearance at the Pink Ice Gala — though she missed the 2009 gala when another Democratic presidential hopeful, a senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, reluctantly attended.
“I can only equate it to a rock star entering the building,” Lamar said, referring to Harris as “soror” in the fashion that AKAs address one another.
“It was electrifying. There was a buzz in the air. Soror Harris was met with warmth and hundreds of cameras clicking. She came in like she was floating and everyone was waiting just to catch a glimpse, to take a picture, to shake her hand. It was, as I said, something special.”
The celebrity-like treatment might be thought of as a coming-out party for Harris, a cozy place to launch her campaign with the advance knowledge that these black women — her fellow sorors of AKA — would be both a shield and a comfort as the presidential campaign got underway.
To lock down the Democratic nomination, Harris understands she’ll need to earn the unchallenged allegiance and passion of the voting bloc most likely to make that a reality — African American women.
It’s a strategy based on an emerging consensus that recognizes black women as must-get voters for Democratic candidates. If there was ever any doubt of this, the post-election analysis of the 2016 general election and the 2018 midterms dispelled it, as black women proved themselves to be Democrats’ most loyal, enthusiastic, and unified voting bloc. And for the election next year, past is prologue: winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 demands having the support of black women voters.
So it’s little wonder that Harris turned immediately to her AKA sisters to get out of the starting blocks quickly. Little-known outside the largely overlooked circle of black professionals and virtually ignored by the overwhelmingly white political and media establishments, the AKAs are a potent force of some 300,000 college-educated women in U.S. college chapters and in alumni groups across the nation — as well as several foreign countries.
Black sororities, fraternities, social, and professional organizations, form an unseen network of black middle-class operatives who meet, talk, organize and vote in patterns that often go unnoticed until the day-after election analysis reveals their existence. Henry Fernandez, co-founder of the African American Research Collaborative (AARC), a polling and research firm that examines black political participation and activism, credited Harris for “wise political judgment” in seeking to woo black women because of their disproportionate influence within Democratic Party politics.
Reviewing the trend of strong black voter turnout since the 2016 elections, Fernandez observed that black women were the difference-makers in electing progressive candidates across the country. He noted, in particular, a special election in Alabama that sent Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate, a primary in Georgia that posted record black voting participation and almost elected Stacey Abrams to the governor’s mansion, and a general election in Virginia that sent swelling numbers of progressives into statewide offices.
Fernandez also noted polling that demonstrated how black women are working in private groups like the AKAs to encourage one other to support candidates and to persuade friends and family to do the same — and networking in this fashion more than any other voting bloc. For example, AARC research found that 84 percent of black women voters surveyed reported talking to their friends and family to encourage them to vote, a figure higher than black men (76 percent) and white men and women, collectively, (66 percent).
“What that tells us is that black women aren’t only the most important voting bloc, but they’re a core group to mobilize within the community and they’re not a part of traditional political organizations,” said Fernandez, who is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed within the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
Fernandez added, “There’s a [political] conversation that’s being led by African American women all across the country. The internal self-moblization of black women is powerful, more powerful than what’s organized by outside groups.”
Andrea Bailey, a member of the Omicron Chi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, says she’s proud to call Harris a soror, and believes it is to the sorority’s advantage to have someone like her on the national political stage. Other black sororities, most notably Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., have made political activism and participation a cornerstone of their organizational work.
“Political activism is one of [the Deltas] programmatic areas and that’s where their strength is, but it hasn’t been as much for [AKAs],” said Bailey, who is a Democratic candidate for the board of county supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia, a bedroom community outside Washington, D.C. “This is an opening for us to bring together all types of organizations to serve the country. That’s what I love most about Kamala.”
Although Harris is making an obvious and early play to lock down black women voters, some observers, including some AKAs, warn the strategy isn’t foolproof.
“It matters to all of us who are AKAs,” said Sophia Nelson, a writer for NBC News OPINION, The Daily Beast, and USA Today. “But not all AKAs are going to support her just because she’s a soror. But, boy, it certainly adds a level of excitement and a lot of us are beaming with pride for her.”
Nelson, who is a Republican, said her role as a journalist and pundit would preclude her from voicing support for or against Harris. Still, she predicted, the Democrats are likely to nominate a white male, such as former Vice President Joe Biden who is considering entering the race, and she envisions Harris, more likely, as the vice presidential pick.
“I don’t think this country is ready to elect a black woman yet as president,” Nelson said. “But if she performs as well as I expect, I don’t see how they keep her off the ticket. Coming after Trump, I think the Democrats will pick a white man to be the nominee, and if that’s Biden, then it’s a hell of a ticket.”
Political analysts, like Fernandez at AARC, say the timing of the Democratic state caucuses and primaries favors Harris’ campaign because of the disproportionate influence of black women voters. Following the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in February 2020 — both featuring mostly white, Democratic voters — the race will shift to a caucus in Nevada and then the South Carolina primary, both states that have more diverse populations which should help Harris early in the primary season.
Then come the March 3rd “Super Tuesday” primaries, which feature several southern states with large black voting populations, as well as Harris’ home state of California. Those contests will largely determine which Democratic candidates will be viable enough to race to the finish.
“The Democratic primary schedule has been restructured to give black voters greater influence over the process,” Fernandez said. “That’s very much in Harris’ advantage.”
After she’s run the course of early state primaries, Harris will have to expand to a broader set of voters. “She’s got to find a way to get the chattering class to believe she can win over white voters,” Fernandez said, adding a strong second- or third-place finish in Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada might give her all the momentum she needs heading into Super Tuesday.
At this point in the presidential campaign season, however, that’s deep-weeds political palaver. Ordinary voters aren’t focusing on such abstractions. Who knows what will happen in the political world a year from now — or for that matter, by the end of this week?
What is clear, at this precise moment, is that AKAs are basking in pride over having a one of their own in the running for the leader of the free world.
“It hasn’t sunk in fully yet,” Nelson said. “At this point, you have to say she’s the top contender for the Democratic nomination and it’s an amazing thing that in 2019, in this the age of Trump, a black woman is leading the way for Democrats.”
Of course it could simply be name recognition and an initial burst of excitement that accounts for the lion’s share of Harris’ buzz. Only the most die-hard supporters have declared allegiance to any of the candidates currently vying for the Democratic nomination. While Harris has raised an impressive amount of money and earned some strong early support she hasn’t pulled away from the field.
Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, has conducted a series of repeated interviews with about 60 Democratic Party activists for the past two years as part of a book-writing project to glean insights into the party’s likely 2020 nominee. His too-early conclusion: “What I’ve found so far is that the vast majority of these early-state activists are still undecided.”
Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Masket continued, “Several of the Democratic activists I’ve spoken with suggested that they may wait until the summer or fall of 2019 before making a decision, and quite a few wanted to meet with the candidates before making up their minds.”
It’s highly unlikely members of AKA — or very many black women, in general — are a part of Masket’s sample of activists drawn from Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, his research suggests that more than a year from the first primary caucus, the nomination is up for grabs.
Still, the California senator has caught his eye. “Kamala Harris is currently the candidate who is being considered by the largest share of the activists I’ve been interviewing, although no one has committed to support her yet,” Masket wrote.
And before that commitment comes scrutiny. AKAs, just like other black women, are doing their due diligence on Harris and some are raising questions about her political past.
Shanita Hubbard, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, watched Harris’ online campaign announcement and was moved to tweet some early apprehension about falling in love with Harris too quickly, especially without a close study of her positions on policies that are close to the black community.
— Shanita Hubbard (@msshanitarenee) January 21, 2019
In a subsequent article posted online by The Guardian, Hubbard expressed mixed feelings. She was excited at the prospect of a black woman president but some of Harris’ policy positions gave her pause. As Hubbard wrote:
For me and many other black women, the presidential candidacy of a fellow black woman is more than exciting. But, only days after Harris’s announcement, I have already faced the assumption and even expectation – by people within and beyond my community – that I will automatically vote for her. No one, however, should take black women’s support for Harris for granted.
Like many people of color and progressives, Harris’s previous record gives me serious pause. Any candidate for office who has been a prosecutor in a racially biased criminal justice system must account for the ways in which she minimized that system’s harm or perpetuated its failures. At various points throughout her career, Harris has supported policies that have contributed to a broken criminal justice system that harms people of color at disproportionate and alarming rates.
In a follow-up interview with Think Progress, Hubbard expressed concern that in the zeal to support Harris and protect her from racist attacks during the campaign, some black voters might be inclined to give her a pass on serious policy issues, such as the role she played as California’s attorney general in blocking the release of non-violent offenders on the premise that they may lower the prison labor pool and threatening to enforce a one-year prison sentence on parents whose children were truant.
“Our community can’t be in the place of stargazing at any candidate and not asking them the difficult questions about the protection of our community,” Hubbard told Think Progress. “It’s fair game to ask these questions of Sen. Harris and she should be prepared to answer these questions.”
Hubbard, who is a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., another sorority of college-educated black women, said she’s not fully on the bandwagon of any candidate — yet.
“It’s too early for that,” she said. “I support the idea of [Harris] and I’m thinking about it, but I’m not 100 percent behind any candidate. I’m tired of being the backbone of the Democratic Party and doing so much of the work and getting so little in return. It’s not It’s not fair for candidates to court us and love us like a one-night stand. I don’t know that helps the community.”
Meanwhile, Cheryl Lamar, still ga-ga over Harris’ presentation at the Pink Ice Gala, agrees that it would be wise to keep things in perspective, especially at this early stage of the presidential campaign.
“I’m a person who does due diligence, and voting is a long way off and we haven’t gotten that far yet,” Lamar said. “At this juncture in the race, I’m watching her because she’s an AKA, but I’m not leaning toward voting for her just because she’s a soror of mine.”