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What barriers do Black women face in seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate?


In the history of the United States, only two Black women have ever served as senators. There's a chance that could change in 2024. California Senator Dianne Feinstein will not seek another term, and Barbara Lee is among the candidates to replace her. In many past cases, Black women were defeated. From KQED in San Francisco, Scott Shafer reports.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: In November of 2016, California Attorney General Kamala Harris made history as the first woman of color to win a U.S. Senate seat from the Golden State.


KAMALA HARRIS: I am so proud to represent this beautiful, diverse state.


MARY HUGHES: As an African American woman who is also South Asian, she was representative of the Bay Area and California and the kind of pride we have in the mix of people that make our state innovative and strong. And that was certainly an advantage.

SHAFER: Political consultant Mary Hughes has spent decades helping women win political office. She says Harris had unique qualities that helped her win the Senate seat, including a solid network of Bay Area women elected officials who helped open doors to deep-pocketed donors.

HUGHES: So there was an existing network that could lift Kamala up and make introductions not only in California, but across the country.

SHAFER: Harris is one of just two Black women ever elected to the Senate. Last year in North Carolina, Cheri Beasley tried and failed to become the third. The former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice has won four other elections for statewide offices, but...

CHERI BEASLEY: The perception is always that the U.S. senator is a white man. That is the presumption, and then we work from there.

SHAFER: Her opponent was conservative Republican Ted Budd, who ran brutal TV ads tying her to a released child rapist.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Cheri Beasley struck down a bipartisan law requiring GPS tracking for child predators. A monster who raped a seven...

BEASLEY: They were offensive. They were not true and hugely deceptive.

SHAFER: Beasley narrowly lost, and some supporters complained she could have won if the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee had used more funds to help her. Aimee Allison, whose group, She The People, works to elect women of color, sees the North Carolina Senate race as part of a pattern.

AIMEE ALLISON: There is a lack of investment in Black women leadership and the buzz around Black women's leadership.

SHAFER: Allison says Black women in particular face unfair doubts about their ability to raise money, making it harder to attract the best campaign team. That doubt can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

ALLISON: I've seen time and time again Black women be dismissed or overlooked, not be taken seriously.

SHAFER: She sees the same pattern playing out now as Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee is vying against two better-known white candidates, Representatives Adam Schiff and Katie Porter. Lee, a veteran progressive voice in Congress, says she knows the structural barriers Black women have, like access to large donors. She says their fundraising strategy takes all that into account.

BARBARA LEE: So we have to have that added push and rely on low donors, people who can contribute 5, $10 a month, recurring, and we'll be able to do that.

SHAFER: Laphonza Butler, who worked on Kamala Harris' 2020 failed presidential run now heads up EMILY's List, which helps women candidates raise money. She says there is an extra barrier that Black women are having to make their way through, much of it driven by systemic biases.

LAPHONZA BUTLER: It's not new. It's not right. And I think that there is a generation of Black women leaders across this country who are going to do everything required to make sure that it no longer continues.

SHAFER: In California, 89-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein, hobbled by a nasty bout of shingles, is facing calls for her to resign before her term ends a year and a half from now. If the seat opens up, Governor Gavin Newsom has promised to name a Black woman to fill it. Now that it looks possible that vacancy could occur, Newsom isn't talking much about the promise he made two years ago, saying he wishes Feinstein a full recovery.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer