In its 231-year history, there have only been two Black women to serve in the United States Senate: former senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). When Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016, she became the second Black woman and first South Asian-American senator in history, replacing Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who was retiring after serving for more than 20 years. With Harris set to become Vice President of the United States on January 20, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom must appoint someone to fill Harris’s pivotal and highly-coveted Senate seat in the diverse Democratic stronghold state. This person will complete Harris’s term, and is expected to run for election in 2022, when it expires.
When Senator Harris is sworn in as Vice President, only two out of 100 senators will be Black, and both are men—hardly an accurate representation of California or of our nation. Over the past four years, while senators have attempted—and in some cases succeeded—to eliminate voting rights protections, attack affordable health care, and erode progress made on systemic issues of racial injustice, we could depend on Senator Harris to speak up and speak on behalf of Black communities and communities of color. Notably this summer, Harris fought on the Senate floor against attempts to undermine anti-lynching legislation she sponsored that would make lynching a federal crime. Harris has also introduced the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, as well as reintroduced the Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies (Maternal CARE) Act. Both pieces of legislation would address a national crisis: that Black women are three times more likely to experience serious complications or death related to pregnancy and childbirth.
Without a vocal advocate in the Senate, Black women and our communities are even more at risk. Governor Newsom has a critical opportunity to be on the right side of history and ensure that the work Vice President–Elect Harris has done for California and for the country continues. Appointing a Black woman to her vacated seat is not only the best choice for the state, but necessary for the nation.
Throughout history, Black women have been leaders we look to in times of need—we mobilize our communities to stand up and demand action from those in power, despite seemingly insurmountable systemic challenges levied against us. As Vice President–Elect Harris stated in her victory speech, Black women are "too often overlooked but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy." Black women have consistently demonstrated that our political participation and leadership is integral to the survival of our democracy. It is no longer enough to merely listen to the counsel of Black women; we must be in every room and at every table where decisions are made.
With regards to suitable replacements, both Congresswoman Karen Bass (CA-37) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13) have served the state of California, their districts, and our country with the utmost integrity and commitment to advancing critical legislation that impacts our communities the most. As current members of Congress, they are uniquely qualified to hit the ground running on day one.
Representative Bass leads one of the most diverse districts in California and is respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle for her bipartisanship and ability to negotiate. Rep. Bass was elected Speaker of the California State Assembly in 2008, making her the first Black woman to serve in the role and lead a state legislative house. She was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2018 and has been commended for her fierce commitment to social justice, leading on issues such as criminal justice reform, foster care, and affordable health care for her constituents.
Currently in her 12th term in the U.S. House, Representative Lee is a former leader in the California State Assembly and the first Black woman from Northern California elected to the State Senate. She has been a progressive leader on issues such as violence against women, poverty alleviation, climate change, and LGBTQ+ rights. This year, Rep. Lee championed a bill for a national commission to examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color. As co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, Rep. Lee is the highest-ranking Black woman in Congress.
Both women have earned the highest respect of their constituents and their peers. Their experience is unequivocal and their records are unparalleled. We need women in the Senate like Rep. Bass and Rep. Lee who reflect our values and hopes for the nation, and understand how racial justice and gender equity are inextricably linked to every key policy issue of our time.
The 2020 election season has forever changed the face of our politics for the betterment of our communities and our government. For the future of California, our country, and Black and brown women, there is no better choice for Governor Newsom than to appoint Rep. Bass or Rep. Lee to fill Senator Harris’s seat. These remarkable women have what it takes to get to work right away and will continue to serve as powerful advocates for the people of California and marginalized constituencies nationwide.
Glynda Carr is the President and CEO of Higher Heights, the only national organization growing Black women's political power from the voting booth to elected office. She is the co-creator of #BlackWomenLead, a coalition helping Black women to run, win, and lead, and has helped elect 11 Black women to Congress, including Kamala Harris to the Senate.
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