WASHINGTON – A new political organization launched by African-American business executives is expanding quickly and will endorse 14 House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates on Monday, as it seeks to push black economic issues to the forefront of November’s midterm elections.
The Black Economic Alliance is putting its financial clout and connections behind candidates in high-profile races. That includes Democrat Mike Espy, the former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary now in a three-way battle for a U.S. Senate seat from Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African-American residents in the nation.
Other candidates the alliance is endorsing: former Nevada congressman Steven Horsford, who is running for an open Las Vegas-area U.S. House seat and Texas Democrat Colin Allred, a lawyer and former Tennessee Titans linebacker hoping to oust 11-term Rep. Pete Sessions in a Dallas district Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
The endorsements, provided first to USA TODAY, focus on competitive contests playing out mostly in districts and states where the black population is significant and African-American turnout could be the decisive factor in November.
Tony Coles, the group’s co-chairman, said the alliance represents the first time that black business leaders have joined together to build their own political action committee.
“This is an important moment in time because we recognize that back Americans haven’t been able to participate as fully and as completely in the American Dream” as other groups, said Coles, who is chairman and CEO of Yumanity Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotech company.
Electing officials who will advance workforce development and other economic issues the alliance cares about will help all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, Coles said. “This will be a pebble that will create a ripple in a very big pond.”
The alliance’s organizers, a mix of professionals from the worlds of finance, high-tech, politics and media, have met informally in the past through their philanthropic work and have donated individually to politicians. But Coles said they decided to pool their money into something bigger to make a “durable” impact.
Its leaders include Charles Phillips, the CEO of software firm Infor and former president of Oracle; Marva Smalls, global head of inclusion strategy for Viacom; and Fred Terrell, a senior adviser at Credit Suisse.
Mellody Hobson, the president of Chicago-based investment firm Ariel Investments, donated $250,000 to the group in June, according to its Federal Election Commission filings.
The group’s board also is expanding to include some bold-faced political names: former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele; Ron Kirk, the former U.S. trade representative; former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and Bakari Sellers, a former state representative in South Carolina.
Black power in politics
The alliance’s action comes as a growing number of political action committees focus on boosting black political power. The 2-year-old Collective PAC, for instance, spent nearly $2 million supporting Andrew Gillum’s upset victory in last month’s gubernatorial primary in Florida. Should the Democrat win in November, he would become Florida’s first black chief executive.
Political organizations run by African-Americans also are working to aid Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams in her quest to become the nation’s first black female governor.
Even if their candidates falter in November, these organizations “are building capacity and building institutions that can be used in the future to make sure that people of color turn out at rates that are commensurate with their numbers in the population,” said Andra Gillespie, an assistant professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.
So far, the alliance has raised about $3.5 million – a tiny sum when compared to the nearly $100 million collected by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to Republican leaders in the House. (Contributions from one couple, billionaire casino executive Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, account for nearly third of the leadership fund’s donations through June.)
Coles said that by focusing narrowly on driving turnout in competitive contests, “we hope to deploy the dollars in a way in which a difference can be made.” The alliance is working with local groups to drive turnout beyond what Cook called the “cliche” of last-minute visits by politicians to black churches on get-out-the-vote weekends.
The group, which began formulating its plan last summer, hasn’t wasted time.
It now has hybrid political action committee, which can donate directly to federal candidates and raise and spend unlimited amounts on candidates’ behalf through a super PAC arm. It also has a nonprofit branch and another political committee that that can focus on down-ballot contests in the states.
The endorsements coming Monday are the first House contests in which the group has engaged. Democrats need to flip 23 Republican-held seats in the House to seize control of the chamber.
The organization bills itself as nonpartisan and is not just backing African-American candidates. Monday’s endorsements include Democrat Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who wants to oust Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, and Phil Bredesen, a former Tennessee governor battling Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn for an open Senate seat now held by a Republican, Sen. Bob Corker.
“You need a coalition to get anything done in politics,” said Akunna Cook, the alliance’s executive director. She and Coles say they want to help candidates who will champion issues that matter to the alliance, such as increasing home ownership and boosting wages.
Some of its endorsed candidates, including O’Rourke, have vowed not to take PAC money. Cook said the alliance’s backing, even without direct financial contributions, could improve these candidates’ standing with African-American voters.
Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s communication director, said his boss already is talking about maternal health, education and greater access to small business loans as he campaigns across Texas. O’Rourke’ recent hourlong interview via Skype with the PAC’s endorsement team helped him delve more deeply into the topics the alliance cares about, Evans said.
“The conversation was more important than any kind of PAC check,” he said. “We want to work with everyone and take their ideas and see how they fit into Texas.”
The group made its first set of endorsements last month, one day after the one-year anniversary of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It backed four Democrats in that round, including Abrams in Georgia and Maryland’s Ben Jealous, who is vying to become his state’s first black governor. The group also endorsed Richard Cordray in his quest to succeed Republican John Kasich as Ohio governor and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, the 2016 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, who is running for re-election.
In this week’s round of endorsements, it is backing 10 House candidates, three Senate hopefuls and one gubernatorial contender, Democrat James Smith in South Carolina.
Other candidates getting the alliance’s nod Monday include: Democrat Antonio Delgado, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former rapper hoping to unseat freshman GOP Rep. John Faso in New York’s competitive 19th Congressional District; Democrat and retired naval officer Elaine Luria, who is running for the U.S. House from Virginia; and Democrat Joe Cunningham, who is competing in a closely watched U.S. House race in South Carolina against Republican Katie Arrington.
Arrington, who has aligned herself closely with President Donald Trump, knocked off GOP Rep. Mark Sanford in the state’s Republican primary in June.
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