Politics, Power and Pipelines: Charting the Road to 2024 and Beyond

The goal of this session was to focus on how Black state legislators need to continue to lead and be the driving force in shifting political power to improve the lives of Black constituents.

The session kicked off with an important question about how legislators can encourage people to be part of the democratic process of voting. Panelists spared no words in sharing their perspectives.

Vanessa Griddine-Jones, Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, began with answering that it’s not about going after the already civically-minded individuals such as those in the room because they’re more likely to vote anyway. Instead, she said the missing key is reaching those who don’t yet understand their connection to legislature and therefore don’t understand the implications of their vote. Perhaps, Griddine-Jones pointed out, the lack of understanding is due to the fact that civics is no longer taught in America’s schools.

Fellow NBCSL panelist Cameron Calvin Trimble from Hip-Politics agreed that there are generations of people out there who have seen presidential winners ascend to the highest office in the land without winning the popular vote and don’t understand how it happened. He said there’s a lot of work to do to get people comfortable with the idea if they show up to vote, that it’s actually going to mean something.

One way, says Trimble, is to figure out how to properly message the issues in the right way and not just before an election, but it’s about having year-long conversations. Dominik Whitehead is the Vice President of Campaigns of NAACP agreed, giving the example that talking with his dad is not the same as talking with his brother about key issues. In fact, Whitehead says it’s about meeting people where they are.

The Collective PAC Founder Quentin James proposed looking at the polling data where there’s a direct correlation between those motivated to vote based on how they perceive their power to vote. People who believe their vote has power will show up, he said. The low-investment voters aren’t getting targeted with messaging, but James says they’re exactly whose voice needs to be heard at the polls.

But, how can the electorate change the minds of individuals who don’t see the value in voting?

Trimble portends it’s because constituents don’t see legislators showing up in their community and that the people need to see a physical presence and high frequency of engagement. And, he suggests legislators look for organic ways to do so such as focusing on being seen and building and reinforcing relationships with local businesses to drive engagement.

Griddine-Jones suggests getting more people to vote is as simple as electing more people who enact good policy. And, it’s not about presidential elections—which often get the most attention—but congress. The more like-minded people who are voted into office, the better quality of work that comes out of them and the closer to get to a 218 majority.

James says understanding what elected officials are doing for constituents is all about how they communicate the impact. He offered that the Obama-Biden administration was able to articulate their accomplishments much better than the Biden-Harris administration has thus far. Though the Biden-Harris administration has accomplished a lot for the Black community, James said they’re just not clearly communicating it.

Griddine-Jones, who works with elected officials on how to campaign, said politics can often get stuck without emphasizing deliverables because many politicians are focused on their personal agendas in their political parties and not necessarily on what’s good for the whole. She said some of that is because many have been in office for a very long time and those who say they’d like to run for office don’t see an opening. But, she questioned, why go straight to congress when you can start local and in your state?

Griddine-Jones offered that term limits could help usher in a new generation of leaders. Whitehead agreed that many folks just don’t like to move but wasn’t quote sold on term limits. Instead, he emphasized the importance of creating a pipeline of future politicians by linking legacy organizations like the NAACP and others that deal with policy, elections and politics year-round. Nontraditional political entities should also be considered part of that subset, which can help hold elected officials accountable while in office.

Should politics be transactional? There was no consensus on the panel with Trimble suggesting that it’s not necessary even though there is so much financial wealth in the Black community. He said political wealth, whether it’s financial or in the form of Black political dynasties, should be a collaboration.

James, on the other hand, was torn in part due to his history as the nephew of an activist who worked with Reverend Jesse Jackson. James suggested that people are looking for bold leaders to fight for Black people like they did in the civil rights movement. Is Black Lives Matter just a great slogan? He wanted to know where the real impact was. And, while some current congressmen and women have been in office for a very long time, James said he wasn’t ready for a change of guard just yet because those individuals are actually able to point to real impact they’ve had. As one lawmaker put it, these folks have built great relationships and transitioning them out of office could be detrimental. Hence, the need for a strong pipeline because people can’t stay in office forever and it’s best to be prepared.

All panelists agreed that advancing the Black agenda should be high priority for everyone because what’s good for the Black community is good for everyone. While some legislators shared their disillusionment wondering whether or not their vote or voice counts in their respective state houses, others said it’s critical for Black people to represent Black people. Essentially, Black politicians need to use their legislative office to become disruptors.

How can Black state legislators become disruptors? First, the panel suggested creating messaging from Black legislators for Black constituents. The messaging should be blueprint talking points to get people civically engaged and personalized for each type of voter because Black constituents are not monolithic. This includes identifying the top issues for each group, especially in purple districts, and drill down without making it about parties—focus on the issues. Second, legislators need to educate influencers, athletes and anyone with a large following by reaching them or their PR people to use their large platform for good without contributing to the spread of disinformation.

But, cautioned the panel, legislators can’t forget about the local barber and beauty shops and churches, which are the critical grassroots efforts that have huge impact. Panelists also reminded legislators that smartphones and social media can turn any individual and any situation into an opportunity. Media coverage can be great, but legislators should remember that peer to peer contact, while more time-intensive, can have greater impact.

There are lots of resources available, including voter guides from the NAACP, to help build Black political power. The most important thing is to be intentional about it, including working collectively to coordinate and align efforts to push party infrastructure and funding. The panel challenged legislators following the NBCSL conference to find someone or a group that may not be on their regular outreach schedule and show up in places they don’t normally attend and talk to them. Use these additional discussions to practice communicating the impact they have.