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Suburban women of color could be key to defeating Trump

Bianca Keaton, Gwinnett County Democratic Party chair, left, talks on the phone while Penny Bernath and Michael Murphy-McCarthy work during a meeting Friday in Norcross, Ga.
Bianca Keaton, Gwinnett County Democratic Party chair, left, talks on the phone while Penny Bernath and Michael Murphy-McCarthy work during a meeting Friday in Norcross, Ga.Elijah Nouvelage/The Washington Post

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — In a strip mall in suburban Atlanta, Jenifer Ray, 46, a self-described homemaker, offered Cheez-It crackers and water to the voters waiting outside a polling place in Lawrenceville. Motivated by the pandemic and police brutality, she was helping with an election for the first time.

In Gainesville, about 45 minutes northeast, Maria del Rosario Palacios, 30, canvassed Hispanic neighborhoods with a group of volunteers that included her own mother, handing out masks and urging people to vote.

And in Duluth, another Atlanta suburb, Keeye Kim, 43, a Korean immigrant who became a citizen years ago, was planning to go to the polls for the first time, driven to cast a ballot for Democrat Joe Biden by what she sees as President Trump’s divisiveness.

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“I know that I need to definitely vote in this one,” she said.

Ask just about any pundit, political strategist or candidate and they will tell you that the key to victory in many swing states in 2020 is “suburban women,” a term that is often shorthand for white women — particularly when Trump talks about them, but also in some media portrayals of suburban activists.

But suburban women of color — like Kim, del Rosario Palacios and Ray, a Black woman — are playing an important role in turning Georgia and other often reliably Republican states, like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina, into political battlegrounds. Their votes, activism, and candidacies in diversifying counties have already flipped local offices and congressional districts from red to blue, and they will be a key part of any coalition that swings a statewide prize, like a Senate seat or a new haul of electoral votes, back to Democrats next week.

“It’s not just white voters and white women switching their vote choice,” said Bernard Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta who studies race and electoral politics. “Suburban women of color are being overlooked in the broader narrative about populations that are mobilizing against Donald Trump.”

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Suburban America is composed of about 35 percent people of color — a figure from the 2010 Census that has probably risen. But that number is much higher in Gwinnett County, which contains suburbs like Lawrenceville, Duluth, and Norcross, where the white population is about 35 percent, down from nearly 70 percent two decades ago. About 30 percent of people in the county are Black residents, and populations of Hispanic and Asian residents have grown swiftly, to about 22 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Gwinnett, as well as nearby Cobb and Henry counties, was a rare bright spot for Democrats in the South in 2016, because they backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton after years of voting for Republicans. Now, the party is hoping it will help them win the state — and with it, the presidency.

It’s a place where Trump’s appeals to suburban women, whom he has begged to “please like me,” appear to be backfiring, according to numerous women interviewed there last weekend. Although he has acknowledged the diversity of the suburbs on the stump, Trump’s calls for “law and order” and his insistence that he “saved your damn neighborhood” from affordable housing are perceived by some women as an attempt to divide them by race. They said a president who has pushed racist and anti-immigrant sentiment further into the open has made them feel less safe.

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“It puts you on guard — as a Black woman, you’re on guard anyway,” said Beatrice Hardee, 59, a school administrative assistant from Snellville, who showed up unannounced at the Gwinnett County Democrats office one day last week, ready to help in whatever way she could.

Hardee and her friends had exchanged exasperated text messages when incumbent Senator David Perdue, a Republican, mocked the pronunciation of Kamala Harris’s first name at a campaign event. “He’s been in the Senate long enough to know — that was just his little dog whistle,” she said.

Ray, the first-time volunteer, said she didn’t see herself or the place she lives in Trump’s portrayal of the suburbs.

“That’s what I think of when he says it — not even Black women can be suburban women,” she said. “It’s as though we live in the ghetto.”

This year, Democrats are hoping for bigger margins in these counties to power statewide wins. The strategy was obvious on Saturday, when both of the Democratic candidates in the state’s two Senate races, Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock, made a rare joint appearance at a rally in a sprawling park in Duluth, where baseball and Pop Warner football games were happening around them.

“We expect to get a lot of traction here,” said Warnock, in an interview after the rally. “Black women are in the suburbs, white women are in the suburbs, Asian-American Pacific-Islanders are in the suburbs, Latinx women are in the suburbs — just as the suburbs are changing, Georgia’s changing, and our politics will change as a result.”

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Women of color have already begun to make electoral gains in the state. In the 2018 midterms, Lucy McBath, a Black Democrat, narrowly defeated a Republican incumbent in the neighboring Sixth Congressional District. That year, Black female Democrats like Jasmine Clark and Shelly Hutchinson also won seats representing parts of Gwinnett County in the state General Assembly that were previously held by Republicans; in 2016, Brenda Lopez of Norcross, an immigrant from Mexico, became the first Latina ever elected to the General Assembly. Democrats of color are also increasing their representation in county government.

This year, Democrats are hoping they will also flip the Seventh District, which contains part of Gwinnett County. The Democratic candidate, Carolyn Bourdeaux, lost by 433 votes in 2018, making it the closest congressional race in the country. This time, she is hoping new Democratic voters in the district — 85,000 people voted in her primary this year, more than twice as many as in 2018 — will put her over the top.

Bianca Keaton, chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, spoke during a meeting at home in Norcross, Ga., in November, 2019.
Bianca Keaton, chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, spoke during a meeting at home in Norcross, Ga., in November, 2019. Elijah Nouvelage/The Washington Post

Bianca Keaton, a wife and mother from Norcross, got involved in local Democratic politics in early 2017, hoping to shake off the sick feeling she was left with after Trump’s election. Now the first Black woman to chair the Gwinnett County Democrats, she said nearly 100,000 new voters have been registered in her county since the midterms.

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“Women of color are driving the turnout; they’re driving this effort,” said Keaton, who credited the 2018 gubernatorial campaign and voter mobilization efforts of Stacey Abrams, the former state House minority leader, with drawing in so many new voters.

“The way to win elections is by building diverse coalitions in these counties,” said state Senator Nikema Williams, who is the first Black woman to chair the state’s Democratic Party. “When Georgia flips, you can look to having a Black woman county party chair in Gwinnett County, look at all of the Black women stepping up to run for office in the Georgia suburbs, and you will see that Democrats of color were pivotal in flipping Georgia this election.”

There is also a bevy of groups organizing to turn out Hispanic and Asian-American voters and working on voter protection in the suburbs, often with women at the helm.

“Overwhelmingly, our volunteers are young women of color that have been knocking doors, that have been texting, that have been at the polls protecting voters,” said Gigi Pedraza, founder and executive director of the Latino Community Fund.

People of color do not vote monolithically, and it is not at all clear that the growing populations of Hispanic and Asian voters in Atlanta’s suburbs will only boost Democrats.

And there is no doubt that winning over suburban white women who did not vote in 2016, or who backed Trump, will also be critical for Democrats to secure a victory in a presidential race that polls show is close. But the focus on those women by the campaigns — as well as by the media on white suburban activists with names like “rage moms” — has left some suburban women of color feeling left out of the discussion.

“What gets lost in the conversation about the suburban moms, is the fact that a lot of this organizing… is being done predominantly by people of color, and specifically by women of color,” said Lopez, the state representative.

As they lined up outside polling places and at campaign events last weekend, women of color rolled their eyes at Trump’s depiction of the suburbs and cast votes for Biden that they hoped would improve life for their communities.

“What he’s trying to do is appeal to someone imaginary in his mind,” Stella Gerardino, 56, said of Trump. She added that her motivation to vote for Biden is “fear, as a woman of color, of the Supreme Court turning completely conservative.”

Sham-e Rahman, who was walking to the polls in Lawrenceville with her daughter and husband, Sheikh, who is the first Muslim elected to the state Senate in Georgia, said Trump’s rhetoric had made things harder for her children.

“My son, he goes to the fifth grade,” she said. “He said, you know, I think we are not American, the white people are American.”

And at a polling place in the park, near where the rally was held, Samantha Cabrera, 19, had just cast her first ever presidential vote, for Biden.

“He wants the best for my people,” she said, and explained what she meant by that: “Minorities.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.