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Voting isn't the be all and end all. If communities aren't mobilizing around their issues as well, the act of voting is a case of faith without works. Also, too many Americans are disenfranchised due to their citizenship status, involvement with the criminal legal system, and voter suppression tactics.
My feelings about our voting system are laced with skepticism, yet I rarely miss an election. Participating in this year's elections feels especially critical given the current global health crisis, rampant white supremacist violence, and how elected officials are (mis)handling these issues.
In my own state, Georgia, Black people are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, while our governor "reopens" the economy in spite of warnings from public health and scientific experts. This same tune is playing all over the South. The adage "vote or die" now feels far too literal.
Featured below are five Southern candidates running in primaries against opponents who don't grasp that moderate solutions aren't enough for our devastated but resilient region. Their platforms reflect a commitment to securing justice for their most marginalized constituents. I should note, this is by no means an exhaustive list, nor are these endorsements.
Robert LeVertis Bell for Louisville Metro Council, District 4 (Kentucky)
Primary date: June 23
Like kudzu on a tree, gentrification is overtaking historically Black neighborhoods in Louisville. City officials seek to cut funding from social services while giving incentives to developers. This isn't what democracy looks like to lifetime Louisville resident, public school teacher, and self-described "activist, radical organizer, and anticapitalist," 39-year-old city council candidate, Robert LeVertis Bell.
In an interview with Jacobin, Bell, who lives in the gentrifying Shelby Park neighborhood, remarked on the state of his community: "I have neighbors who have lived in this area for over 30 years who are receiving the tax assessment of their homes and are shocked because they can no longer even afford to pay the tax bill, because the property values have risen so high and they're on fixed incomes."
To remedy local housing crises, the Democratic Socialists of America member—running in the Democratic primary—is proposing legislation to fight evictions and slum landlords and establish affordable housing that poor people can actually afford. Bell envisions using his office to support tenant organizing in neglected public housing buildings. His rallying cry is for Louisville to be a "#SolidarityCity not an Austerity City."
Nabilah Islam for Georgia's Seventh Congressional District
Primary date: June 9
Millennials are often perceived as coddled and frivolous, when in reality, many are struggling to meet basic needs. Thirty-year-old Nabilah Islam exemplifies the quintessential millennial dilemma: In the midst of a pandemic, she's running in the Georgia Democratic primary for a U.S. House of Representatives seat with $30,000 in student loans to her name and no health insurance. As the child of working-class Bangladeshi immigrants, Islam lacks the cushion of generational wealth—her mother was recently laid off from a $14 an hour job because of the pandemic.
Islam is vocal about her plight, penning op-eds for Glamour and Teen Vogue magazines. In the latter, she argues candidates should be able to use campaign funds to purchase health insurance for themselves. She's filed a request with the Federal Election Commission to do just that. Islam writes, "I shouldn't have to worry about catching the flu while I knock on doors or that getting into a car accident could lead to thousands of dollars in medical debt."
Considering Islam's personal experiences, it's unsurpising that Medicare for All is one of her main issues, along with economic equity and immigration reform. Medicare for All could save lives in Georgia, which has the third highest uninsured rate in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Although her district spans suburbs northeast of Atlanta that have been represented by Republicans for decades, shifting demographics are changing things—the Democratic candidate for Georgia governor, Stacey Abrams, won the district in 2018, and Ballotpedia has named it a battleground district.
Candace Valenzuela for Texas' 24th Congressional District
Primary runoff date: July 14
Texas' anti-choice movement is determined to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to ban abortion care. On March 23, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order declaring abortion care in Texas to be "non-essential." Abortion providers immediately challenged the order, fighting the state in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Abbott's initial executive order recently expired, and abortion care in Texas has reconvened, but it remains in a precarious position.
Abortion care in Texas will only be preserved with the election of more pro-choice legislators, like Candace Valenzuela, a Democrat running for the state's 24th congressional district in the U.S. House. The candidate writes on her website, "… we need to not just make sure that abortion is widely accessible (and that we get rid of the Hyde amendment), but that birth control is low-cost, if not free, and that there is access to affordable prenatal and postnatal care for both baby and mama." The Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funds on abortion care in most cases.
Valenzuela is a mother of two, wife, educator, and former school board trustee who grew up experiencing homelessness and receiving public assistance. She's an advocate for a strong social safety net and public education. Prominent politicians, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have endorsed Valenzuela over her opponent, Kim Olson. If elected, Valenzuela will be the first Afro-Latina to ever serve in Congress, representing a district that covers Dallas and Fort Worth and comprises about 52 percent people of color, according to the Census Bureau. It's also considered a competitive district that Democrats have a shot at flipping.
Angela Nicole Walker for Vice President of the U.S. (South Carolina)
Green Party National Convention dates: July 9 – 12
There's a Black woman socialist (in her own words, "a Fred Hampton, Assata Shakur socialist") running for vice president of the U.S.—and this isn't her first time. Angela Nicole Walker, who lives in Florence, South Carolina, is the running mate of Green Party of the U.S. (GPUS) presidential candidate, Howie Hawkins, and ran for the same office with Socialist Party USA in 2016.
A longtime labor activist, a dump truck driver, and a mother, Walker also ran for sheriff in 2014 while living in Milwaukee. Hawkins commented on the race, "Angela won 20 percent of the vote with the message that the best way to cut street crime and violence was to fight poverty and economic frustration with living wages, affordable housing, grocery stores in food desserts, and good health care and public transit. She pledged no cooperation with ICE on the detention of immigrants without court-ordered warrants."
Walker and Hawkins are calling for a people-centered federal government response to COVID-19, a stark contrast to the demands of the two dominant political parties. Whether Southerners see their names on our November ballots hinges upon whether the duo wins the GPUS presidential primary, and then, on whether the party has gained ballot access in our state.
Christian Wise-Smith for Fulton District Attorney (Georgia)
Primary date: June 9
Being locked inside a cage is never okay, but especially not during a pandemic. On April 17, the district attorney's office in Fulton County, Georgia, home to the state's capital, reported that 2,600 people were incarcerated in their facilities, which have been the subject of lawsuits for overcrowding and deplorable conditions. Due to the pandemic, the same community groups who've been calling for an end to cash bail in Georgia for years are now demanding Fulton County release all who are incarcerated there.
Christian Wise-Smith, a candidate for Fulton District Attorney (DA), similarly recognizes the public health risks posed by mass incarceration, which is why ending cash bail is central to his platform. Smith's campaign website states, "When we hold people in jail without finding them guilty of a crime, not only are we violating basic human rights, we also force their exposure to large populations that rotate members on a daily basis with little to no medical screening."
Wise-Smith posits that the county's current justice system seeks to obtain convictions "by any means necessary," while his DA office would "value people over conviction rates" by eliminating policies that disproportionately harm Black, people of color, and low-income communities.
The former Fulton assistant DA is up against two others in Georgia's June 9 Democratic primary, including his former supervisor, Paul Howard, who's occupied the office since 1997. In addition to being accused of 12 public disclosure violations by the state ethics commission, Howard is facing three workplace harassment lawsuits.
Wise-Smith's other opponent, Fani Willis, was a lead prosecutor on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial, which ended with 11 Black educators sentenced to prison for allegedly cheating on students' standardized tests. Wise-Smith promises to end the "witch hunt" against educators who are appealing convictions.