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For many Black women, Kamala Harris’ victory means more than holding office

In Tampa Bay, the vice president-elect has helped energize political activism and driven young people to start a conversation about race.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff visit DC Central Kitchen on Wednesday in Washington.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff visit DC Central Kitchen on Wednesday in Washington. [ ANDREW HARNIK | AP ]
Published Nov. 26, 2020

There will be no friends or relatives around the Thanksgiving table for Rene Flowers this year, none of her children to help afterward as she raises her teal, white and silver Christmas tree.

It’s a sad break in a decades-old tradition.

Still, Flowers is delighted to see the end of another tradition as this deadly and divisive year comes to a close.

Rene Flowers arrives at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church to cast her ballot Aug. 18 in the state primary election. Flowers won election as the first Black woman on the Pinellas County Commission.
Rene Flowers arrives at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church to cast her ballot Aug. 18 in the state primary election. Flowers won election as the first Black woman on the Pinellas County Commission. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

To Flowers, it become official Monday when the White House opened the door for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to begin their transition into office, making Harris the first woman, first Black person and first South Asian person on a winning presidential ticket.

“I was just elated, tears in my eyes,” said Flowers, 54, a pioneer in her own right as the first Black woman elected to the Pinellas County Commission. “There was not one moment when I felt this day would not come, and it’s a win for the people. This is a win focused on restoring the heart and soul of this nation.”

The same day Flowers was elected, Michele Rayner made history as the first openly LGBTQ woman of color elected to the Florida Legislature. Caprice Edmond won a seat on the Pinellas County School Board, avoiding what would have been the absence of Black representation for the first time in nearly two decades.

Tori Brown, right, waiting to speak here at a police review board meeting in June, was inspired by the election of Kamala Harris to help start a conversation about race at the University of South Florida.
Tori Brown, right, waiting to speak here at a police review board meeting in June, was inspired by the election of Kamala Harris to help start a conversation about race at the University of South Florida. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

And Black women across the country came to hope that what they were seeing as certifications trickled in from each state was true – that the Biden-Harris ticket they worked for by registering voters and canvassing neighborhoods would ultimately carry the day.

“Now, everyone knows that it’s not a dream,” Flowers said. “It’s real. They won.”

Like the vice-president-elect, Flowers is a graduate of Howard University and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first in the nation established for black women in 1908.

“This is a new day for Black people,” said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a fellow AKA member who represents Florida’s 24th district. “It’s a new day for Black women because we have [been] carrying on our shoulders, for generations, the entire race. So now, a Black woman has catapulted to the highest office of the land, the vice president of the United States, and I’m just on edge.”

Still, the sisterhood that many Black women share with Harris didn’t guarantee her their full support. Some younger members of the storied sorority, like University of South Florida student Tori Brown, backed progressive Bernie Sanders for president. They question Harris’ past support for criminal justice reforms that they see as helping build a school-to-prison pipeline.

“Harris uses her political capital in a way that particularly impacts black and brown youth and aided a lot of policies I don’t agree with,” said Brown, 20. “We may all be members of the same organization, but we all have varying views and political identities.”

In Florida, 57 percent of Black women are registered to vote, the highest share of any racial, ethnic or gender voting bloc, according to an analysis of state Division of Elections data by former USF political science professor Susan MacManus.

The analysis also shows that registration among Black men falls far behind, at just 42 percent.

The rise this year of the Black Lives Matter campaign led Brown to launch the youth-led Black Collective Movement, dedicated to addressing systemic racism in the Tampa Bay region and holding those in power accountable.

Brown and her sisters at USF’s Quality Zeta Upsilon AKA chapter have used Harris’ victory as a springboard to host a series of virtual, student-led town halls on race, entitled, “DiffiKult Konversations.”

Ella Coffee, a 2019 candidate for Tampa City Council, worked for the election of the Biden-Harris ticket as a deputy field director.
Ella Coffee, a 2019 candidate for Tampa City Council, worked for the election of the Biden-Harris ticket as a deputy field director.

For longtime political activists like Ella Coffee of Tampa, seeing young women like Brown step up to speak about these unspoken realities is an election victory all its own.

Coffee, 48, lost her bid for election to the Tampa City Council in 2018, leaving the seven-member council without a woman for the first time since 1971 – in a cycle some observers had dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”

She ran despite her ongoing breast cancer treatments and never expected to win but decided she couldn’t sit by when no other women had stepped up.

“It showed me that older women have to make sure we’re passing our knowledge of how politics really works — the history of why something failed or why someone won — down to the next generation or else they’ll just keep trying to reinvent the wheel,” Coffee said.

Coffee later joined the Florida Democratic Party as a deputy field director and worked for Harris’ election.

“Now we can see — it was our voice, our vote, that created change,” she said. “Democracy works, but only if you tell your story.”