December 5, 2022
Women in Politics
Ashley Gantt says she was motivated to run for the first time when the incumbent, state Rep. James Bush, voted for the GOP-led ban on abortions after 15 weeks. She challenged him and won.

Photo: Carlos Bernard

Women in Politics
Republican Kiyan Michael, who wants to represent the Jacksonville area in the Florida Huse, credits former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll with helping her through the process of running for office.
Women in Politics
"Women of color running will be helpful in terms of energizing their local electorate to turn out," says state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the first Black woman to serve as leader of the Florida House Democratic Caucus.

Photo: Arielle Bader / Tampa Bay Times

Women in Politics
Republican Susan Plasencia is stepping away from a role in her family's business to seek a Florida House seat.

Photo: Brandi Image Photography

Women in Politics
Patricia Russo, executive director of The Campaign School at Yale, says the initial increase in minority candidates came during Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Women in Politics
Former Florida CFO Alex Sink is the founder of Ruth's List Florida, which helps to recruit, train, and support pro-choice women who are Democrats to run at the state and local level.

Photo: Chris Lake

Women in Politics
Republican Vennia Francois re-entered politics after her mentor, John Mica, lost his congressional seat. She's eager to share lessons from unsuccessful campaign bids with other women wanting to run.

Photo: Eric Cucciaioni

Women in Politics
Janelle Perez, a Democrat state Senate candidate, credits Republican former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as a mentor.

Photo: Nick Garcia

Women in Politics
Val Demings, a three-term member of Congress, would be the first Black woman to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate if she unseats Sen. Marco Rubio.

Politics

Black and Hispanic women running for office are shaking up Florida's political landscape

One of the nation's most diverse and divided states sees an uptick in female candidates.

Women Candidates

  • 49% Nearly half of women candidates running for major state or federal office in Florida are women of color.
  • 80% vs. 13% Black women candidates running as Democrats vs. as Republicans.
  • 60% vs. 37% Hispanic women candidates running as Republicans vs. as Democrat.

Source: Florida Division of Elections; Susan A. MacManus, David Bonanza, Anthony A. Cilluffo.

Ashley Gantt already has two careers under her belt: Teacher and attorney. Now she’s embarking on a third: State legislator.

For years, Gantt served in projects at the local level in Miami-Dade, but she never ran for office. That changed when James Bush, a Black Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade in the Florida House of Representatives, voted in the 2022 legislative session to outlaw abortion beyond 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape, incest or human trafficking.

“We have to undo the harm that’s been done,” Gantt says. She decided to challenge Bush, who had served in the House off and on for 30 years, and beat him. Because there was no Republican opposition, the District 109 seat representing a slice of Miami-Dade is hers.

Gantt says she ran for office to promote better opportunity for disenfranchised people, especially young residents. She taught social studies to fifth-graders in Marks, Miss., for two years with the Teach For America Mississippi Delta Corps and taught high school in Miami-Dade public schools for five years. “People are desperate for help, and it’s not because they haven’t been working and trying,” she says.

Roughly 350 miles up the Florida coast, Kiyan Michael has been campaigning as a Republican in Florida House District 16, encompassing eastern Duval County and Jacksonville’s beaches. A retired Navy wife and political novice who spent many years serving as a Navy ombudsman (a volunteer liaison between commanders and Navy families), Michael is motivated by a personal tragedy: The 2007 death of her 21-year-old son Brandon in a car crash. The at-fault driver was an undocumented immigrant who had been twice deported — prompting Michael and her husband to speak out for more robust enforcement of immigration laws. But by 2021, Michael felt she’d exhausted her impact as an activist.

“I’ve pushed bills — the ban on sanctuary cities. I’ve spoken in the House and Senate again for E-Verify. Now, sometimes you have to get in, in order to change things and to make lasting change,” she says.

With the endorsement of Gov. Ron DeSantis and an influx of big donations, Michael defeated a Jacksonville Beach city councilman and a former state representative (both white men) in the GOP primary with nearly 47% of the vote. If she beats the two NPA write-in candidates in this month’s general election, she’s likely to become the only Black Republican woman in the Florida Legislature.

While Michael and Gantt inhabit opposite ends of the political spectrum, both of their campaigns reflect the burgeoning trend of women of color entering Florida politics. Slightly more than one-third (203 of 593) of candidates running for major office (governor, a Cabinet post, the Legislature and U.S. Congress) in Florida in 2022 are women, and approximately 49% are women of color. That is a larger share than women of color represent in the population.

And they’re not just running: Like Gantt and Michael, many are winning contested primaries and advancing to the general election.

Black women candidates performed especially well in contested primaries in August, a critical first hurdle in the election gauntlet. More than half (53%) of Black women candidates won their primaries this year, compared to 41% of non-Hispanic white women candidates. Black women running as Democrats performed the best, with 56% winning their primaries vs. 33% of Black Republican women. Hispanic women running as Republicans, meanwhile, appear to have an edge over those running as Democrats, with 36% winning their GOP primary battles compared with 20% on the Democratic side. Combined, Hispanic women running for office had a 31% success rate in the primaries.

Setting the tone

Florida’s trendlines are important as the nation’s third-largest state by population and one of its most ethnically diverse, especially among younger generations. Political experts look to Florida as a harbinger of the nation’s more multiethnic, multiracial future.

When The Campaign School at Yale University kicked off its non-partisan, issue-neutral political training program for women in 1994, most participants were in their mid-40s and Caucasian. Executive Director Patricia Russo started noticing a shift around 2007-08. Most applicants were in their early 30s, and they were primarily women of color. “That trend continues to this day,” Russo says. “This year, as in recent years at our school, the majority of women attending our five-day intensive are women of color.”

Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst and professor emerita of political science from the University of South Florida, attributes the uptick in Black and Hispanic women running for office to rising education levels, which make them more likely to attain professional success, build networks and be able to participate in the political process. “It closely tracks with the increase in their educational attainment,” she notes. “There is a sizable gender gap among persons of color graduating from college. Women of color are more likely than their male counterparts to go to and complete college.” And it’s a trend that she and her fellow researchers are seeing across the South.

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, the first African- American woman to be elected Democratic Party leader in the state House, personifies those findings. Born and raised in Polk County, she earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard (where she was the first Black woman to be elected president of the student government) and her law degree at Georgetown University. She practices business litigation at Carlton Fields. Representing Hillsborough County’s District 63, she first ran for office in 2018 and is helping build the Democrats’ bench.

“You have the first Black woman vice president. You have Stacey Abrams, who secured a major party’s nomination for governor. Those two ladies, in particular, are showing Black women that it can be done,” Driskell says.

“Women of color running will be helpful in terms of energizing their local electorate to turn out, which I’m hopeful will help with top-of-the-ticket races. If we can drive the turnout in our own races and do our part, it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats,” Driskell says. “The goal is to build something over time.”

Fielding a more diverse slate of candidates also has become a strategic imperative for Republicans.

Tags: Government/Politics & Law, Feature

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