In a country that has only elected two African-American governors in the modern era, the presence of three black gubernatorial candidates on stage at the same time was bound to draw a crowd and generate excitement, and it did. Maryland’s Benjamin T. Jealous (D), Georgia’s Stacey Abrams (D) and Florida’s Andrew Gillum (D), all surprise winners of gubernatorial primaries this year, were given the rock star treatment at a raucous and well-attended Congressional Black Caucus Foundation panel discussion in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Ostensibly a “Role Models of Excellent Project Gubernatorial Forum,” the event served as a pep rally of sorts for three candidates who all acknowledged feeling the weight of history as their races draw toward November.
“This is an historic conversation and we know that,” said moderator Angela Rye, CEO of IMPACT Strategies, a political advocacy firm in D.C. “Just knowing the significance of this moment that we can have three at the same damn time. That is such an incredible, awe-inspiring thing.” Only three African-Americans have served as governor since Reconstruction — Douglas L. Wilder (D-Va.) and Deval Patrick (D-Mass.), who were elected, and David A. Paterson (D-N.Y.), a lieutenant governor who succeeded Gov. Elliott Spitzer (D) when Spitzer resigned. “This country has no idea what’s about to happen as far as the transformation of leadership,” said Jealous. “We’ve had the first trans(gender) candidate in Maryland. The first trans candidate win in Virginia. They stand on Doug Wilder’s shoulders and we stand on their shoulders.”
Gillum and Abrams, whose Republican opponents have generated more race-tinged controversy than Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), discussed the role race has played in their contests. All three candidates discussed their backgrounds, the issues they’ve confronted on the campaign trail and the impact of President Trump on American politics.
The CBC Foundation is officially non-partisan, but the crowd at the forum was unabashedly enthusiastic in its support for the three Democrats. Rye, a liberal media commentator and strategist, gushed over the candidates and encouraged all in attendance, and those watching online, to be actively involved in the fall campaign and to vote.
Abrams, who is seeking to become the first African-American woman to lead a state, said, “When I think about why this is so meaningful, it’s governors who decide our lives. More than the president, more than the mayor.”
“Mass incarceration didn’t start in 1994,” she said. “It started with Ronald Reagan in California when he was governor. ‘Stand your ground’ started in Florida with Jeb Bush. The erosion of the social safety net that we are trying to knit back together started with Tommy Thompson when he was the governor of Wisconsin. And Jim Crow was not federal law, it was state law.”
There were poignant moments, such as when Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, discussed the unprovoked shooting of a black man, in front of his wife and three children, by a white man in a convenience store parking lot. “We all know that race still matters in this society,” he said. “The challenge that we have, frankly, as three black candidates running in states that are not majority-black, is that we have to figure out a way to communicate these things in such a way that even the majority white population can have some empathy for.”
There was also humor. “Look, I have natural hair,” said Abrams, former minority leader in the Georgia legislature, to applause. “I am of a very rich brown hue.”
“I’m richer,” interjected Gillum, to still more cheers and laughs. “It’s the only thing I’m rich at.”
“No comment,” said Jealous, who is biracial, good-naturedly. “Just go on.”
Rye jumped in with support. “You know what, Ben? We’re still really black on the inside.” Said Jealous: “Black is a state of mind, baby.”