Omeria Scott thought poor Mississippians needed someone who cared more about their concerns.
Pam Keith felt her experience as a Naval officer made her well equipped to fight for voters in her Florida district.
“I said, ‘It’s on. I’m running. We deserve better,’ ” said Underwood, a nurse whose Democratic primary is Tuesday.
Underwood, Scott and Keith are part of a groundswell of interest from women of color, particularly African-American women, in running for Congress this year. The trend comes against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement focusing on sexual harassment, the historic Women’s March and the critical role black women played in recent elections, including last year’s upset in Alabama.
“Black women are recognizing more and more the power we have in our vote,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable Public Policy Network. “It’s not just electing public officials, but being elected ourselves.”
Black women are among what is expected to be a record number of women running for Congress this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
The center doesn’t yet have the number of women of color running, but director Debbie Walsh suspects many are African-American. Black women are disproportionately Democrats. Of the 439 women running for the House, 342 are Democrats.
“I would bet money that there are more women of color this time running than have ever run before in a primary just because there are more women, and it’s all on the Democratic side,” Walsh said.
The election of President Trump spurred more women, particularly women of color, to get more politically involved, say women advocates and candidates. Black women mostly supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, exit polls show.
“If people were thinking about running (they felt) that now was the time to stand up, speak up for yourself to get a seat at the table,” said Rep. Robin Kelly, a Democrat from Illinois and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls. “I think women felt empowered. Also, I think that women are seeing the difference, particularly black women … they’re making with elections.”
Black women are credited with helping Democrat Doug Jones pull off a stunning victory last December in the Alabama Senate race, a ruby red state.
“It was a great wake-up to people who haven’t been following the women’s vote,” said Walsh.
Emily’s List started its Run to Win, a training initiative set up after the 2016 election in response to the huge wave of women, including African-Americans, interested in running, said Vanessa Cardenas, a spokeswoman for the national group, which supports Democratic pro-choice candidates.
Cardenas said African-American women outnumbered all other participants at several training sessions. She pointed to a progressive conference in Atlanta last summer where 99 percent of the 100 trainees were black and another in Houston earlier this year where nearly all were black.
“We know that black women are really driving the support when it comes to Democrats,” Cardenas said. “It’s very evident that they’re supporting progressive policies and they’re the backbone of the Democratic Party when it comes to voting and participation. It is very real.”
Walsh said interest in the Center for American Women and Politics’ training programs jumped dramatically after Trump was elected. She said there was interest from women in red and blue districts, but mostly from Democrats.
“Frankly, it’s angry progressive Democratic women who want to unseat incumbent Republicans and change the balance of the power,’’ Walsh said. “That’s what we kept hearing, that women felt like they could not afford to be on the sidelines anymore.”
Keith said her passion to run again — this time for Congress — intensified after the 2016 election. The Florida attorney and Democrat lost her bid for the U.S. Senate when she ran for the first time that year.
Her campaign is focusing on the environment, gun control, health care and immigration.
“I have a deep passion to make life fabulous for Americans,” said Keith, 49, the former Naval officer. “Where I see so many opportunities to make the day-to-day existence of Americans better and those opportunities being squandered, I am called to lift my voice and use my advocacy skill and focus my passion on moving the people in a different direction.”
Scott, a Mississippi state representative, would be the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate from the state if she were to unseat Republican Sen. Roger Wicker.
But Scott, who served 25 years in the Legislature, said her campaign is not focused on race.
“In Mississippi, there is no color when it comes to being 50th in health care. There is no color when we’re 46th in education, when we’re 48th in the economy, when we’re 49 among 50 states for opportunity,” she said. “That’s why we need to do something different.”
Scott, a Democrat, said she wants to keep young Mississippians in the state and push for more infrastructure projects. “We need a new messenger with a new message,’’ she said.
Advocates say the trend of black women seeking office goes beyond Congress and point to recent victories in other races, including the election of Democrat Latoya Cantrell as the first woman mayor of New Orleans. She will take office in May.
And in what could also be a first — Stacey Abrams, a Democrat — is running for governor in Georgia. If she wins, she would be the first African-American female governor in the country.
Campbell said in addition to running for office, more black women are leading get-out-the-vote efforts and setting up political action committees to leverage the power of black voters.
“We don’t just stop at ourselves,” she said.”We engage our families, our communities, our significant others, our children and encourage them to vote.”
Still, much of the focus is on those black women who are running for Congress where 50 years ago Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat from Brooklyn, was the first African-American woman elected to Congress.
Chisholm was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has grown to a record 48 members. Twenty-one of the caucus members are women.
Kelly said momentum probably increased when three more women of color were elected to the Senate in 2016, including Democrats Kamala Harris of California, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. They joined Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, from Hawaii.
“When people see someone that looks like them they can see themselves or they see the possibilities,” Kelly said. “They have hope.”
Underwood said what’s unique about the field of black women candidates this cycle is that many are running in districts that are not predominately black. African-Americans make up only 2.9 percent of her district in Illinois.
“I’m running in the community I grew up in,” said Underwood, who worked on public health emergencies and disasters during the Obama administration. “This could very easily be a similar story of a woman’s leadership journey if I was a white woman. I just happen to be black.
“All voices are needed at our policy-making table,” she said.
Keith, whose Florida district is diverse, said the increasing number of black women running for office is part of the national conversation about the political contributions of women of color.
“People are not used to seeing people that look like me in that role so there’s a hump to get over, but you can get them over it,’’ she said. “I think all of us are kind of reclaiming our time and rightly so.”