When Tiara Mack announced her candidacy for the Rhode Island state Senate last year, few believed the 26-year-old Black lesbian from the South would unseat the longtime incumbent, Harold Metts, a Democrat who opposes abortion and had served in the state Legislature since 1985.
“I was my biggest advocate; I was my biggest cheerleader,” said Mack, who ousted Metts in the primaries with 60 percent of the vote.
Metts, a Baptist church deacon and retired educator, spent 15 years in the state Senate after 20 years in the state House. Defeating him was no easy feat for Mack, a recent Brown University graduate, activist and volunteer. She spent a year canvassing throughout the heavily Hispanic district that includes a swath of Providence, Rhode Island’s capital.
“I would not do this if I didn't think I had a real chance, and if I didn't think that there was room for more voices, different voices in my district,” Mack told NBC News. “So that was a little hard, but winning by such a big margin was something I was not expecting.”
"I'm going to be unapologetically Black, I'm going to be unapologetically queer, and I'm going to be unapologetically young, and I'm going to push back against the system that tells us we don't deserve justice now."
In the general election, Mack, a progressive Democrat, defeated independent Kevin Gilligan with nearly 90 percent of the vote, becoming the first openly LGBTQ Black person elected to the Rhode Island state Senate. She is part of a rainbow wave of at least 220 LGBTQ candidates who won on Election Day, according to NBC News’ review of data provided by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a group that trains, supports and advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer candidates.
Mack said she will champion policies to raise the minimum wage and pass affordable housing reforms, two economic challenges that she said are hitting Rhode Islanders hard during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her more long-term goals include championing the Green New Deal, a policy she sees as urgent for Rhode Island. Perched on the Atlantic Ocean, the nation’s tiniest state is losing about an inch of land to rising seas every eight years, according to Sea Level Rise, a website that simplifies the risks, causes and solutions of rising oceans.
“There's going to be no Rhode Island unless we're really thinking about ways that we can create clean and green energy,” Mack said.
Her journey into politics began as a college student in Providence, where she moved in 2012 to attend Brown University. At Brown, she immersed herself in community activism, teaching sex ed at local high schools and volunteering at women’s organizations, including Planned Parenthood and the Women's Health & Education Fund of Rhode Island, organizations that support reproductive health and abortion access.
Moving to liberal Providence was a big culture shock for Mack, who grew up in a Christian household in the conservative South, spending parts of her childhood between Georgia and South Carolina. As a girl, Mack said she was taught to value modesty and even signed an abstinence pledge in the sixth grade. She was also poor. Her mother, a teacher, struggled to financially support her five children, and took jobs at restaurants and in retail to make ends meet.
The liberal culture of Brown University was one Mack had never experienced. There, she began to meet people who were LGBTQ, and for the first time, started having conversations about sex, pleasure and bodily autonomy, she said. But life in the New England town could be both liberating and alienating. Black students comprised just 10 percent of undergraduates, and most students came from privileged backgrounds, she said.
“Being low income, Black and from the conservative Christian South was a lot of culture shock and narratives that I definitely was not prepared for when walking on campus,” said Mack.
Last year, she testified alongside other women on behalf of the Reproductive Privacy Act, legislation that codified Roe vs. Wade — the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion — into Rhode Island law. That June, the RPA passed the Senate in a 21-17 vote and sailed through the House on a 45-29 vote before it was signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo.
“I'm really thankful that Rhode Island, after years and years of advocacy, was able to codify Roe vs. Wade, which is the protection to make sure that abortion is safe and legal in our state,” Mack said. “It’s there, but it makes me really worried for our surrounding states that do not have that.”
It was while testifying on behalf of the RPA that Mack began to play with the idea of a Senate run. She was surprised, she said, by how many Rhode Island Democratic senators were anti-abortion. In the Rhode Island state Senate, Democrats outnumber Republicans 33 to 5, according to Ballotpedia. However, many Democratic members of the state’s General Assembly are endorsed by the anti-abortion group Right to Life. Liberal voters in Rhode Island are largely unaware of this, Mack said, but she said this is changing.
“And that's what's really exciting, like really exposing to Rhode Islanders that we don't have this blue state that we all want to praise and want to live in,” she said. “We have a lot of folks who are not thinking about progress for all people.”
Testifying in the Senate on behalf of the RPA taught her much about state politics, Mack said, and introduced her to the senator she would later unseat: Harold Metts, one of the many Democratic senators who opposed the legislation. Mack said she later sent him a postcard urging him to reconsider his stance. In response, he sent her a letter citing Bible passages and saying he would not “support abortion bills.”
“So that was really the catalyst. I was like, ‘I can't believe I'm getting this letter in 2019,’” Mack recalled. Five months later, she said, she launched her campaign.
Determined to unseat Metts, Mack spent a year tirelessly knocking on doors in District 6, talking to residents, introducing herself as “Tiara Mack, a queer Black, formerly low-income educator and activist,” she said.
“All of those identities are political, whether or not we see them,” she said, adding that a lot of residents challenged her about why those identities should matter to them.
“I think it was important to be adamant on every single door, like ‘This is who I am, this is why I'm running, whether or not that's something that you resonate with or not,’” she said.
Mack thinks they voted for her, she said, because voters “value people who are firm in their beliefs and who are not going to back down.”
“I am not going to do that,” said Mack. “I'm going to be unapologetically Black, I'm going to be unapologetically queer, and I'm going to be unapologetically young, and I'm going to push back against the system that tells us we don't deserve justice now.”