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Record number of black women are candidates in Alabama

They're fueled by Democrat Doug Jones' stunning upset Senate win, the #MeToo movement, opposition to Trump and a desire to carry on Obama's legacy.
Image: Jameria Moore, an attorney and candidate for Jefferson County probate judge, works at her campaign headquarters in a back room at her law office with volunteers on March 13, 2018.
Jameria Moore at campaign headquarters in a back room at her law office.Andrea Morales / for NBC News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It's an unlikely location for a political uprising: A onetime drug rehab center in an office park, where metal bars still line the windows and the hum from the nearby I-20/I-59 overpass is constant.

But it is here that Jameria Moore, a 49-year-old attorney, launched her campaign for a judgeship on the Jefferson County Probate Court. She is one of about three dozen African-American women who are running for office as Democrats across deep-red Alabama.

It's an unprecedented number, according to party officials. Many, like Moore, are running for the first time. And many, like Moore, say Democrat Doug Jones' unexpected Senate victory in December inspired them to take a chance.

But there's more to this wave of black women candidates than that.

"It's so important that we step up, that we show the nation that we can lead," Moore told NBC News in a recent interview, as a small team of volunteers bustled about her law office and prepared for the campaign ahead. "That, here in Alabama, we're ready to lead our state into the future."

Her campaign is mounting a robust effort in a local race with a crowded Democratic primary field — all in an intensely conservative state with a history of racial division.

Jameria Moore is one of about three dozen African-American women who are running for office as Democrats across deep-red Alabama.Andrea Morales / for NBC News

"I have friends in other states who say, 'I don't know how you live in Alabama,' and I tell them, 'Why wouldn't I live in Alabama?'" she said. "This is an opportunity, that's how I look at it."

In the heady months after Jones' winan upset fueled in part by exceptionally high turnout by African-American women — a new energy has fueled Jefferson County Democrats.

Ninety-eight percent of black women voted for Jones, according to an NBC News exit poll — a decisive factor in the former federal prosecutor becoming the first Democrat in 25 years to be elected to the Senate from Alabama. Now, just three months later, an unprecedented number of African-American women are taking the next step in building on that momentum by running for local and statewide office.

More than 35 black women have launched campaigns or re-election efforts, and more than three-quarters of them are running here in Birmingham, in state and county judicial races, or for seats in the state legislature. Organizers and local officials say it's evidence of a small but significant Democratic burst of political activism that could put a blue-hued dent in a deep-Trump state.

"Alabama is not a state that is known for electing women to office, so, in some sense, this is surprising, historic and much needed," said Richard Fording, a professor of public policy at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The effort has been partly driven by national groups, which hit the ground during Jones' campaign and, after his win, stuck around, sensing further progress could be made.

"This place that was so resistant to change, where, now, a group of women who were looked down upon and dealt first-hand with the vestiges of slavery and segregation are the ones who can lead us forward — it's monumental," said Quentin James, founder and director of the Collective PAC, a two-year-old group focusing on recruiting African-American candidates in statewide and local races across the U.S.

"Where better to demonstrate the progress being made than in Alabama," he added.

'A larger trend'

The new wave of candidates, as well as the voters who have empowered them, say their efforts and progress are driven not only by the encouragement they felt after Jones' win, but the wide-ranging impact of the #MeToo movement, Barack Obama's presidency and Trump's divisiveness and perceived animosity toward minorities.

A half-dozen African-American women now running for office said in recent interviews that the gains made in local races in 2016 — when nine African-American women were elected as judges in Jefferson County — helped light the fuse.

As anti-Trump fervor rose, so, too, did the desire of black women to enter politics. And by fall 2017, as the #MeToo movement swept the country in October, and Jones won in December, it erupted into a full-blown fire.

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., a four-term congresswoman running for re-election this fall who was cited as a trailblazer by many of the black women now running for office, said it's vital that women of all races be a part of the policy-making process "as the nation grapples with the realities of sexual harassment and assault."

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., said it's vital that women of all races be part of the policy-making process "as the nation grapples with the realities of sexual harassment and assault."

Richard Mauk, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party, said he first felt inklings of change in the majority-Democratic county about 10 years ago when Obama came to power.

"It showed that black people can be elected," he said. "While it took a few years to trickle down, he, along with Michelle Obama, gave a lot of black women the idea that, yes, this is possible."

Mauk said the party does't have reliable records of candidate demographics, but said he'd never seen anything like this year's large number of black women running.

Richard Mauk, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party, at his law practice in Birmingham. Andrea Morales / for NBC News

Jones, for his part, pointed out that African-American women have long been part of the political process in Alabama, even though they are significantly underrepresented in the state legislature.

"The difference now is simply the fact that you have more voices rising up," said Jones, who added that he recognized his own election as something that empowered this new wave of African-American women to seek office.

Doug Jones' upset victory in Alabama's Senate race last year has inspired other Democrats in the state to seek office, some for the first time. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Meanwhile, James, of Collective PAC, singled out Trump as the main motivator.

"You have a president who attacks black women," James said, pointing to recent criticism out of the White House of two Democratic congresswomen, Maxine Waters of California and Frederica Wilson of Florida. "They're fed up, we're fed up, and … it's crucial we have more voices on the public stage to fight back."

'A new sense of empowerment'

Cheri Gardner, a Democratic candidate for Jefferson County circuit clerk, says she felt "electrified" when Jones won. And while she entered her race before Jones' victory — as Jameria Moore did — she feels more motivated by the fact that Roy Moore, the Republican who lost to Jones and was accused of improper conduct with teenage girls, got as far as he did.

Cheri Gardner, a candidate for Jefferson County court clerk, in her Birmingham home this month. She said the campaign of Republican Roy Moore for Senate last year helped light a fire under African-American women to get politically involved.Andrea Morales / for NBC News

"I don't know if it was Doug Jones as much it was Roy Moore himself lighting the fire under African Americans and African-American women," she said in an interview at her sprawling two-story house in the city's Woodland Park neighborhood.

Gardner agreed that Trump, too, has been a major factor in the recent political mobilization of African-American women. "We are the rare group that feels his insults two times over," she said.

Gardner, Moore and other candidates noted that their activism and political participation are nothing new. "We didn't just become part of the political process," Moore said. "We've always played a part in the process even before we had the right to vote."

Audri Scott Williams, a former Army Reservist, is running for Congress in Alabama's 2nd District.Courtesy Audri Scott Williams

For Audri Scott Williams, 62, a former Army reservist and activist, running for Congress in Alabama's 2nd District, which includes most of Montgomery, is realizing a lifelong dream. She cited "a new sense of empowerment" as motivating her to enter the Democratic primary for the right to challenge the four-term GOP incumbent, Rep. Martha Roby.

"The tinder was laid down, but Doug Jones was the spark that started a fire in black women knowing they have a lot of power," Williams said.

Pamela Wilson Cousins, a candidate for a judgeship on the Jefferson County District Court, also pointed to the Jones-stoked momentum as the reason behind her run. "If I ever thought there was a time for me to run, this was it," she said.

Pamela Wilson Cousins is running for district judge in Jefferson County.Andrea Morales / for NBC News

Meanwhile, Republicans dismiss the gender and race of the Democratic candidates, saying the GOP is focused on issues.

"We are excited to showcase our winning policies as opposed to the failed ones of the liberal Democrats regardless of who is on their ballot," Alabama GOP chair Terry Lathan said.

Getting organized

The raft of black women running, however, didn't happen on its own.

Progressive groups and political strategists that had flocked to the area for the Jones race quickly realized how much untapped energy existed among Democrats who were women, African-American or both.

Several organizations remained in the state after Jones' win to build out their infrastructure, with some expanding existing operations in other states into Alabama. They concluded that there was a genuine appetite for a fresh crop of diverse Democratic candidates and for a Democratic Party in the state broadly different from the one that had been stained for generations by Dixiecrats.

One group, Emerge Alabama, arrived in mid-2017 with the sole focus of recruiting female candidates in local races to beef up the party's long-term presence in the state.

"The idea was to address the very low representation of women in leadership, here and across the U.S., from top to bottom," explained Stacie Propst, the executive director of Emerge Alabama.

Her group, which is active in 22 other states, recruits female candidates to run for local office and offers a 70-hour training curriculum for new candidates, including tutorials on fundraising, cultural diversity training, messaging and how to get on the ballot.

Alabama's first class — 26 women, including 16 who are now running (including Jameria Moore) — "graduated" this month, said Propst, 51, a Tuscaloosa native who spent decades of her career in Washington before returning to Alabama. She said she also had never seen so many African-American women running for office in Alabama than she has this year.

Another group, Woke Vote, an Alabama-based grass-roots campaign that focused on turning out young, black voters for Jones, doubled down on its efforts after December.

"What we're doing isn't revolutionary in a lot of places, but is revolutionary for Democrats in Alabama," said Dejuana Thompson, the group's founder. "We find the faith community, the students, the young people, we have a frank conversation with them about what's at stake and we ask them to turn around and do it themselves."

Thompson, a native of Birmingham who worked in Obama's Small Business Administration, said she's seen the group's efforts bear fruit now that so many women of color are on local ballots.

"Black women have been leading this party for years and showing up for Democratic issues for years," said Thompson, whose group relies on funding from liberal PACs like Priorities USA and New Nation Rising. "And the community follows their lead. So when we have any opportunity to engage people of color, it creates a space for the student, the teacher, the mom to find their purpose. … We can leverage that into motivation to turn out for elections."

The efforts appear to be working among voters, too. Many communities are buzzing.

The talk of the town

Inside Niki’s West, a popular cafeteria-style restaurant hidden amid an industrial park on this city's north side, diners can't usually put down their forks during the busy lunch hour. But on a recent weekday, workers from nearby plants, factories, churches and businesses who'd come to wash down their "meat-and-three" meals with glasses of sweet tea couldn't hold back their enthusiasm.

Cassandra Gooley, left, and Cynthia Ray, who both work at the VA Medical Center in Birmingham, have been inspired by the number of African-American women seeking office in the state. "It's wonderful that they’re taking a stand like this," Gooley said. Andrea Morales / for NBC News

"To see African-American women step up like this, I mean for so long it's felt hidden, but now we're really getting into the political fold," said Cassandra Gooley, 50, who works at Birmingham's VA Medical Center. "It's wonderful that they’re taking a stand like this."

Her friend Cynthia Ray, 58, who works with homeless vets at the VA, said: "Women, and certainly black women, have been looked over in every arena. It’s our time."