I helped both state representative Brady Walkinshaw (D-43, Capitol Hill) and state senator Pramila Jayapal (D-37, Southeast Seattle) get their elected careers started; I have seen them navigate being a "first/early" representative of a race/gender/sexuality in office. I know how critical it is for progressive candidates to be aware of gender and racial nuances and the implications for causes beyond elections.
Candidates and campaign experts know that good ads are about more than just the words or “facts.” Recently, things have gotten heated in the race between Jayapal and Walkinshaw to replace U.S. representative Jim McDermott (D-WA, 7) due to ads Walkinshaw's campaign and associated PACs have used to target Jayapal.
We in Seattle aren't exactly used to progressive candidates of color running against each other. That’s why it’s no surprise that liberals are bristling at mentions of race and gender dynamics.
People like to think that a candidate of color—let alone two progressive candidates of color running against each other—is the norm. We judge as though gender and race don’t matter. We're post-race here in our progressive bubble. Right?
Consider the Victory Fund ad: an immigrant woman of color’s picture, her South Asian name, and words that say she can’t vote.
Now consider context:
1) For decades, people with non-European, immigrant names have been subjected to racist comments and targeted for voter suppression, especially by the Republican party;
2) A closely-related mainstream narrative falsely ties immigrants with voter fraud; and
3) Immigrants and children of immigrants are typecast as perpetual foreigners in most media.
Intentionally or unintentionally, the ad invokes the boogeyman of the illegitimate voter, the "other." Even if you go on to read the rest of the text the ad has already reinforced and played on deeply troubling and false narratives.
Ads such as this sow disunity among people who would otherwise find common cause. As Ian Haney Lopez says, “…(it’s a) decision to seek advantage by manipulating the prejudice in others. Dog whistling … intentionally uses veiled terms to stimulate racial animosity… stoking dangerous and misdirected resentments.”
Similarly, for decades systems have questioned women's effectiveness. Women in leadership are too ambitious, too bossy, while also “ineffective,” all because they serve in a way that is different than men. Our competency is rated, and reported on, by a male (and white) standard of leadership.
Women of color carry the brunt of this double standard. So yes, candidates should be able to debate each other's records. However, Walkinshaw's ad questioning Jayapal's effectiveness isn’t calling on voters to understand the candidates. No, these political ads are so superficial as to be false and misleading. They want ineffective to resonate with us, connect to narratives about women’s incompetency and apply it to an entire resume of a woman’s work. It’s not about facts, it’s about generating a subconscious response.
There aren’t models for how to navigate all these dynamics—but it starts with humility and requires courage to acknowledge mis-steps and make course corrections. No matter your race or gender, you must be hyper-conscious of how you can get played by a system that pulls all of us towards perpetuating systemic racism and sexism. There is no such thing as colorblind or gender-blind politics or policy.
I think too highly of Walkinshaw to believe that he's naive about campaign tactics or lacking an understanding of systemic racism. When Walkinshaw uses these tools of division (without acknowledging the negativity) in his attempt to tarnish the groundbreaking work of a woman of color—work that created a foundation to help lift him into elected office in the first place—he undermines the very movement he's been part of.
This kind of campaigning may win votes but it damages the power and solidarity we are building with our communities. Regardless of the outcome, the day after the elections we all need to be rolling up our sleeves to continue the movement for systemic changes our country desperately needs. Let’s not make that work any harder.
Sudha Nandagopal has worked for many years to increase racial equity in progressive issues and build power for communities of color, immigrants and refugees. She has led and advised on communications campaigns for progressive causes, candidates and organizations for over a decade. She currently serves as the Board President of OneAmerica Votes.
For more on this important subject:
Late last week, we published a guest opinion piece by Elisa Chavez, a Walkinshaw supporter and Latina writer who appeared in Walkinshaw's ad. Chavez took issue with Jayapal's response ad which had compared Walkinshaw to Trump. Chavez's picture appeared in Jayapal's ad.
After being asked to go on KUOW to discuss Wakinshaw's ad, I wrote an essay about this hot topic late last week as well, reflecting on my own role covering it.