I remember sitting in front of the television and watching Amb. Carol Moseley Braun on the Democratic debate stage in the spring of 2004 and thinking, “That’s her. That’s my candidate. She’s smart, she’s feisty, she’s prepared, she’s experienced. We could have a woman president. A Black woman president.”
I’d felt more bullied than encouraged by feminism in my life, so I was surprised at how excited I was at the idea of a woman president, but I knew the United States was overdue. Britain, India, Pakistan, Argentina, Iceland, Sri Lanka…. They had all elected women to head their governments, and we should, too.
But it was so much more than that. While I don’t remember the contents of that debate, the particular lines or arguments that drew my attention to the ambassador, I do remember thinking, “She’s talking about things on that stage that I’ve never heard a presidential candidate say.” Granted, I was only twenty-two, tuning in to only my second presidential campaign as a voter, and the first against an incumbent. I didn’t know much. But I knew that an outspoken Black woman on that debate stage was inspiring me to become more involved, more knowledgeable.
Amb. Moseley Braun didn’t even make it to Iowa. I still remember my disappointment when she dropped out. I’d been so excited for the spirit and topics of conversation she’d brought to the debate stage and the race. Looking back at her record now, I’m not sure she still would have been my candidate by November 2004, but one thing stuck with me from that debate. I wanted a woman president.
I wanted a woman president, but as I would say over and over later in 2016, I didn’t want just any woman. More than a woman, I wanted someone who listened, someone who crafted a thoughtful, progressive platform that inspired me, who would move us towards the European models of supportive government that had inspired me in my studies abroad.
So, it was easy to throw my vote behind Obama. He was thoughtful, intelligent, incisive, inspiring, and seemed most inclined to listen and consider evidence before jumping to a conclusion.
“Don’t you want a woman president?” people asked. “Sure,” I said, “but isn’t it also past time we had a Black president?” Whoever won the nomination, I reasoned, we would be winning as a nation.
Ten years after Amb. Moseley Braun had taken the debate stage, I finally found another woman who excited me. She wasn’t running for president, despite calls from the left for her to do so in 2016, and though I wanted her to join the race, I was equally excited about her Congressional record. We needed her getting things done where she was in the Senate.
So, I threw my support behind Sanders. I had my concerns about his candidacy, such as the way he dismissed the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and I didn’t always like his supporters, but I was excited about his platform. Each plank (if divorced from his name and party) had the support of at least 80% of the country in polling. He wasn’t a woman, but he was a pro-Palestinian democratic socialist Jew, and that was important.
Still, it was a lot harder to back the man in 2016. I had a lot of reservations about Clinton — her foreign policy, her defense of Biden’s 1994 crime bill, the timidity of her healthcare plan. I didn’t like the way that she, her surrogates (Albright, Steinem, and others), and her supporters threatened me with hell if I didn’t “vote for the woman,” the same threat all my grade-school bullies wielded.
By the time she was the nominee, “I’m With Her” had become a justification to attack me as a sellout for preferring the man’s platform that aligned most closely with my political and social justice priorities, and as a traitor to my gender for speaking aloud my reservations about the woman’s political and social justice record.
Nevertheless, when I passed my Foreign Service interview in the summer of 2016, despite my reservations about her Middle East and Latin American foreign policy, I found myself getting really excited about being back in the Middle East serving in the State Department of a Hillary Clinton Administration. The United States would finally have our woman president, and I could represent her in our embassies abroad. By the morning of Election Day, I was euphoric about our future.
By late that same evening, three drinks deep in my devastation, I got a text from Jordan. “When will it be over? We’re really scared.” Me, too, my friends. Me, too.
But I got up the next morning and threw myself and my money into the fight. My day jobs then and now have been neck-deep in protecting those most vulnerable since the beginning of this administration. I’ve marched, I’ve yelled, I’ve petitioned, I’ve preached, I’ve written, I’ve faxed, I’ve fought disinformation, and I’ve voted. I’m only one person, and it never feels like I’m doing enough, but I’m pushing my limits as much as I can while still paying the rent and maintaining sustainable mental health.
Yet, all that time, I’ve had my eye on just one candidate for the White House, just one person I wanted to see at the helm of my country.
This time, I thought, we could finally do it. We could not only put a woman in the White House, but we could have a woman who listened deeply, who had a plan for everything and changed that plan when it came up against criticism, especially from underrepresented and threatened communities like Native Americans and trans people. She met with Black women, added their concerns to her platform, and gained their support. She had the first and most comprehensive plan for the disability community, and she walked the walk; it was no surprise to me when her team brought chairs to Iowa caucus sites, because she had been actively talking about and accommodating disability in her campaign.
I’ve been glued to the debates since last fall, and I’ve been so excited about the diversity Democrats brought forward in this cycle. Men, women, Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, bi-racial, straight and gay, politicians and outsiders, children of immigrants and children of poverty, a range of ideology from disturbingly centrist to disturbingly conspiratorial, and a whole lot of single-issue candidates in between who brought really important conversations onto the debate stage.
I loved Gillibrand’s zeal for women, Kamala’s passion for integration, Inslee’s clear-eyed focus on the climate, Booker’s baby bonds, Castro’s barrier-breaking mention of trans issues on the debate stage, even Williamson’s courage in being the first to bring reparations to the table. I was skeptical of Yang’s libertarian Silicon Valley perspective, but I liked the conversations he started about automation and the Universal Basic Income. I look at that array of headshots, looked at that debate stage and saw the potential to have the most ground-breaking Cabinet and Administration in American history.
And as each of those candidates dropped out of the race, as the race became whiter and older and more male and more trenchant, I was thrilled to read that Warren was calling them up one-by-one and asking permission to add their signature issues to her platform, built the best of their plans into hers. It was the kind of collaborative coalition building we needed, the first steps towards that amazing Cabinet I was assembling in my dreams.
But in my heart, there was only one person I wanted to see at the fore of that Cabinet. And that’s what primaries are for.
I know that in November, like every Black woman before me and millions more, my primary responsibility at the ballot box is to harm reduction. Which candidate will hurt the fewest people in the next four years? It’s why I voted for Gore, voted for Kerry, voted for Hillary, even though they did little to inspire me. But that’s not what primaries are for. Primaries are for voting with your heart.
When Democrats win, it’s because someone like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama or even the ineffectual Jimmy Carter fires up their imaginations and invests in their hope for transformative change. It’s when we argue for the “logical” “electable” choice that we lose: Mondale, Gore, Kerry, Hillary. But you don’t have to go that far back in history. The candidates who flipped seats from Red to Blue in 2018 (and 2019 in Virginia) did it by going hard to the left, all-in on healthcare reform and the other liberal agendas that fired up voters and made them turn out in big numbers. Democrats win on excitement, just as surely as Republicans win on fear.
I’ve never been so excited for a candidate, never been so excited to walk into the voting booth and change history. I’ve applied many times to work in government, but I had never even considered applying for a job with a political campaign until Warren started hiring. I’ve wanted a woman in office for a long time, but never wanted a candidate like I wanted this one to win.
And now she’s out. And I’m grieving. And it’s going to take me a long time to move on.