With eyes focused on federal races that will decide the balance of power in Congress, it’s easy to overlook the elections of state leaders whose powers will directly impact Black communities.
From California to Massachusetts, Black candidates were elected to critical roles that influence how elections are carried out, how justice is rendered, and what legislation is prioritized in their states. In several cases, the candidates elected to these roles — secretary of state, attorney general, and lieutenant governor — will be the first Black officials to hold those positions in their states.
As attorneys general, Anthony Brown in Maryland and Andrea Campbell in Massachusetts will become their states’ chief lawyers, responsible for upholding federal laws and initiating civil suits when the state or its residents have been wronged by corporations. Attorneys general defend people whose civil rights are violated and can lead criminal prosecutions, including of police. In Minnesota, for example, Attorney General Keith Ellison led the prosecution of the police officers involved in George Floyd’s murder. Ellison, the first Black and first Muslim American in the role, won reelection this week.
The role of secretary of state is more important than ever, responsible for protecting the election process amid the rise of election denialism and attacks on voting rights. While the secretary of state has typically been an administrative position, Stephanie Thomas in Connecticut is entering the role in a highly politicized moment and Shirley Weber in California has been paving the way in her position since last year when California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed her. Officials in this position have the power to expand voting access with automatic voter registration and mail-in ballots, or to suppress it by closing precincts or advocating for restrictions like voter ID laws.
When it comes to lieutenant governors, while the role doesn’t have the power to sign bills into law, it is an influential position that could serve as a pipeline to the governor’s seat, said Melba Pearson, past president of The National Black Prosecutors Association.
In Pennsylvania, Austin Davis made history as the first Black person elected to the role in the battleground state, giving him influence on issues such as criminal justice, energy, and climate that could set national precedents.
“If we have more Black, brown, female lieutenant governors, that’s more amazing candidates to have in the pool to be able to run for governor. In our 300-year history of this country, to only have had three Black governors is pretty disturbing when Black people are a significant population of the country,” Pearson said. “I think more Black lieutenant governors are going to be important. … They’re able to take that knowledge to the governor’s mansion for the benefit of an entire state.”
Here’s what we can expect from the freshmen class of Black politicians who are joining state leadership:
In Maryland, U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown’s campaign for attorney general focused on enforcing the laws that he has voted on during his term in Congress. Those laws include the Raise the Age Act, which increased the required age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21, and the BIAS Act, which funds institutions of higher education to research implicit bias training programs in conjunction with local police departments.”
The Democrat sponsored more than 150 pieces of legislation since 2019, including the Robert E. Lee Statue Removal Act that would remove the confederate leader’s statue from the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. The legislation has stalled in the Senate. Brown, who previously served as lieutenant governor under former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, also prioritized criminal justice reform and reproductive and voting rights in his campaign.
Attorneys general have the added power to block executive orders that their state’s governor may try to implement that could cause harm to a protected class of citizens, noted Pearson. While Brown will serve with a Democratic governor with whom he aligns, Wes Moore, that power can be important for other attorneys general as rights for women and people of color come under attack.
“You can have a situation where you have a Republican governor who is anti-choice, and you have an attorney general that’s pro-choice, if that governor decides to implement an executive order that is attacking the person’s right to choose, that attorney general can basically get in its way to support and pushback for the right to choose,” Pearson said.
In Massachusetts, Andrea Campbell will be the second historic person to hold the position, replacing Attorney General Maura Healey, the country’s first openly queer attorney general. Healy won the state’s gubernatorial race this week.
Campbell’s campaign framed the attorney general’s office as “the people’s lawyer.” A Democrat, she highlighted protecting health care providers who offer abortion and gender-affirming services, holding educational institutions accountable for serving students despite citizenship or socioeconomic status, and advocating for elderly people who are targets of fraud and scams.
Campbell’s family has personal experience with the criminal justice system: Her twin brother died in jail while awaiting trial, and her other brother is incarcerated on allegations of sexual assault. As a member of Boston’s City Council, Campbell created a police oversight division and said she would continue her efforts to hold law enforcement accountable and reaffirm faith in the justice system.
The attorney general role has an “authoritative position that can have a significant impact and influence on the way a state enforces law on African Americans,” said Jeremy I. Levitt, professor of international law at Florida A&M University.
Secretary of state
Following the 2020 presidential election, the role of secretary of state became more apparent to everyday voters than ever. On a secretly taped phone call in January 2021, then-President Donald Trump allegedly threatened Georgia’s secretary of state to find a certain number of votes that would change the outcome of the election — having Trump win.
The Republican Party “is realizing the importance of being able to play these games with the ballot box,” Pearson said. “They have been strategically targeting secretaries of state races across the country to be able to put more sympathetic people in power to be able to potentially squash future elections. So that’s why it’s incredibly important.”
Since 2020, dozens of states have implemented stricter voting laws and requirements that can make it more difficult to access the ballot, especially in communities of color. As a member of Connecticut’s House of Representatives, Stephanie Thomas — now the secretary of state-elect — sponsored bills that allowed for automatic voter registration, early voting, and no-excuse absentee ballot voting.
Shirley Weber was appointed California’s secretary of state in 2020 and won her first full term this week. The secretary of state oversees the recall system, which nearly cost Newsom his position last year. Weber supports reforming the recall process, and told CalMatters.org that, if the governor gets recalled, she favors allowing the lieutenant governor to step in until a special election is held — instead of selecting a new governor on the same ballot.
Weber’s other priorities include beefing up cybersecurity efforts and expanding access to the ballot, including voting rights to the formerly incarcerated and those on parole.
Depending on the state, the lieutenant governor’s role is similar to the U.S. vice president, presiding over their state’s Senate, breaking lawmakers’ tied votes, and influencing the governor’s agenda.
“They can be very consequential because it is still a position of significant influence. They’re at the table for all of the major decisions,” Levitt said. “They carry out the executive function for the governor’s office. They have the ability to shape laws and policy and to implement them.”
Austin Davis was elected lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, where he will serve alongside Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro. As a state representative since 2018, he sponsored over two dozen bills during last year’s session, and has pushed for increases to the minimum wage and expanding broadband access.
He will replace John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor who won a high-profile U.S. Senate race against Mehmet Oz. As lieutenant governor, Davis will also become the first Black chair of the state’s Board of Pardons, where he said he plans to continue Fetterman’s work as a champion for clemency.
“I think Lt. Gov. Fetterman has done a great job in modernizing that board and making it more active. I want to continue that work. I think Pennsylvania should be a place for second chances,” Davis told local news station WGAL this summer.
This story was originally published Nov. 11, 2022, by Capital B News.