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The Collective Co-Founder on driving black political representation

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Stefanie Brown James is the Co-Founder and Senior Advisor of The Collective, joins Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous to discussThe Collective’s mission and Biden’s DOJ nominee Kristen Clarke.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: 2022 could have the Blackest midterm elections of all time. Inspired by Rafael Warnock's Senate win in Georgia earlier this year, we now have more Black candidates considering Senate bids. Joining me now to talk about it is Stephanie Brown James, co-founder and senior advisor of The Collective, which is an umbrella organization dedicated to supporting and funding Black candidates in political elections. Stephanie, thanks so much for being with us. I'm curious at this time, you know, for a lot of us, 2022 seems like a far ways off, but not for your organization. What are the preparations and the funding like as you gear up for those midterm elections?

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: You're absolutely right, Alexis. Our organization, as well as candidates that are running in the midterm elections have at least been fundraising for the past year, maybe some-- the past two years. Because it has become so expensive to run for office, especially, as you mentioned, Senate seats or statewide seats to run for governor now will cost you about $20 million for your campaign. And so a lot of our preparation has really gone into fundraising, making sure that we can get the word out about phenomenal Black candidates that will be on the ballot, and just really making sure we can also have strong campaigns that have good staff that are ready to win.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: That is a lot of money. I had no idea-- $20 million to run for governor. So how do you garner that support? What needs to happen sort of to the infrastructure of fundraising? I mean, I'd imagine-- and I see that there's the enthusiasm on the part of the voter. But what do you do to get corporations in there? What do you do to get that PAC money?

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: Mm-hmm. And, you know, actually, a lot of the PAC money that we receive is from individual contributions. Last year, we saw a significant uptick where we're now actually a $25 million operation to make sure that we can have sufficient funding for our candidates. And the average donation we received was $35. And so those small dollar donors, similar to what we saw in President Obama's campaigns in '12 and in 2008, show the importance of getting the word out about these candidates, making sure, again, that they have strong infrastructure in their staff to be able to travel the state.

Now it's important that through Zoom and through technology, that we're having fundraisers that take place across the internet. And so these candidates are now having to go beyond their state borders to talk about their campaigns so they can talk to low dollar and also high dollar donors about their plans and the resources that they need to be able to have a strong campaign.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: I'm glad you're talking about the power of the individual voter and what their dollars, however few or however many, can make a difference. We had a guest on earlier in the week talking about those mega donors, like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer and how there were just about a dozen of these mega donors putting their money to work in the political system. And there was concern about that power being so concentrated in a few. What's your take on those mega donors and how they're using their money?

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: I say, thank you. Continue to donate. You mentioned Steyer and Bloomberg, who are actually two donors of the collective PAC. And really, they've been able to help us propel our work forward. When we first started this organization in 2016, we had to convince people to believe in the idea that no matter where you live, you should care about who's in office.

And the fact that we have such a deficit in Black leadership in elected positions of power, I think was really an argument that when we made it to high level donors, they understood that it was important that they provided the resources, but not with so many strings attached to what we couldn't do the work we need. We know that we needed to do. And so, I'm actually all for it. Last year, we only had one out of 500 of the top donors in the country were Black. So we have a long way to go just in our community to make sure that those with high net worths are able to have their resources go to support political candidates that will really progress our communities forward.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: You know, last year saw-- I know you know this-- saw the most Black candidates for the US Senate from the South since the Reconstruction. Talk to me a little bit about what is fueling that rise in Black candidates. Is it the belief that people can go to the polls and see beyond color?

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: You know, one big reality is that when you look at our southern states, you have a high population of people of color, of Black people. And so, a state like Mississippi that has an extremely high population of Black candidates and they had a Black Senate candidate last cycle, I think, one, those voters want to see someone who reflects and respects their community at the top of the ticket, but also Black voters are able to communicate their ideas for moving their communities, their states forward, that really resonates, I think, with all that are within their community.

It's not just a Black issue to talk about public education or access to affordable healthcare. That is an American issue. And so, being able to communicate their ideas and their plans I think has been really attractive. In the south, listen when you look at demographics or you look at economic status, no matter the race, people are suffering. And they want to be able to have people that can, again, respect and reflect their communities to be the ones making the decisions being the policy makers.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: When you look at your voter base, how important are Black female voters to the overall equation? And how do you engage that population?

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: Mm-hmm. Well, one of the things that we've seen, at least for the past 10 years, is that Black women continue to be the number one demographic of voter that turns out. We see over 90% voter turnout in general elections by Black women. And so it's extremely important that this group of women, myself included, continue to be engaged, but not just engaged as voters. But it's important that we are on the ballot.

And so, you mentioned the Senate. There are a number of Black women. There's three Black women right now that are preparing to run for Senate in North Carolina that is historic. We could see a possible Senate candidate in Florida, maybe in Alabama. And so Black women are starting to really make sure that when it comes to statewide positions, they are putting themselves in the pipeline to run for those positions. And we are working hard to make sure that they can win as well.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Speaking of women, you've got Kristen Clarke, President Biden's nominee to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. She had to defend her record against some skeptical senators during last week's confirmation hearing. If she's confirmed, Clarke would be the first Black woman to fill that post. What's your feeling on that nomination, Stephanie?

STEFANIE BROWN JAMES: I am so excited about the nomination. I think President Biden made the absolute best decision. Kristen Clarke has dedicated her entire career to civil rights advocacy. As a lawyer, she, you know-- she started out actually in the Department of Justice in her career. She's led the Civil Rights Office for the New York Attorney General's Office. And she really has the experience necessary to start on day one. And I think that is so crucial. She will be able to talk about the biases that we're seeing, whether it's in the criminal justice system or the hate crimes that are now on the rise. I think that hopefully we can get a couple of senators to support her who are Democrats because we really need Kristen Clarke in this position because she's really the best qualified at this time for the job.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right, Stephanie Brown James, co-founder of The Collective, thanks for spending some time with us today.