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‘We Have Power’

Leisa Moseley
Photography by Brent Holmes

Political strategist Leisa Moseley hopes to tap the rising political influence of the African-American community.

New dynamics are coming into play as African-American groups unite to rally the black vote

“How will you deal with the issues here in Las Vegas for black people?” It was a February evening, and a predominantly African-American crowd partially filled the theater at Cheyenne High School to listen to candidates for Nevada’s 4th Congressional District attempt to woo their votes.

This wasn’t a collection of stump speeches, either. Candidates were pressed on tough topics about healthcare, unemployment rates, mental-health resources, and re-entry services for those leaving prison. If the person asking the question wasn’t satisfied — which was the case for one person who asked about the number of top-ranking African-American campaign officials each candidate employed — they’d simply rephrase and ask again.

While the questions were broad, they always came back to how those issues affect the lives of African-Americans. “Anyone who knows me well has heard me say that voting is not the totality of the political process,” the night’s moderator, Leisa Moseley, told the gathering. “What you’re doing tonight is a part, an important part, of the political process.”

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The night was part of a larger collaborative effort to better engage black voters and encourage them to cast their ballots in the upcoming elections.

African-Americans have typically had high turnouts in elections nationally. “Not just African-Americans, but black women in particular,” says Roxann McCoy, who heads the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP. Recently, black voters, specifically black women, were widely cited as the reason underdog Democrat Doug Jones, and not embattled Republican Roy Moore, became a senator in the December special election in Alabama. African-American voters were almost 30 percent of the vote, and 98 percent of black women (who were 17 percent of the overall vote) cast their ballots for Jones. It was the type of turnout usually seen in a presidential election year rather than a special election cycle.

Similarly, midterm elections, like the one coming up in November, usually don’t see a high turnout. But several organizations in Southern Nevada (the local NAACP, the Clark County Black Caucus, and Faith Organizing Alliance among them) are working together to change that. They’ve set up forums in school auditoriums and churches, partnered with black-owned publications and radio stations to get the word out, and canvassed door-to-door to talk with residents in efforts to focus the collective power of the community.

“You’re seeing all around the country that we have power when we show up,” says Rev. Leonard Jackson, executive director of the Faith Organizing Alliance. “African-Americans, in particular African-American females and young people, are making a difference in elections.”

Faith Organizing Alliance launched in 2014, combining faith-based partners (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic) along with some community partners. The goal was to register and educate voters.

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Jackson remembers shadowing one of the volunteers going out to register voters. Clipboard in hand, she approached an African-American woman. “The woman just looked at us and said, ‘You can stop right there. I don’t vote. I never have and don’t want to,’” Jackson says.

The woman berated the volunteer, arguing that voting is a waste of time. Jackson says the volunteer hung in there and laid out her case. “She told the woman to at least register in case she changed her mind,” he says. “And sure enough, the woman grabbed the clipboard and filled out her information. Sometimes, you just need to give people an extra push.”

That wasn’t the first person to decline to register to vote, and it won’t be the last. “It’s actually something I hear many times,” he says.

During the 2016 election, the group also helped organize voting drives called Souls to the Polls. “We told people to call us and we would arrange for them to get a ride to the polls,” he adds. “This eliminates any excuse they have.” The group also organized an event at the Pearson Community Center to attract more voters. “On Election Day, I was pleasantly surprised we got 300 people who needed a ride to the polls,” he says. 

Faith Organizing Alliance has also hosted issue-driven town halls and community meetings. But it also does smaller, more intimate gatherings in people’s living rooms to find out what issues are impacting them personally. Ahead of this election, the group’s goal is to register 3,000 more voters.

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The Clark County Black Caucus has been cultivating voters since 2008. Originally, it had been affiliated with the Democratic Party, but Moseley, a board member with the black caucus, says the organization decided to go more nonpartisan in 2013 after feeling overlooked by many politicians. “The Democratic Party is usually associated with the African-American community,” Moseley says. “I think they’ve become so complacent with the community because they know they are going to get our vote.”

This isn’t an isolated feeling. Despite strong voting records nationally, Moseley says issues faced by the African-American community (anything from the double-digit unemployment rates to educational disparities) go unaddressed. While politicians might campaign on those topics or political parties might include information to address these issues, she says most party platforms can be broad and don’t home in on the impact of the black community.

As a result, many black voters have become discontented with parties and systems. Moseley says some people have opted to become independent or nonpartisan. “With this discontentment from African-Americans, you’re seeing we are becoming a swing vote,” she says. “We might not vote for another party, but we won’t vote at all.”

For organizing groups like the black caucus, it just means being more neutral and working across the aisle. Moseley says being nonpartisan has gotten a lot of positive feedback from the black community. It’s also allowed the caucus an opportunity to work with politicians from different parties to advocate for legislation that would benefit African-Americans.

Moseley says in the past the caucus canvassed door-to-door, though it now relies more on social media outreach.

The NAACP Las Vegas has been active for years, hosting monthly meetings to talk about anything from policing and bail reform to voter registration. It has also frequently invited candidates to engage with members. It’s nonpartisan, as well. “We want to give people all the information so they can decide what works for them,” McCoy says.

While these organizations have worked individually to engage African-Americans, McCoy says it’s only more recently that they have collaborated on projects. “It seems more like a united front this year,” McCoy adds.

Less than a month after the congressional forum, another town hall took place. Inside Victory Missionary Baptist Church, located in the predominantly African-American Historic Westside community, nine of the 11 candidates for the city of Las Vegas Ward 5 special election showed up to engage with prospective voters.

When running for office, people typically come into predominantly black districts a few weeks before election to campaign. McCoy says it’s the politically correct thing to do. But, historically speaking, Moseley says, some have relied on stereotypes to do so, such as hosting a fish fry. “The thing is, we allow it,” she adds. “We accept this.”

Nevertheless, another group of candidates, who are all African-American, have come to the church to court voters. It was the second time African-American voters got to listen to these candidates before the March 27 election.

“We don’t just have politicians come in and do an old-fashioned stump speech,” Jackson says. “We know they are good at that.” Instead, moderators had prepared questions. Audience members got to ask about affordable housing, efforts to boost African-American entrepreneurship, and employment and safety.

For her part, McCoy wants to make sure the community is educated on other offices that often go overlooked. District attorney, for instance. Not to mention the next choice for Clark County School District superintendent, even though that’s not an elected position. “The African-American community underestimated the power of our presence and of our voices being heard during public comment,” McCoy says. “This new superintendent will have a direct impact on our children. As of late, it’s not all that great.” While people can’t vote on a superintendent, the candidate is chosen by the board of trustees, which are elected positions.

These organizers want candidates to not only pay attention to the African-American community during an election cycle, but to have a deeper, longer-term understanding of its issues and to offer practical and specific solutions. “We aren’t holding them accountable,” McCoy says. “We are setting a pattern, saying, You can come in during election season, smile and tell us all the great things you’re going to do. We support you. We vote. Then when the election is over, we never see you again.”

That’s why they agree that voting is just one part of the political process. Education on the issues is just as vital, to hold politicians accountable. “So we can come back and say, ‘You didn’t vote for this, this, or this,’” McCoy says. “We need to stop giving them a pass if nothing has changed.”

Though the NAACP gives out a report card ranking how congressional leaders voted, there hasn’t been an effort from the local chapter to rank actions of state legislators and city officials.

But first things first. There is a still a battle convincing people their vote does matter.

With the primary election June 12 and the general on November 6, the groups will continue to reach out so the community knows who is running and what issues are at stake. “This way, you have no excuse,” McCoy adds. “You can’t say, ‘Well I didn’t know.’”