Making Government Work

The Faces of America’s Diverse New Leadership

June 26, 2018
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The Faces of America’s Diverse New Leadership
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Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams is the first black woman to be chosen as a major party’s nominee for governor. Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
These four candidates are challenging the status quo and paving the way for a more inclusive democracy.

It’s a watershed moment and a season of firsts in U.S. politics. London Breed was just elected as San Francisco’s first African-American woman to serve as mayor. Hoboken, New Jersey, mayor Ravinder Bhalla is the nation’s first Sikh to hold that position. Danica Roem is the first transgender woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. And there is a record-breaking number of female candidates — more than 300 and counting — who are currently running for seats in the House.  

Here are four up-and-coming candidates who, if elected, will upend the status quo and make history in the process.

Stacey Abrams

In May, former state House minority leader Stacey Abrams secured the Democratic nomination for governor of Georgia. Abrams is the first black woman to be chosen as a major party’s nominee for governor, and if elected, she would be the first black woman to ever govern over a state in the nation’s history.

“I am humbled by the opportunity to, you know, sort of tile this ground for folks. But I’m also excited about what it means for everyone who has yet to see themselves reflected in leadership in America,” Abrams told the New York Times after her win against former state Democratic Rep. Stacey Evans. “My goal is to make certain everyone has a seat at the table and that folks can see themselves and their values reflected in our government.”

One of Abrams’ biggest challenges is the state’s Medicaid expansion.

Georgia was one of 19 states that didn’t expand Medicaid services offered through Obamacare. A recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests that if the state were to expand Medicaid in the near future, it could provide health insurance to 473,000 more residents in 2019.

“Medicaid expansion is transformative for our state,” Abrams told the Times. “It will help every facet, every community, and I’m just deeply saddened and ashamed that we haven’t done so already.”

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New Mexico congressional candidate Deb Haaland could make history as the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.Photo by Michael Anaya Gorman

Deb Haaland

“So tonight we made history,” Deb Haaland told a crowd of supporters on June 6, after winning the primary for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. If Haaland wins — as she is expected to — she will be the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress.

But it’s not just a win for diversity. One of Haaland’s top priorities, she says, will be environmental protection. “I’m concerned that if we don’t do more to protect our open spaces and reduce climate change, there will be devastating and lasting impacts on us and future generations,” Haaland wrote on the Daily Kos. “Ignoring climate change sets up our students and workforce for failure by not educating them about the needs of the future.”

New Mexico has recently experienced an oil boom, with Exxon and other companies investing billions in oil production. This also means that the state currently ranks third in the nation for crude oil production, which runs counter to the idea of reducing carbon emissions. Despite this fact, Haaland, a former Democratic state party leader, has proposed to make New Mexico the “clean energy leader” in the nation. “I will fight special interests in Washington who exploit Native, rural, and low income communities,” she wrote, “for the purpose of fracking and drilling that pollutes our environment.”

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Congressional candidate Dan Koh is focusing on improving Massachusetts’ education system.Photo courtesy the Dan Koh campaign

Dan Koh

Dan Koh was Arianna Huffington’s chief of staff and the first general manager of Huffpost Live before being chosen as Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of staff in 2014 — all before Koh turned 30.

At 33, Koh is taking on a congressional race for Massachusetts’ 3rd District — and he’s raised $2.5 million in less than a year. If Koh wins, he will be the first Korean-American Democrat in Congress.

A product of a Massachusetts education, with two degrees from Harvard, one of Koh’s primary positions is a better education for everyone in the Bay State. “Massachusetts has one of the best education systems in the country, yet too many of our students are being left behind, especially in under-resourced neighborhoods,” reads his website.

It’s true that Massachusetts has some of the highest-ranked schools in the country, even when compared to other nations. But with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ focus on voucher programs, which Koh argues guts public school funding, there are fears about the future of the state’s education system.

Koh proposes a three-pronged approach to helping education flourish in the state: invest in tuition-free community college; support funding for teacher development and recruitment; and provide universal pre-K for all students.

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As the daughter of immigrants, Lupe Valdez says, “It is my goal to make sure that young Texans don’t face the same inhumane treatment I witnessed firsthand growing up.”Photo courtesy of Lupe Valdez for Governor

Lupe Valdez

After securing the Democratic primary nomination in late May, Lupe Valdez is the first openly gay Latina to run for governor of Texas.

A former Dallas County sheriff and a hardline progressive, Valdez could be a major player in the immigration debate by leading a state that is in the middle of a heated partisan battle on how to secure the nation’s borders.

A challenge Valdez faces in protecting immigrants is the state’s SB4 law — similar to Arizona’s “show me your papers” law — which allows police officers to act like immigration law enforcement and ask for proof of citizenship during, for example, a routine traffic stop.

“Standing up for immigrant communities has been a staple of my life,” Valdez writes on her website. “It is my goal to make sure that young Texans don’t face the same inhumane treatment I witnessed firsthand growing up.”

Valdez has said she grew up in the poorest zip code in San Antonio, with migrant parents who had eight kids. But through military training and access to good public education, she was able to thrive despite these odds. “I’m the candidate of the everyday working Texan, and I’m going to be their voice,” she says.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dan Koh was running in Boston; he is, in fact, running for Massachusetts’ 3rd District, which is just north of Boston.
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