Arielle Simoncelli

One Woman's state house run for Freedom, justice, and equality

Arielle Simoncelli
One Woman's state house run for Freedom, justice, and equality
Photo: The Source

State Rep. Attica Scott

State Rep. Attica Scott is the first Black woman elected to the state legislature in two decades. Rep. Scott felt ready to run with her experiences studying political science in undergrad, working at the grassroots level with Kentucky Jobs with Justice, and serving in local government for close to three years. Through her work, Rep. Scott has been able to connect with immigrant and refugee communities, labor unions, and her local neighborhoods. Read our interview below to get her advice about fundraising and running as a woman of color. If you enjoy the interview, please share with friends.

What, if any, were your greatest obstacles during your campaign for State Rep.? 

1. Running against an incumbent from the same political party

There was a 34 year incumbent, someone who had been in the seat for most of my life. And there were also folks who said they needed me back in political office in the state house seat in particular. These were people, who like me, believe in freedom, justice, and equality. I went to them and said we all have to put in the work to make this happen. We all need to be knocking on doors, making phone calls, and raising money.

It was an obstacle to say that we were going to win this going up against the long-term incumbent. I’m in a district that is 50% White and 50% Black, and he is an older White guy, so people were comfortable with, and used to, having an older White guy in this position. Then you have this Black woman who looks younger, so how do we overcome the racial prejudices and stereotypes that might exist with people who are not used to having a person of color, and in particular a woman of color, represent them?

We overcame it by talking to folks, going to every single event, shaking hands, knocking on doors, making phone calls, and listening to what people said was important to them rather than trying to push my agenda. It was about what they care about and what they wanted in a representative.

2. Fundraising

I say to people often, please don’t let the concern or fear that you won’t be able to raise money stop you from running for office. Those who are running for state office are often told, for State Rep. at least, that you need to raise about $100,000. Well, we raised about $31,000 so it can happen when you put in that grassroots effort. It is seen as a barrier, and I think that’s in part because these political consultants have made us think this way. Even our political parties are giving us this rhetoric that says you can’t do it if you don’t have the money because they’ve moved so far away from the grassroots. 

Is there anything you wish you would have known before or during your run?

I wish I had figured out a way to form connections and relationships with other women of color who were running in the state in a way that lifted all of us up. There weren’t many of us running, maybe one or two last year. I knew one of them, so I reached out to her, always lifting her up and telling other folks, you have to support her and have her back too. I remember being told by one Democratic State Rep. that she wasn’t viable. When I hear things like that, “we’re not viable,” I have to challenge that by asking, when are we ever viable when we don’t often get these opportunities and we’re not often lifted up? Say once every five years there’s a Black woman that the party is going to support to run for office, that’s not okay! That’s not support and we won’t reach that point of viability unless we do figure out a way to better support one another as people of color and women of color running for offices that we have long been excluded from. Going two decades in Kentucky without a Black woman in the state legislature is something that neither party should be okay with. Quite frankly, they should be disappointed that it has taken this long and there’s only one. There’s still a lot of work left to do. 

What advice would you give to other women of color who are thinking of running for office? 

Get your support system together and make sure that system includes other women of color who are running for office so that you can lift one another up and be each other’s support system. You can say to folks that there are a handful of you running and that they also need your support because you have to have more than one. We can’t tokenize our leadership. It does all of us a disservice, White folks included, when you don’t have more voices represented because then you continue to only hear the same life experiences and stories, so you’re not challenged. Figuring out a way to work together and lift one another up is the way forward as we run for local and state office. 

Now that you’re in office, how would you describe the environment?

This was my first legislative session in our state capital, and when I got there I thought it was interesting and deliberate that I was seated behind the person who ran for office last year on a platform that called president Obama and his wife, Apes. To have the only Black woman in the house where there are 100 seats, seated behind this person, said a lot to me on my first day. That could have framed my entire experience, but I made it my business to go to the White men in my party who were in leadership to say that it’s your job to do something about this. You’re in leadership, so White guy to White guy, you need to talk to the leadership in the other party and say that this is not going to work and it won’t stand. Otherwise, I have no reason to think that this needs to be the party of my choice if you can’t have my back. 

They took action, and the first week the seats remained where they were because there was a lot of change going on. When we returned after a short break, and my seat was in the same place, I made it clear to the leadership that I wasn't going to sit there until it was changed. I respect myself more than that. The next day my seat was changed. That said something to me about the way in which there are different mentalities that continue to exist in our commonwealth to think that they’re going to intimidate the lone Black woman in the state house. I made it very clear to them that I’m not the one easily intimidated and I will stand up and fight for myself. The rest of the session I stood up and spoke out for people across the commonwealth who often feel hopeless, powerless, and voiceless when it comes to government. I wanted to make sure they knew that in me they had a voice and someone who was going to use their position and title. 

Do you find that you are navigating negative stereotypes about black women now that you’re in the legislature? 

I am always coming up against these negative stereotypes about Black women. In fact, I serve on the education committee and there were some awful comments made about Black boys, living in urban environments, and the impact of our busing system on kids growing up in these spaces.

There I am, the only Black person present at our committee meeting who is a state legislator, and I’m looking around at others and not one bothered to speak up and say something about the stereotypes and negative comments about Black people that were being made.

So I responded and I responded strongly. I made it clear that this was not okay, that they were talking about my son, and the sons of other people I represent, and the neighborhood where I live. I remember getting an email the next day saying, “why is it that you always have to be the angry Black woman.” I thought to myself that every time I spoke in committee or on the floor, I have been intentional about speaking with a measured voice because I knew that I would be framed as the angry Black woman. And the one time when I was the only person in the room who challenged what someone was saying, you decide that I’m now an angry Black woman.

I’ve also had someone on social media comment about my hair. I have locs, and I posted a photo of me speaking somewhere, and I had someone say that my hair looked like someone had thrown a bowl of spaghetti on top of it. These are things that other people in office don’t have to deal with. 

Is there a go-to resource that you think others should know about when running for office?

I was a graduate of the first class of Emerge Kentucky. Of course, the larger organization, Emerge America, is a national network that trains Democratic women to run for office and Kentucky came on board in 2010, so I was a part of that first class running for school board at the time.

I didn’t win that race but I did develop the information, resources, and tools needed to run effective campaigns in the future. I then also became a part of this statewide and national network of Democratic women running for office, so I was able to call on some of my Emerge Kentucky sisters during my campaign for State Rep. in 2016 and get their support for door-knocking, phone calls, and donations. It was wonderful!

Many of the Emerge Kentucky sisters didn’t even hesitate. I wasn’t even able to speak to some and had to leave messages, and without calling me back or texting me back, the next thing I know I have a donation from them. Being a part of that kind of network is important for us as women because we don’t often get tapped for filling vacancies in elected office. A mediocre White man will get tapped to run before a dynamic, vibrant, and overqualified woman and woman of color will. 

Even my Emerge America sisters were extremely supportive during my run and I appreciate that. If there is an Emerge chapter in someone’s state, I encourage them to get connected. And if there’s not, I encourage them to contact Emerge America to start a chapter. There is also a new initiative called Rise to Run that encourages young women from late teens to early twenties to run for office. I’m one of their trailblazer advisors, so to see this intention to get younger women involved in politics is exciting for me. It’s also time for us to start programs for people of color because there are unique challenges we face when running for office and unique opportunities we need to leverage. 

Thank you for sharing your story with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

To anyone who is thinking about running for office, go for it! Please don’t allow anything to hold you back. I am a mom of two amazing kids, and when I first ran for office my oldest was 14 and my youngest was 9. You can do it! You can get your kids involved, you can get their friends involved; it helps them respect what you’re doing. Use your support systems to make sure that you’re able to run. And if you think money is a barrier please get that out of your mind. Know that you’ll raise the money that you need. Remember the grassroots work is really what will get you in office.

If you’re thinking about it and you just want to have a conversation with someone about the realities of running for office, please feel welcome to reach out to me. I’m more than happy to have that one on one conversation and share the real deal as it relates to me running for office and what you might be able to expect when you run too.