Persist PAC: Centering Black Women on the Campaign Path to the Washington State Legislature

by Melia LaCour 

This article is the first in a series of articles following Persist PAC’s efforts to support Black women running for the Washington State Legislature. We will follow their process and explain the tools used within the campaign process so that anyone can learn how to support candidates running for office.

The poisonous roots of white supremacy are anchored in every system in the United States. Its pernicious shoots thrive on systemic racism, secrecy, and confusion. Among its many destructive goals, white supremacy deftly obscures the path to power for Black people while clearing and paving a road for white people. 

One need look no further than the Washington State Legislature as evidence that the path has been obstructed for Black candidates. Currently there are only two Black women legislators, both in the House of Representatives. Representatives John Lovick and Jesse Johnson, both Black men, are also in the House of Representatives. There are currently no Black people in the State Senate. 

Yet some of Washington State’s most bold and formidable leaders are now poised to uproot white supremacy’s stranglehold on this path for Black women candidates running for office.  

Meet the women of the Persist Political Action Committee (Persist PAC). The co-founders and Officers are Alexis Turla, Chief of Staff to Seattle Councilmember Tammy J. Morales and Melissa Taylor, King County Democrats Committee Chair for Budget and Finance. Crystal Fincher, paid campaign consultant and Principal at Fincher Consulting and Julia Reed, King County Democrats Vice Committee Chair for Communications and Senior Consultant at Kinetic West are also part of the PAC. These women, who each identify as Black except for Taylor, are bold, strategic, and deeply invested in using the PAC process to raise campaign funds for the Black Women running for the state legislature in the upcoming election. They also want to daylight the process of using the PAC to support election campaigns so the tool becomes accessible to everyone.  

“The power structure has not gone out of its way to make the process known to everyday people,” said Taylor. “The further from the power structures, the harder it is to know that this tool is available.”

“We are also trying to create and reimagine a different way in which the power structure resides by having a Black-women-led PAC, which is one of those things you do not see in [Washington] State and nationally,” said Turla, who shared that she has dedicated her life to getting Women of Color elected for office. “We have the ability to build the power for our community to truly have the voices at the table.”

According to Open Secrets, Center for Responsive Politics, a PAC is “a political committee organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates [or ballot measures].” While this tool is accessible to anyone, there is much confusion about the purpose.

“People say ‘aren’t PACs bad?’” said Taylor, “and I say ‘no, they’re a tool.  Is a hammer bad? No, it depends on what you do with it.’”

Persist PAC, so aptly named for their relentless push to remove systemic barriers for candidates of color, was launched in October 2019 with a clear mission to “support candidates and initiatives across Washington, in pursuing a more perfect union, one where there is truly liberty and justice for all. We believe that our government works best when we are represented by people deeply connected and accountable to our communities.”  

Turla and Taylor first put this mission to the test when they raised funds to support the SeaTac City Council races, given the council at the time was majority white members serving a city where residents were majority People of Color. Persist PAC raised funds to pay for a digital ad in support for four candidates, three of whom were candidates of color.

After this inaugural campaign support, Persist PAC reignited in May of this year to begin raising funds for Black women currently running for the state legislature. There are currently 10 womxn running — eight newcomers: Tanisha Harris, 17th Legislative District (House), Joy Stanford, 26th Legislative District (House), T’wina Nobles, 28th Legislative District (Senate), Jamila Taylor, 30th Legislative District (House), April Berg, 44th Legislative District (House), Kirsten Harris-Talley, 37th Legislative District (House), Sherae Lascelles, 43rd Legislative District (House, non-binary, they/them pronouns), and Shirley Sutton, 32nd Legislative District (House) and two incumbents — Representative Debra Entenman, 47th Legislative District (House) and Represenative Melanie Morgan, 29th Legislative District (House). 

“I have a passion for creating power in communities where there have been institutional barriers to power,” said Fincher. “And I am particularly interested in electing Black women. That’s why I’m so excited to be working with Persist PAC. A lot of [the] time, Black people are left out of solutions for Black people. And Persist PAC very intentionally, from the founding, did not do that. This started with Alexis involved. They called me and said we’d love to be able to include you in this work.”

Knowing that these Black women candidates will face a number of obstacles on the road to the halls of power, Persist PAC set out to make sure that financing their campaigns wasn’t one of them. 

“It’s just harder for People of Color to run for office because their networks are less likely to be wealthy than a white person’s network,” said Reed. “For legislative candidates and candidates running for city council, your friends and family network is your first go-to network. And because of systemic racism, if that network has not had the opportunity to develop intergenerational wealth in the same way [as white people], that sets you at a disadvantage. So, you have to figure out how to connect networks to where the money is and the allyship is.”

The inability to rely on strongly resourced networks is a challenge for Black candidates, especially those running in red or Republican districts and “purple” districts — areas that are not predictably Democrat or Republican. Currently, April Berg, Joy Stanford, Jamila Taylor, T’wina Nobles, and Tanisha Harris are all running in purple districts. 

“A lot of times, in areas that swing between Republican and Democrats or that are dominated by Republicans, you know, it’s not just an issue of representation, the issue is there isn’t a network and people aren’t used to seeing Black women involved anywhere,” said Fincher. “And because of that, that colors what people think of when they think of the type of person who should be a politician in that area.” 

Representative Debra Entenman is one strong example of how the power of networks can support success in a purple district. In 2018, Representative Entenman flipped the seat in the 47th Legislative District from Republican to Democrat. Turla credits the significant impact of People of Color-led organizations that “invested in Black candidates when the establishment did not.” 

“For me, in my first run, I could not have done it without the PACs that helped me,” said Representative Entenman. “So having this one specifically for African Americans benefits me but really will benefit the new women running for office. It will help us with one more step on the rung to being successful.”

In order to ensure this kind of financial support is available to candidates, Persist PAC fundraising has been the top priority. In May, they set out to raise $14,000 in order to give each candidate the maximum campaign contribution of $2,000. Yet after one week of fundraising via social media posts, Persist PAC surpassed their initial fundraising goal by raising $41,407. Within a little over a month, Persist PAC had raised $55,710 from a total of 554 people. This is in addition to matching funds raised by Opportunity PAC which is supported by Senator Mona Das. 

While $16,000 of these funds went directly as contributions to candidates’ campaigns, the remaining funds will go towards Independent Expenditures (IEs). According to Washington State law, IEs can be used to indirectly support a candidates’ campaign as long as the PAC does not coordinate with each candidate on how the funds can be used to support their campaign. Instead, PACs with IEs must independently decide how the money will be used. Common expenses might include mailers, digital ads,  or paying organizers. 

“Rules like this can be made to sound scary to make people think they can’t use them,” said Taylor, “but it’s important that, one, people not be afraid of them, but two, that people take them seriously.”

Persist PAC’s approach to IEs is to create a strict communication firewall between PAC members Reed and Taylor who are fundraising and PAC members Turla and Fincher, who are creating strategies and tactics for how the money will be spent across all the candidates’ campaigns.

With a firm and integrous financial structure in place, Persist PAC held a virtual “Black Women Lead WA” fundraising event on August 1. The purpose of this event was to raise an additional $25,000 to invest specifically in the red and purple districts in the state. Those unable to attend the event, can still make a donation

Reed shared that communicating the significance of the upcoming election is an important way to engage supporters. Among the most important issues for state legislators next year will be deciding on the COVID-19 recovery budget and choosing legislators for the new redistricting commission that will draw new state boundaries based on the 2020 census outcomes. Persist PAC wants to ensure that Black women are at the table to participate in making these decisions. 

“At the end of the day, people act out of their own experiences. And so our goal is to ensure all of the experiences in [Washington] State are represented in the legislature and right now we really only have one experience which is white, male, and a landlord,” said Reed. “I am a fourth-generation Washingtonian and that’s not what my Washington experience looks like. I want to know there are people in the legislature that understand, represent, and are going to prioritize not just my experience but the experiences of others that have many more struggles than I do.”

Representative Entenman also shared her vision of the 2021 legislature. 

“What I’m hoping for in Olympia, hoping for in the legislature, and hoping for in Washington State is that we learn that given the opportunity to pursue our goals and ambitions, African American women will fly.” 

White supremacy be damned. 

Find more information on how to donate to Persist PAC here. 

Melia LaCour is a columnist for the South Seattle Emerald, Executive Director and Founder of “Becoming Justice,” and a Precinct Committee Officer in LD 37 for the King County Democrats. She identifies as mixed race, Black and her work is rooted in the belief that racial healing is a fundamental component of racial justice work. She is a native Seattleite with a passion for justice, writing, and karaoke. 

Editor’s note: There were a number of errors in this story when it was first published; it has been corrected to reflect the following changes.

The original article stated that Persist PAC is raising funds for eight Black women running for the Washington State Legislature — the correct number is 10: eight are newcomers and two are incumbents. The article originally stated Crystal Fincher is a volunteer; she is actually a paid campaign consultant. The new version of the article adds Representative Entenman and Representative Morgan to the list of candidates the PAC is supporting. The article originally referred to Sherae Lascelles as “she/her” but Lascelles identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns; the article has been corrected to reflect this. The article originally stated “Within a little over a month, a total of 554 people, plus matching funds from Senator Mona Daws, had raised $55,710.” This was changed to “$55,710 was raised, in addition to matching funds raised by Opportunity PAC, which is supported by Senator Mona Das” in order to more accurately reflect the origin of the funds. The article also originally stated that $14,000 in funds were direct contributions to the candidates’ campaigns; this was changed to the correct figure of $16,000. The article originally stated Persist PAC’s goal is to support each of the candidates’ campaign funds; this was deleted because the statement is inaccurate. The article originally stated Julia Reed is King County Democrats’ Chair for Communications; the article was changed to correct her title: King County Democrats Vice Chair for Communications. The article was also changed to correctly spell the name of State Senator Mona Das. The original version of the article stated that there are only two Black legislators in the House — this has been corrected to say that there are only two Black
women legislators, both in the House of Representatives; currently there are also two Black men in the Washington State legislature: Representatives John Lovick and Jesse Johnson.

The Emerald apologizes for the errors in the original article and lists all the corrections made to the article in the list above in the interest of transparency and accuracy in our reporting.

Featured image by Johnny Silvercloud.

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