The attention around Oprah Winfrey’s stirring Golden Globes speech and dramatic emergence as a speculated candidate for president in 2020 took most of the most prominent black Democratic groups by surprise this week.
Some of their reaction to Oprah was tempered because they view Sen. Kamala Harris’s candidacy as more likely. The Oprah flashpoint underscored how a lot of the groups are preparing quietly for Harris; in private, these activists and donors are eager to talk about Harris’s affability and charisma; her record as attorney general of California; how popular she’d be in say, South Carolina.
But, Oprah (!) had many of them thinking about an alternate universe in which she is not their preferred candidate simply by virtue of the person she is. The national fawning over her speech had black Democratic groups scurrying behind the scenes about what to say, how to say it — and wondering if they should say anything at all. A Democratic strategist was more succinct: “They don’t want to step on Kamala’s toes.”
Some of the black political class are game to talk about all things O. Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a cofounder of Higher Heights for America, which advances black women’s issues in public policy and seeks to increase black women’s civic participation in politics in part by supporting black woman candidates, told BuzzFeed News in an email interview that the opportunity for a black woman to “break the ultimate glass ceiling for women” is exciting “whether that candidate is Oprah Winfrey or Kamala Harris.”
Harris has been the subject of two recent national profiles, both of which highlight how voters are energized by the prospect of her candidacy. “As an organization focused on harnessing the political power of black women at the voting booth and on the ballot, having an exciting candidate of our own at the top of the ticket has the potential to energize black women and our ally voters to the polls and bring that energy and enthusiasm to other black women on the ballot,” Peeler-Allen said. “It remains our focus to make sure that black women’s voices, votes, and leadership matter in the political discourse whether that be at the local, state, or federal level.”
“Having dynamic figures like Oprah lend their voices, talent, and resources as activists and donors,” she said, “to candidates can inspire the possibilities when we unleash the organizing power of black women.”
The outpouring of attention toward Oprah also created some friction among black political activist circles: In these conversations, according to one prominent Democratic activist, people balk at the popular framing — asking a black woman to take on trying to save the country from ruin. The political discourse around Oprah, now surrounds “not asking another black woman to bear the burden of saving America from what white folks, especially white women, did,” in electing Trump, the activist, who asked not to be identified, said in a text message to BuzzFeed News.
“But also, people acknowledge that [Oprah] is one of those people who even some Trump supporters love,” she said.
Harris and Winfrey certainly know each other, according to one person close to her. Quentin James, a cofounder of Collective PAC, which is raising money to recruit, train, and fund black candidates was casually into the idea of Oprah running: “We’d love to see it,” he said, pledging support but unconvinced that she really wants to do it. “But it’s early. But does she really want to do it? Most of [the speculation] is being driven by cable TV. So, I just don’t know?”
Bakari Sellers is among the more aggressive political figures courting Oprah on social media after her big speech. The former South Carolina state senator and CNN political commentator told BuzzFeed News that Oprah’s Sunday speech recalled the stump speech she had given on behalf of Barack Obama on the campus of the University of South Carolina; she was nervous, according to murmurs backstage, but, “She crushed it,” he said.
Harris is exciting to voters, he agreed. Eric Holder could do well in South Carolina. And Eric Garcetti, a white candidate who he said he could “bring to a black church” — and could be relied upon to clap on beat, an underrated, but over-observed cultural cue people that people feel is important to South Carolina voters. But none of it applies to Oprah, after all. She’s a celebrity.