HOUSTON – Sima Ladjevardian made her first major foray into political giving in 2016, when she gave thousands of dollars to support the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. But she was only getting started.
Realizing there was power in political giving, the Iranian American lawyer donated to more than a dozen Democratic candidates from Virginia to Arizona in last year’s midterm elections. This year, she has given the maximum $2,800 to presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke. And she is trying to persuade other minority women to do the same.
“Women of color have been afraid to get more involved, especially political causes, because they didn’t think it would matter,” said Ladjevardian, mingling at a private reception here for minority women this spring. “It’s important to get [them] to donate and be involved in the process, and know how much their voice makes a difference.”
In pockets across the country, women such as Ladjevardian are trying to raise their profile as political donors, driven by a desire to exert more influence over a political system that has long seemed inaccessible to them.
No longer content to simply be the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters – 94 percent of African American women voted for Clinton over President Donald Trump in 2016, for instance – some women of color are seeking to break into the influential but overwhelmingly white and male world of political donors.
The efforts are part of a broader campaign to elevate the voices of this group within the Democratic Party, which has had some success. In April, most of the declared Democratic presidential hopefuls attended a forum hosted by She the People, a new political group dedicated to liberal women of color.
But the efforts also reflect a worry that, without robust giving by minority women, the party will move on in the general election to focus on white Midwestern Trump voters at the expense of communities of color.
“If the Democratic Party . . . were truly wanting to invest in the most powerful, reliable, fastest-growing part of the base, they would right now be announcing historic investments in registering and engaging women of color – in particular, in swing states,” said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People.
The absence of women of color is particularly acute among the super-rich givers – billionaires and multimillionaires who give seven figures or more per election. The power of these contributors has grown in recent years as courts have opened the floodgates to donors’ unlimited spending to try to sway elections.
But even many ultrarich minority women, such as Oprah Winfrey, have preferred to support charities and causes over political candidates. Activists and researchers say that reflects the challenges of creating a culture of political giving even among those who give large amounts philanthropically.
“Money to political [causes and candidates] was not what I grew up with. You give money to church, you don’t give money to get [people] elected,” said Lola West, an African American Democratic donor who gave to President Barack Obama and Clinton in their 2008 campaigns and has since donated several thousand dollars supporting candidates for Congress and local office.
She said giving and raising money opened a new level of access to push for policies and change.
“It’s a new world that opens up to you when you start donating politically. You get entree to conversations, to meetings, to activities that are going on,” said West, co-founder and managing director of WestFuller Advisors, a boutique wealth management firm in New York.
There is limited data and research on political giving by gender and race, making it difficult to gauge potential – or progress.
Although specific figures vary depending on racial and age groups, women of color are generally underrepresented as campaign donors even though they vote at high rates, according to research by progressive think tank Demos. Black, Latina and Asian women made up a smaller share of the donor pool in elections from 2008 through 2014, compared to men of color, white women and white men, Demos found.
There were just two Latinos among the top 100 political givers in the 2016 cycle, one of them female, according to the Center for Public Integrity: Alejandra de la Vega Foster, who gave to Republicans.
Another major donor is Sunita Leeds, an Indian American political activist and philanthropist living in Washington. She gave more than $200,000 to Democrats and liberal groups in the 2016 cycle and was a superdelegate for Clinton in 2016.
“Women of color of high-net wealth [are] doing some political giving, but very, very few are doing so with gusto,” said Hali Lee, co-director of the Donors of Color Network, a national project researching and engaging wealthy minority donors. “There’s a huge opportunity there for this sleeping giant.”
A sign of hope many see for engaging more minority women to give money in 2020: the wave of women of color who were elected into office in 2018.
Maria Echaveste, a former White House deputy chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and a political donor, recalled almost instantaneously when asked about her first political donation. It was to Gloria Molina, who in 1991 became the first Latina to be elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
“She was taking on the old Latino boys in Los Angeles,” Echaveste recalled. “The guys had told her, ‘Wait your turn.’ She was like, ‘To hell with it.’ ”
Echaveste, then a young corporate lawyer just earning a salary, gave a couple hundred dollars and volunteered for Molina’s campaign.
In 2018, the Democratic National Committee launched a program called “Seat at the Table” to involve more black women in the party, in response to criticisms that the party overlooked the voting bloc in 2016.
Since 2017, at least a dozen groups have emerged or ramped up their activities to bring together women and minority donors. They have been conducting research and meeting in small groups, and they tested out their strategy in the 2018 elections.
One effort is led by a small group of advisers and activists from the world of philanthropy who are recruiting and educating donors of color, particularly women, to donate politically.
The idea for the group came out of meetings at the Democracy Alliance, a network of high-net-worth liberal donors. People realized that women and minorities were often giving presentations to donors, rather than being the donors themselves, said Ashindi Maxton, who is involved in the effort.
“Women of color donors, the party doesn’t look at them and see them as the power players they are or could be,” Maxton said.
Another effort is being spearheaded by She the People. The group’s April event in Houston was primarily funded by two groups that are engaging more women and minority donors and activists for 2020: Women Donors Network, a group of about 250 women, and Way to Win, a coalition of mostly female donors.
These groups are working to direct new donors’ political spending to candidates and activist groups in the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. They say the party has overlooked an increasingly multicultural, female and liberal base, particularly in the South and Southwest – and believe that the donor base should reflect and listen to the changing faces in the party.
“If there’s a cultural shift happening in general, and a political shift is on the horizon, then certain donors . . . it’s time for them to follow that cultural shift, too, and think about how they are engaged in politics,” said Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win.