In March 1965, all eyes turned towards Selma, Alabama. Heroes of the civil rights movement converged on the town to affirm the basic dignity of all Americans and uphold those words in the Declaration of Independence that guide the soul of our nation. While many strides have been made, 55 years later, the city of Selma remains burdened by poverty and a long legacy of racist policymaking. There is still much work to do, and it’s not just in Selma but all across our country. Four years after the election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party, the party of the common man, must reorient its concern to the forgotten Americans, from Scioto County to Selma. That’s why 55 years after civil rights activists marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Joe Biden should look towards Selma as he chooses a VP. Who better than a distinguished daughter of Selma to join former Vice President Joe Biden as he seeks to restore the soul of this nation?
Oddly, Alabama 7th District Representative Terri Sewell has garnered only a small fraction the attention that others like Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris have. Maybe it’s because of Abrams’ active attempts to forge a path into the position. Let’s not forget, Abrams was a (distinguished) Georgia State Representative who lost a statewide race, while Terri Sewell has been in Congress since 2011, representing a district that stretches from the Mississippi border to Birmingham. Harris, for her national profile, has baggage on criminal justice issues and an awkward history with Biden, notwithstanding her later endorsement of his bid. As for Terri Sewell? What baggage?
Two conservative sources first broached the topic. In the Washington Examiner, Naomi Lim smartly examined how Sewell could fulfill an important role for Vice President Biden, with her “appeal to Democrats yearning for the Obama administration years amid a trying time for the Trump White House”. In the National Review, Dan McLaughlin provided 10 reasons how Sewell could bolster Biden’s ticket, but the article’s tone is restrained, sarcastic even, describing her as a “‘put the Democratic Socialists in their place’ pick”. While I’m partial to McLaughlin’s points (her being from the South, being a woman of color, having close friendships with the Obamas), I plan to present a far more enthusiastic for Vice President Terri Sewell.
A note of caution is in order. VP selection does not generally swing an election. While candidates often seek geographic and experiential balance, a swing state VP doesn’t guarantee their home state–just ask Mitt Romney about that 7% loss in Wisconsin. Nonetheless, the wrong pick can damage a ticket and the right pick can add important intangibles to a ticket. 1972 Democratic pick Thomas Eagleton (sadly harmed by a history of mental health treatment) and 2008’s shoot-from-the-hip Republican Sarah Palin demonstrate the former. As for the latter, many credit Richard Nixon’s 1968 choice of Spiro Agnew for strengthening his appeal to White working class voters. So Biden’s vice presidential choice likely won’t win him the election, but making the right choice could help expand his appeal or at least avoid the consequences of a bad pick.
Terri Sewell was born and raised in Selma, Alabama and attended Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. Interestingly, she befriended Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, and Kirsten Gillibrand before they entered politics. Helpful friendships indeed! At age 55 (relatively young in the political world) and being from the south, she would add demographic and geographic balance to the ticket. Moreover, as the two GOP-leaning authors noted, her race and gender could be a real asset to the Biden campaign, particularly in places like Georgia and North Carolina where Democratic victory requires elevated Black turnout. Recently, Joe Biden promised to choose a female VP and over 200 Black female leaders have signed a petition asking Biden to pick an African-American woman. While identity may be important to an extent, the reasoning for picking Sewell far transcends outward appearances.
Unquestionably, Black voters were essential to Joe Biden’s primary victory; they’re the reason he swept Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. South Carolina launched Biden’s comeback, so to call African-Americans his primary campaign’s linchpin isn’t far off (I should note, he significantly expanded his base afterward, uniting a diverse working class coalition). Fittingly, Terri Sewell has a record of mobilizing base voters in key elections. During the 2017 Alabama Senate special election, where Doug Jones upset Roy Moore, Sewell mobilized national support from Congressional Black Caucus members, who came to Alabama to stump for the underdog Democrat. Moreover, while highlighting the importance of Black women (who turned out en masse for Jones, even exceeding 2008 turnout in the 7th district) to Jones’ win, she also recognizes that victory came from “a real show of coalition politics”, with “moderate Republicans, suburban women, millennials, and Gen-X.” Sewell hit the trail, organized supporters, and helped Doug Jones reach important communities. That’s the formula that the Biden campaign needs to build coalitions while ensuring base turnout. An effective, respected surrogate like Sewell can help that happen.
Sewell’s strength also comes from her experience in Congress. The Congresswoman currently serves on the Ways and Means Committee and the Intelligence Committee. Her lengthy resume includes previous stints on the Financial Services Committee, the Agriculture Committee, and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Additionally, she was a financial services lawyer before entering Congress. This experience grants her ample issue knowledge and a determination to tackle tough problems. She focuses on areas that should be priorities for a Democratic ticket and administration.
For one, Sewell powerfully advocates for rural communities. The evidence is clear. After a 2016 pummelling in rural America, Democrats need more support there to win in 2020. They cannot afford to ignore these communities. One of the best voices on this issue, Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb, stated that “Democrats [should] spend more time in rural areas talking to voters about health care costs, corporations taking private property through eminent domain, industrial agriculture, and even climate change.” In Sewell, Biden can pick a candidate who does just that. For instance, Sewell co-chairs the bipartisan Rural and Underserved Communities Health Task Force on the Ways and Means Committee. Rural areas, particular poorer ones, face hospital closures and higher rates of cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, and higher opioid deaths. In the current moment, COVID-19 has laid bare the inadequacies of rural healthcare provision. This has political consequences. Electorally, the swaths of America with the highest rates of opioid prescriptions track handily with those voting for Donald Trump. Studies show that even when controlling for socioeconomic variables, the opioid prescription rate accounts for 1/3rd of the effect. Hopelessness soars as farm prices, already low, continue to plummet and food rots in the fields. Rural America is struggling and Democrats need to step up to the plate.
Recently, Representative Sewell sponsored the bipartisan Immediate Relief for Rural Facilities and Providers Act, which would assist rural hospitals and providers in responding to COVID-19. Due to the unique struggles these providers face, such a measure would improve Congressional stimulus efforts. Beyond healthcare, Sewell also introduced the RURAL Act, signed into law by President Trump in 2019. This law expands rural co-ops’ ability to obtain grants for broadband expansion and disaster relief. This helps empower entrepreneurship and close the gaps these areas face. While the average voter is unlikely to know about Congressional bills, they symbolize Sewell’s commitment to non-metropolitan America. She grew up in Middle America. She’s fought for Middle America. She represents the diversity of Middle America.
Moreover, Rep. Sewell’s voting rights advocacy makes her a compelling choice. She recently sponsored the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would constitutionally re-establish the pre-clearance requirements eliminated in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). This would allow the Department of Justice to preempt state and local disenfranchisement and aggressively defend the right to vote. While the bill passed the US House, it currently languishes in the Senate, courtesy of a recalcitrant Mitch McConnell. The VRAA isn’t a wonky policy; it carries very real implications. As Vann Newkirk puts it, “voting rights could be the only thing everyone agrees on—and the thing necessary for all of the other potential policies to ever become reality”. Expanding democracy is the first step to accomplishing the progressive change Democrats seek to achieve. Our message should center around political and economic democracy. Combating voter suppression is a unifying launching pad for that agenda. Just listen to Rep. Sewell’s passionate speech in favor of the VRAA, where she discusses details while proclaiming that “the fight that began in Selma, Alabama in 1965 still persists”. The VRAA, as Sewell notes, brings together labor, civil rights groups, and progressive advocates. The party’s divisions fade behind this common goal.
Not only has she led on voting rights in the halls of Congress, but as the Congresswoman from Selma, Sewell organized the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage with Senator Doug Jones and GOP Representative Martha Roby. Her leadership bridges the substantive and the symbolic, exactly what a competent VP and surrogate should do. I can’t think of anybody better to lead a renewed fight for the spirit of our democracy from the White House.
Analyzing the bigger picture, she seems to be a smart choice. Sewell is vice-chair of the moderate New Democratic Coalition, and has a voting record near the middle of the Democratic Party. She (rightly in my view) criticized AOC’s former Chief of Staff and his bombastic anti-moderate statements and yet enjoys high ratings from activist groups like Clean Water Action, NETWORK, the NEA, and the SEIU. In a party that at times appears torn between left and center, a Biden/Sewell ticket can bring Democrats together behind an inclusive, pragmatic agenda. Moreover, her upbringing in a disadvantaged rural area, her extensive and impressive resume, and her deep Obama-family ties mean she can navigate the various circles Biden’s VP choice must deal with.
Terri Sewell shouldn’t be confined to the margins of our VP discussions. She should be front-and-center on the shortlist. Sewell has the skills, the record, and the experience to bolster the Democratic ticket. In his effort to restore the soul of America, Joe Biden should nominate somebody who represents the long-fought crusade to make this country live up to its founding principles.