Riding the Post-Debate Buzz With Kamala Harris’s Sorority Sisters

NASHVILLE — It had been on the calendar for months, the annual leadership conference of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. But the talk at the gathering of 8,000 women last weekend was about far more than the usual chapter building, catching up and breaking out outfits in the organization’s signature pink and green: Kamala Harris, who joined the sorority as a college student, had just resurrected the ghost of segregation and busing against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden in a Democratic presidential debate.

The moment brought a sense of pride and some apprehension about what Ms. Harris’s campaign would hold.

Younger members said Ms. Harris represented a hope for the future. “She just reminds me to be fearless in the pursuit of my goals,” said Shannon Burge, 31, a Denver sales manager.

Older members said Ms. Harris’s challenge to Mr. Biden last week — over his opposition to busing during the 1970s — was evidence that years of sacrifice had not been in vain. “I went to segregated schools. I experienced integration. It wasn’t easy,” said Miriam Joyner-Smith, 59, who works in the insurance industry in Tampa. “We’re just excited and proud because she represents us well.”

Ms. Harris didn’t attend the conference, which began the night of the debate, but provided a video to be shown at the event that bore a striking resemblance to a campaign call to action, while never actually mentioning her presidential ambitions.

“We have a fight ahead of us, and we cannot afford to sit it out,” Ms. Harris said in the video, referring to gun violence, the low pay and high maternal mortality rate among black women, and new laws that stymie access to the ballot box.

“Simply put, the women of Alpha Kappa Alpha have forged paths and led in just about every space imaginable,” she said in the video. Just not, yet, in the space Ms. Harris is imagining: the White House. It’s possible A.K.A. membership will be an advantage there.

The group’s sheer numbers, organization and multimillion-dollar budget suggest a potential secret weapon in the campaign arsenal of Ms. Harris, who joined the sorority while an undergraduate at Howard University. She has called A.K.A. a major influence in her life.

In June, Ms. Harris tweeted: “Being a graduate of @HowardU and a proud member of @akasorority1908 changed my life” as she announced an effort to engage and mobilize students and alumni from historically black colleges and universities, as well as members of historically black Greek organizations.

In addition to Ms. Harris, who personally addressed members at meetings of the organization earlier this year, seven House of Representatives members are also A.K.A. sisters.

For Denine Bratcher, 50, who was attending the conference from Germany, Ms. Harris’s emergence as a presidential contender isn’t the least bit surprising.

“We are women who are pioneers. We’re making strides, making waves for the future,” said Ms. Bratcher, who teaches the children of U.S. military families. “That’s what Alpha Kappa Alpha women do. We make strides.”

If the next stride is to the White House, though, it will be without A.K.A.’s official endorsement, according to its president, Glenda Glover, who also serves as the president of Tennessee State University. In an interview wedged in the middle of a busy day during the conference here, Dr. Glover, dressed in a pink suit and accompanied by an entourage, pointed out that, as a nonprofit, the sorority avoids involvement in partisan politics.

With about 300,000 members, A.K.A. is capable of formidable fund-raising outside of politics. Simply by texting and emailing members on one day last year, the group raised more than $1.3 million for historically black colleges. Records show that the annual budget of the national organization and its affiliates, including an educational endowment, exceeds $75 million.

A.K.A. is also known for its work in get-out-the-vote operations. Approximately 17,000 members live in the South Atlantic region, which includes South Carolina, an early primary state. Ms. Harris’s campaign announced on Friday that she had picked up the endorsement of Gloria Boozer, a former sorority official from Spartanburg.

The focus of the weekend meeting here at the Opryland resort and convention center was leadership, with dozens of panels offering how-to advice. They ranged from “Refugee Access to Advanced Education: Securing and Saving the Brain Talent” to “Entrepreneurship and the Black Dollars Spent 365 Days,” although sessions were closed to nonmembers.

For many members of the organization, which was founded at Howard in 1908, supporting Ms. Harris was an obvious choice.

“She’s a soror,” said April Patton, 52, a teacher from Jackson, Miss., who emerged from a large room where everything from pink-and-green A.K.A. T-shirts to purses to jewelry was for sale. “You have to be a fan. She’s a solid person.”

Others, noting a strong desire to oust President Trump, feared nominating a black woman would be too risky, even if the idea of having a fellow sorority member in the White House was appealing.

That concern was raised by Sharon Everett, 58, a teacher from Cleveland, as she returned to her hotel room on Friday following an evening of meetings.

“I don’t think America is ready for a female,” Ms. Everett said. “I worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign, doing the door-to-door. I was so disappointed.”

Ms. Everett said she could envision the election of another black male president before a woman of any race is elected.

Some younger convention-goers also expressed concern about how negative the attacks against Ms. Harris might become — already, they noted, Donald Trump Jr. had shared and then deleted a tweet questioning her identity. They worried about what else might lie ahead.

Janice Wells, an educational consultant from Chicago, was more optimistic. She acknowledged concerns about whether voters would go for Ms. Harris, but also said the senator brings “hope to the possibility.”

“I know that this is a predominantly white male world, but all the women in political power have created a space for change,” said Ms. Wells, 47.

Though Dr. Glover, the group’s leader, emphasized that the organization is apolitical, the behind-the-scenes clout of A.K.A. was a factor last year in a Broward County, Fla., school fight, according to Rosalind Osgood, a member of both the Broward school board and A.K.A.

Sitting in the large indoor Opryland atrium during a break in the convention, Dr. Osgood described how the group was used to mobilize opposition to the attempted ouster of Robert Runcie, the Broward school district superintendent, in March 2018, a month after the Parkland school shooting.

Dr. Osgood viewed the effort to remove Mr. Runcie as politically motivated and possibly tied to race. She thought it sought to place blame for the horrific shootings on a black man.

“There was a massive move to remove Bob,” she said, “who had nothing to do with the shooting. With our local chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha, we were able to work with churches to organize 700 people who showed up to a community forum on school safety, and then organize 2,100 people to show up to a school board meeting where the vote was taken.” The effort to oust Mr. Runcie was defeated.

Dr. Osgood, a minister, said she had decided to endorse Ms. Harris while at the convention.

“I think what she represents is historic for women across generations,” Dr. Osgood said. “She breaks all the traditional boundaries and status quos.”

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