On an early December day, not long before the special election between U.S. Senate candidates Doug Jones, the Democrat, and Republican Roy Moore–an election that put Alabama square in the national spotlight’s scrutinizing (and mocking) glare–DeJuana Thompson, a Birmingham native and experienced, national political strategist, was at home when her personal cellphone rang.
Hi, this is Don Cheadle.
Sir? (She thought it was one of her friends playing a trick, but she rolled with it.)
I saw a segment on Woke Vote on Roland Martin’s show on TV One and I’m really excited about what you’re trying to do. (By now, the accomplished award-winning actor’s voice sounded all-too-familiar to be mimicked, so Thompson sat up straight and listened.)
Tell me more. I’m in.
Just a few days later, Cheadle appeared live via FaceTime on a big screen at a Woke Vote gala held at Work Play.
“Each one reach one–shake ’em awake” he said. “We gotta Woke Vote. We need you guys more than ever. be a part of this process, not only in the state of Alabama, but in the nation at large.”
If you’ve never heard of Woke Vote, it’s probably because you’re not African American. Or a millennial.
And that’s okay. It was a statewide initiative, conceived by Thompson, aimed at educating, mobilizing and motivating black millennials across the state to vote in the December 12 election.
If you’ve not heard of Thompson, it’s because people like her rarely operate in the political spotlight. They, rather, embody “grass-roots” politics–strategizing, organizing and executing door-to-door, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, city-by-city and beyond until the last polling box is closed, the last vote counted.
Even before Jones was declared the surprising, upset (and thank God, in the minds of some of us) winner, it was clear that Thompson, along with her committed, passionate and inspired team of leaders and volunteers throughout the state had created something unique, something that galvanized thousands of young black voters, something that even touched the heart of at least one of Hollywood’s elite talents.
A sustainable black political structure
More importantly, they created something Thompson had envisioned for almost a decade: an empowered, independent, nonpartisan African-American political structure that exists separately from any political party or candidate.
“I believe in black independent political power,” says Thompson, a graduate of Ramsey High School. “I believe in partnerships but I’m not asking to be a part of your party. Whatever your strategy [for attracting black voters]is going to be, it has to be intentionally focused on building the power of people, not just the party.”
You already know African-American voters were linchpins in Jones’ victory, voting in historic numbers and overwhelmingly–97 percent of African-American women; 93 percent of African-American men–for now-Senator Jones.
Overall, 60 percent of voters under 44 years of age voted for Jones, while 60 percent of voters over 60 chose Moore.
Thousands of those young African Americans voters were part of the phalanx of millennials, or even younger–many of whom had never voted or actively participated in a political movement–who knocked on 14,000 doors, signed more than 30,000 commit-to-vote cards (and counting, because Thompson hasn’t yet found the time or energy to count them all) and showed up for a Day of Action just one day after the state was pummeled several inches of snow in some regions.
“After the snow, I thought maybe 50 of the 300 people who signed up would show up,” Thompson says.
Three-hundred-twenty-three showed up.
Woke Vote was not the only independent grass-roots movement across the state that mobilized and stretched limited resources to get out the black vote. In fact, several organizations did so, largely compensating for what many perceived to be the lack of coherent strategy within the Jones campaign to touch and motivate black voters.
“Working collaboratively with organizations like Black Voters Matter, Faith in Action AL and TOPS Society proved my point that there are people doing the work on the ground, who love their community – who if given the resources and the platform – will always rise to the occasion,” Thompson says.
Thompson’s roots in Birmingham
Thompson was organizing long before she even knew organizing was a thing–a thing that could change things. As a Ramsay 10th-grader, she helped boost the student-run Peer Helpers program, which provided support for academics and community service at every public school in Birmingham.
“I remember telling the principal, Rob Atkins I wanted to do it,” she says. “He said if I could figure out the resources and get the other schools on board…”
She did, and she did.
Not that surprising because Thompson comes from, what she calls, “figure-it-out stock”.
Don and Janice Thompson were young parents, having the first of their four children–DeJuana being the oldest, “as you can imagine,” she says–when they were just 22 years old, the last child when they were 33. Dion, a service specialist at Enterprise; Derek, a chef in Nashville; and Daniel, a recent University of South Alabama graduate (yes, all boys and all similarly-“D” named) followed big sister.
Don served in the Marine Reserves; Janice, after two years at Miles College, graduated from UAB with a degree in Physical Education and Health. In 1982, they were among the founding members of the More Than Conquerors Faith Church in the Heritage Town Center on the West End. “They believed in a more intentional way of worshiping God that was not tied to the traditional doctrine seen in other churches,” Thompson says.
Don still serves at More Than Conquerors, as Assistant Pastor; Janice is an independent contractor in the office of Administration and Childcare Services. Their seeds of faith and service were clearly planted within their children, particularly the eldest.
“They were being led by a purpose in showing up differently and taking a different path.”
For her, that path led, at least initially, away from Birmingham. she loved the city and always knew she would be loyal to Birmingham. Yet she also knew “from jump” she was not attending college in Alabama.
She was recruited by Berea College in Kentucky and fell in love with its mission to provide a tuition-free, liberal-arts education to low-income students nationwide.
During summers, she returned home and worked for the Birmingham City Council, under the wing of then-Council President Pro Tempore Carole Smitherman, just one of numerous African-American women through her growing years who saw potential in Thompson, nurtured her and encouraged her to think beyond the proverbial “box”.
In 2007, while working for the city, she was asked to help organize a visit by a young Senator who was aspiring to be President. That’s how Thompson had the opportunity to meet Barack Obama.
“He laid out his vision for the country,” she recalls. “He talked a lot about young people being activated. He talked about the power of community and neighbors. I needed to hear that because I was a little burned out on politics inside and outside.”
She clearly impressed the young Senator because he asked her help to organize and execute their get-out-the-vote efforts in Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky. It was supposed to be a five-week gig; it lasted eight months through the historic 2008 election of Obama as the nation’s first African-American president.
Grass-roots campaign work was addictive
“I didn’t know how addictive the work would be,” she says. “They believed in the work I was doing. I will always be grateful for that; it allowed me to learn and see and play on a level I would not have otherwise been able to.”
The experience lasted eight months and “brought [my]energy back,” Thompson says, “and I tried to implement what I learned in different programs.
Over the next whirlwind eight years, Thompson worked primarily on Capitol Hill, initially with then-Alabama U.S. Congressman Artur Davis after she supported his run for governor in 2010. While in Washington, she evangelized to Alabamians back home on the importance of national legislation in their lives.
“Politics that comes out of the Hill absolutely affects everyday people,” she says, “but they won’t feel the impact as quickly as they would feel the impact of legislation from their local government. But it impacts taxes, schools, neighborhood policing and a lot more.
“People should hold [their national legislators]more accountable, but they think the Hill is ‘over there’ somewhere and not relevant.”
Thompson joined Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, as African-American Vote Director for the state of Florida, charged with engaging the state’s increasingly diverse black voter population, which included people of Caribbean descent. That allowed her to organize and manage “intentional” (her favorite word, by the way) budgets that revealed where the campaign (and, by extension, the Democratic Party) was investing its get-out-the-vote efforts.
Most important, she was placed into the rarefied-air of campaign leadership, offering a front-line view the Democratic party’s approach to black voters. It wasn’t pretty.
“A lot of times,” she says, “I had to advise them about making some people were seen in spaces they should be seen. But in one of the most progressive campaigns and administrations in our history, there were still times when people of color did not have the platform or voice they should have.”
Thompson doesn’t drink, which can be counterintuitive to thriving in today’s political culture. But she’s comfortable in places where her colleagues enjoy a toast or three while conveying the core of who she is, without judgment or compromise.
She also admits having expensive tastes, which is why months of unemployment following the 2012 election caused her to consider a job in New York as executive director of a non-profit for a salary she deemed less than her worth, or needs.
“I was making a decision out of fear, nothing else,” she says. But she remembered what her father once said: negotiate nothing out of fear.
And she recalled Mark 5: 36, which reads, in part: be not afraid, just believe.
“Fear has no place in a faith life,” she says. “I decided not to take the job, with no idea what I’d do. But I felt at peace about it.” She took the bus back to D.C. and “had a good cry.”
A call from Cory Booker
The following day, during the summer of 2013, she received a call from the young mayor of Newark who had just announced he was running for the U.S. Senate in–get this–a special election, this one caused by the unexpected death of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg on June 3, 2013.
“I know you have a million things going on,” Cory Booker said.
“I did not have a single one,” she recalls, shaking her head and smiling.
He wanted her to be deputy field director for his quixotic campaign, which was, like Jones’s, considered a long-shot–and the object of much national attention.
Booker, of course, won the Democratic primary and the general election and is now considered a potential 2020 presidential candidate.
“It is great to be part of those moments,” Thompson says, “that give faith to things really hoped for.”
In 2015, Thompson joined the Obama administration as Senior Advisor for Public Administration in the U.S. Small Business Administration. As Obama’s second term neared its end, the Democratic Party, gearing up for the 2016 presidential election, reached out to Thompson to help it develop, in their words, a “long-term strategy” for engaging African-American voters, who had long over-indexed on loyalty to the Dems.
Thompson almost choked while sharing this with me, because it didn’t take long for her to realize the DNC wasn’t really serious.
She wanted to create an intentional grass-roots strategy that would live beyond any particular campaign or candidate. “Systematic programming that would create a platform where the party intentionally invested in and trained the next wave of black political leadership.
She created what she calls a “beautiful 26-page” treatise outlining her vision.
“To date,” she says, “I’m not sure if more than two people at the DNC have read it.”
By the time she reached Florida for the campaign, she knew Democrats were in trouble in the state.
The realities of 2016
“It just didn’t feel right,” she says. “Certain people within the black community had not even been engaged yet by the party. A lot of people were flabbergasted when we lost the state. I saw it coming.”
Thompson had no desire to remain with the DNC and was even done with living in the nation’s capital.
Last June she returned to Birmingham and launched Think Rubix, a “thought-equity” firm, with two partners who also worked in senior-level campaign positions and Capitol Hill leadership roles. Their aim was to work on the “front-end” with organizations, including the DNC, that want to engage people of color–not solely in politics.
“We’re unapologetically black,” she says. “What we all came to terms with was that when there was a desire to engage people of color, there just weren’t enough people who knew how to organize people in the space who could speak to power.”
She was also energized to “see what could be done on the ground” in the South.
“The South had long been neglected when it came political resources, training, and infrastructure,” she says. “But I don’t put all the blame on the national party. Even some of our own allied organizations, like the Urban League, have not effectively programmed the state.
“It was time for a lot of people to step up and reinvent and reimagine what the South should be. But it needed to be on the ground.”
One spark was Trump’s nomination earlier in the year of then-U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions for U.S. Attorney General, which had piqued Thompson differently than most of her colleagues.
“They were, ‘Oh my God, the country’; I was, ‘Oh my God, an opportunity!'”
“I told people, ‘We gotta make a play for this,'” she recalls. “We had left too many seats on the table because we didn’t believe [winning]could happen. Why? Have we given up this much power because we’re afraid to try and fail?
“I was screaming at top of lungs, but nobody listened.”
Jones campaign not ready
Not even the Jones campaign, which was still in its nascent stages just after winning the primary. “They were inspired by what I had to say, but they just weren’t there yet.”
Thompson took out some of her frustrations by, yes, shopping, she confesses. She also made a couple calls to political donors outside of Alabama and shared her vision for what she had now branded: Woke Vote.
At this juncture, the Republicans were still battling for a nominee between Moore and Luther Strange. “If Roy Moore comes out of the primary, we can win this,” she told them.
The following day, one donor called her back; they spoke for four hours. “You’ve really thought about this,” he said.
A day later he called saying he’d spoken with other potential donors and they decided to support the effort “significantly”–if for no other reason than to build an effective model for engaging black voters throughout the state for elections in 2018.
But Thompson was focused on the short-term opportunity.
“I believed we could win in 2017, but I knew we could win in 2018 if we put the right programs and strategies in place.”
“Woke” Money flows to Alabama
The donor said he thought Woke Vote needed $7-$10 million to succeed.
Thompson felt it could be done for a lot less. “Black women have a way of taking a dollar and making it feel like three,” she says with a laugh.
Ultimately, for Woke Vote (and Righteous Vote, a similar effort created by Thompson to engage black voters through churches across the state), Thompson and her team collaboratively raised more than $2 million–most of it coming from out of state.
“This kind of money,” she said, “had never come to Alabama.”
While the two campaigns were sucked into the vortex of the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore that permeated all coverage, Woke Vote sprung from an idea–and the pages of that 26-page treatise–like a storm even a suspendered James Spann could not have predicted.
It was positioned as a nonpartisan effort aimed simply to inspire black millennials to vote in the December 12 election, just as many in Birmingham had come for the October 3 mayoral election, where more than 10,000 voters cast ballots for the first time.
Woke Vote seeds were planted, and bloomed, on the state’s ’14 HBCU’s and other campuses as well. Students took ownership of Woke Vote and made it their own, infusing an energy and enthusiasm neither campaign captured on its own. They wore striking t-shirts, stickers, signed voter-commit cards and drove millions of impressions through social media.
And while the money, came from out of state, Thompson says 93 percent of the workers, supervisors, and businesses hired for the program were “Alabama grown.”
During the last week in February, 500 Woke Vote and Righteous Vote leaders are expected to convene in Birmingham for a conference designed to build upon what transpired last year.
“To build an independent black political structure that is allowed to operate in the space where it can be most effective,” Thompson says.
Much of their focus will be on the myriad races throughout Alabama this year–from county clerk offices to the Jefferson County District Attorney race to the Governor’s mansion.
“I am not supposed to be where am now based on the tradition how national campaigns work,” Thompsons says. “Maybe that’s why I’m willing to see things and do things differently. I’m not afraid to lose a job and won’t do something that’s not real or purposeful. I was raised to believe that people of color should be empowered like any group of people. When it happens, it empowers the entire country.
On the day after the election, Thompson’s phone rang again.
Sen. Booker called to say she remained “one of my favorite people,” and encouraged her to “keep the energy” of Woke Vote alive.
“We’ve got a lot of fights ahead,” he said. “The work has not stopped yet.”
U.S. Senator Elizbeth Warren called, too, which was almost as surprising as the call just a few weeks before from Don Cheadle.
“She said she had been following Woke Vote and wanted to thank the team,” Thompson says. “She wants to sit down and talk about how Woke Vote may work beyond Alabama.”
That was always the plan, that programs like Woke Vote and Righteous Vote become effective, sustainable movements to engage black voters nationwide, regardless of the election or candidate.
“Can it be duplicated?” Thompson asks, rhetorically. “Are there black people outside of Alabama? Are there resources outside of Alabama? Absolutely.”
Roy S. Johnson’s column appears in The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register and AL.com. Hit me up at email@example.com and follow me at twitter.com/roysj.