When the Democratic National Convention released its list of speakers last week, critics were quick to point out the lack of generational diversity: Only two of the 35 speakers initially announced were under the age of 50.
That changed on Sunday, when convention organizers rolled out plans for Tuesday’s keynote address, the prime-time spot typically reserved for one up-and-comer in the Democratic Party. The keynote is a “bellwether for the future of our party and our nation,” said Democratic convention chief executive Joe Solmonese, famously filled in 2004 by Barack Obama, who was then a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Instead of giving the 2020 keynote to one person, the Democratic convention has decided to split it up among 17 of the party’s “rising stars.” Seven of the speakers will be women. Five are women of color.
Most of the individuals selected are current or former state representatives who endorsed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden early on in the primary season. They are largely unknown on the national level — with one notable exception: former Georgia state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, whose name appeared on many vice-presidential shortlists. At age 46, Abrams is the oldest of the group.
The decision to showcase an array of young talent “highlights the pressure the party feels to present a vision for the future, especially when the presidential candidate himself is someone who has been in Democratic politics for so long, and who is an older white man,” said Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
The choice also illustrates a “confusion” in the Democratic Party over “how to react to Stacey Abrams,” said Dittmar. Positioned among a group of state legislators with little to no national name recognition, Dittmar says, Abrams “doesn’t really fit.” In a different version of the 2020 DNC, Abrams could have given the keynote herself, Dittmar said. An excellent speaker who came within a few points of becoming the country’s first Black woman governor, she is exactly the kind of promising “bellwether” that the party has sought out in years past.
The party doesn’t seem to know “exactly how to deal with a Black woman leader like Abrams,” Dittmar says, “who isn’t currently in office but whose political prospects are really good.”
With a White man like former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who will have his own speech at the DNC, she says, the Democratic Party seems to assume “that he will have this thriving political future.”
“With Stacey Abrams, people have doubted her every step of the way.”
Split among 17 speakers, this year’s keynote isn’t likely to give any one person that big “breakout moment,” Dittmar says. The goal, she suspects, is to put a lot of promising Democrats on the radar of the national voter.
“It’s an opportunity for people to hear their name, hear a little from them,” said Dittmar. “Then maybe they’ll go online, and try to learn a little more.”
Here are the seven women you’ll hear from during Tuesday’s keynote address.
Abrams is most well-known for her 2018 run against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), a race riddled in accusations that Kemp — who was Georgia secretary of state at the time, overseeing much of the state’s electoral process — engaged in widespread voter suppression. Voting rights have long been a top issue for Abrams, who is known for mobilizing large numbers of first-time voters. She attracted national attention again in the spring by speaking publicly about her desire to be Biden’s vice president, shattering the long-standing convention for potential contenders to deflect questions about their vice-presidential ambitions.
Cancela hails from the first majority-female state legislature in the country. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, she spent six years as a political director for the Culinary Workers Union, Nevada’s largest labor union, and a major force in Nevada Democratic Party politics. She then became the executive director of an immigration nonprofit, the Immigrant Workers Citizen Project. She is the first Latina to ever serve in the State Senate in Nevada, a state that is 16 percent Hispanic.
Fried is the first Democrat to win statewide office in Florida, a critical swing state, since 2006. She’s a lawyer, working as a public defender and a foreclosure defense lawyer, before opening her own lobbying firm in 2016. Fried is especially interested in laws surrounding marijuana, and ran for her current position on a platform of making medical marijuana available to more Floridians. Fried is often considered the “de facto leader of the Florida Democratic Party,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Neave edged out a Republican in one of the closest state races in Texas in 2016, with no prior political experience. She was the first in her family to go to college, eventually becoming a lawyer. She wanted to become a politician partly because of the “wealth gap” she witnessed when she was growing up, she says, shuttling between her heavily-Latino, working class neighborhood in Pleasant Grove, Tex., and a Catholic school in a more affluent area an hour away. “That really opened up my eyes to the wealth gap in our city and the importance of education because a lot of the students that I went to school with, their parents were attorneys, doctors, they were business people,” she told KERA in Dallas. “And they had gone to college.”
Akbari is a national leader on criminal justice, appointed by Biden to serve on a task force for national criminal justice reform, alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former attorney general Eric Holder. In the Tennessee state legislature, where she has served since 2013, she has advocated for banning mandatory minimum sentences and lifetime prison sentences for minors. She “strongly dislike[s] bullies,” according to her Twitter bio.
The youngest woman slated to speak at the DNC, Manoogian is currently the youngest member of the Michigan Capitol, winning a seat previously held by a Republican in 2018. Before launching her own political career, Manoogian held a few different jobs in public service, working for former Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), and for the Council on Foreign Relations. She decided to run for office, she told the Oakland County Times, after she discovered that Michigan ranked “near the bottom of the pack” for female representation at the state level. Manoogian is the first Armenian American woman to serve in the Michigan House of Representatives.
Clyde, a lawyer, is an outspoken advocate for voting rights. As a state representative, she opposed Ohio’s six-year voter roll maintenance process, which purges voters if they don’t vote or respond to mail from the board of elections. She is particularly passionate about defending the voting rights of students. After losing a tight race to become Ohio’s secretary of state, Clyde became the Commissioner for Portage County, where she grew up.