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1866 Action Fund working to elect more Black ‘down-ballot’ candidates in Mass.

Tanisha Bhat

Reynolds Douglass Graves, CEO of The Graves Group lobbying firm, is hoping to help elect more Black Democratic candidates to local government offices in Massachusetts. This past February, Graves founded and became chair of the 1866 Action Fund — a super PAC (political action committee) working to conduct media campaigns and grassroots activism for Black “down-ballot” candidates, primarily in Boston, Springfield and Worcester.

The PAC’s name references the first year Massachusetts voters sent Black candidates, Edwin Garrison Walker and Charles Lewis Mitchell, to the state legislature. Since then, from 1867 to 2023, there have been only 55 Black state legislators and fewer than 40 Black city councilors elected in the state.

“The desire was there, and the need was there to support down-ballot Black candidates, because there’s just not a lot of resources out there,” Graves said. “We formed the 1866 Action Fund to create new opportunities, particularly for those down-ballot (candidates) like city council, school committee, state legislature, your sheriff, your DA.”

Super PACs can receive and spend unlimited amounts of money from individuals, unions and corporations to advocate for or against political candidates or parties. They typically run media campaigns, send mailers to constituents, or create television and radio advertisements for their cause. They cannot donate money directly to political candidates or coordinate with them.

The 1866 Action Fund will endorse Black candidates for positions like city council, town council, select board, state representative, state senator, district attorney, sheriff, school committee, state committee and the Governor’s Council. The super PAC will not advocate for candidates running for mayor, governor or Congress.

Black candidates typically face difficulty raising funds for their campaigns. They are often hesitant to ask their community for donations and their constituents in many cases cannot afford to donate large sums.

“The professional networks that most others in politics have are able to just tap into folks who’ve got 1,000 bucks, or small business owners who’ve got 1,000 bucks to give you,” Graves said. “I think that we are afraid to ask, and we don’t necessarily have the network to ask. And then there’s the whole just the learned skill of actually doing it — sitting and doing call time, dialing for dollars.”

Since launching, the super PAC has received donations from all 14 counties in the state and partnered with political organizing firms like RMC Strategies, The Davis System, HIT Strategies and Rosemark Productions. The group also plans to conduct statewide polling of Black voters to ask what issues are important to them and whom they are looking to support in their community.

Ryan McCollum, a political consultant for RMC Strategies, said his organization will lead efforts to send mailers in western Massachusetts on behalf of the super PAC.

“We’re going to hopefully find what Black voters want and inform the other voters about who we think should be elected. And so whether that’s through direct mail or through television ads, those are the things that we’ll be working on,” he said.

Errin Douglas, chief operating officer of The Davis System, said her organization is focused on connecting the super PAC with members of the communities they are hoping to operate in.

“We’ll be working with them to put on community events and helping them garner support from the community, whether that be through small dollar donations, as well as doing things like speaking to media and helping support them in their community outreach effort,” she said.

Douglas added that her organization got involved because they wanted Black voters to be more involved.

“It’s important to have electeds who look like us, represent us, and that’s how our issues get put forward,” she said.

The super PAC will be holding a launch rally in July and will run media campaigns during the primary and general elections. McCollum said there typically isn’t a lot of support for Black candidates outside of Boston, a situation the PAC hopes to change.

“Building a bench of Black candidates and Black campaign professionals is something that’s really one of the more important things for me,” he said. “We always wish the pool was deeper and more experienced, and hopefully this PAC can help deepen and allow for more talented folks that we know are out there that happen to be Black. That pool needs to be a pool that’s all over Massachusetts, and not just from the Boston area.”

The need for more Black elected officials outside of Boston has gained importance as more Black residents move outside of the city.

“We’re trying to remind Black folks that we’ve been here,” Graves said. “We belong in the political arena. It’s been centuries. We should not shy away from it. It’s a place where we’re supposed to be, supposed to be active.”

1866 Action Fund, Black Democrats, Black voters, Massachusetts politics