There are a record number of women running for the US Congress this year, and none of them have a background quite like Vennia Francois.
At Mark’s Caribbean Cuisine in Orlando on a balmy Saturday, Francois sits at the middle of the lunch table and bats her black hair back for the umpteenth time. Around her are nearly a dozen women of color (two kids, no men in sight) here to ask about her run to represent Florida’s 7th Congressional District in Washington.
Patiently, she tells them how, yes, she grew up here, born to Bahamian immigrants and part of the gospel-singing Francois sisters who traveled the state and the world as children. No, she doesn’t live in the nation’s capital anymore, but she has been to the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Her favorite part was a room dedicated to Mary McLeod Bethune, which included a voice-over from a speech given by the daughter of slaves who started a school in nearby Daytona Beach. “I sat there listening. Some of the words I heard in that room were very poignant for her time,” Francois reflects.
It’s not the type of conversation conservatives are typically having this election year, but perhaps they should be. “We just don’t see many candidates who look and sound like her on the right. Everything she brings to the table makes her a formidable candidate,” says Rina Shah, a Republican strategist who plays a major role at center-right groups RightNOW Women PAC and VoteRunLead.
Francois started in politics as a Capitol Hill intern for John Mica, the Republican congressman who served this district for 24 years. As she now seeks to follow the well-trodden path from staffer to member, Francois faces long odds in a Republican primary — not to mention a general election in a Democrat-friendly year against Stephanie Murphy, who defeated Mica.
Perhaps that’s why the GOP is not yet grooming her as the next great Black conservative hope, like Rep. Mia Love or Sen. Tim Scott. Her run to this point appears built more on friendly lunches and outreach to people who don’t look like the typical Republican primary voter. “Before you all leave, I’d like to give each of you a card,” Francois says, her white teeth and Cheshire grin eclipsing her tangerine jacket and faux pearl necklace. She asks them to sign up as “captains of your neighborhood,” so they can set up coffee-and-dessert meetings with neighbors.
At first blush, it seems more like a Mary Kay cosmetics sales strategy than a political campaign. But Francois hopes her assortment of intimate gatherings and meetings with small business owners will add up to a grassroots swell. “What they’re telling me is that I’m not the same cookie cutter of a candidate: older, white, male. They say it’s time for the Republican Party to truly open its tent,” Francois says. “I don’t want to say more diversity,” she adds, pausing. “But yes, diversity!”
Her GOP foes are all white men, and Francois has raised a tiny fraction of the funds of state Rep. Mike Miller or businessman Scott Sturgill. When asked about Francois’ comments, Miller says: “I don’t buy into the narrative that you have to have a specific ethnicity or gender. I think people just want responsible government.” Mike Willis, a former Mica staffer who now runs a Maryland government relations firm, believes Francois has a distinct advantage with her practical experience working for U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez and George LeMieux on higher education and labor policies, which she can sell to voters. “What happens in Tallahassee is nothing like how things work in Washington,” he says.
On policy, Francois’ pitch at Mark’s Caribbean Cuisine hews closely to conservative orthodoxy. She wants to help small business owners by making permanent the recent individual tax cuts; make health care “more accessible, more portable and more affordable” than the current regime under the Affordable Care Act; and shrink the federal student loan program, which she contends has caused colleges to jack up tuition. That’s all well and good, but her lunch partners — several of whom lean left — would rather talk about whether she would cross Donald Trump. “It’s OK to disagree. It’s OK to not always back the party line,” she says readily. Yet Francois declined to say whether she was one of the estimated 4 percent of Black women who voted for Trump, noting only that she didn’t back Hillary Clinton.
The uneasy balance is central to her challenge. Francois is a female candidate in what’s shaping up as the Year of the Woman — yet she’s struggling to find her way through the GOP’s old boys’ network.
The left has NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List putting millions of campaign dollars behind progressive women, while their foils on the right are playing with pennies. Shah recently started the Women Influencers Network to help train female candidates, but it doesn’t raise much money. In October Republicans touted the launch of Winning for Women as a conservative counterpart to Emily’s List, but the organization has remained largely silent so far.
“It is frustrating,” Francois says. Money “should not be the only factor. Look at my credentials. Look at my experience.” So she’s building her own network, an unusual candidate wooing nontraditional Republican voters one lunch at a time.