When Malika Sanders-Fortier threw her hat into the ring for the 2022 Alabama gubernatorial race, she knew the odds were stacked against her. As the first Black woman to vie for the state’s highest office, Sanders-Fortier was venturing into uncharted territory. Though her bid ultimately fell short, Sanders-Fortier’s barrier-breaking campaign exemplified her trailblazing spirit and commitment to expanding diverse representation in Alabama politics.
Early Life and Education Forged Strong Alabama Roots
Born and raised in Selma, Alabama, Sanders-Fortier’s upbringing ingrained in her a deep understanding of the social and political fabric of the state. After graduating from Selma High School in 1991, Sanders-Fortier headed to Atlanta’s Spelman College, a prestigious historically Black liberal arts college for women. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1995, laying the foundation for her future career in law and public service.
Sanders-Fortier returned to Alabama in 2013, receiving her law degree from Birmingham School of Law. Her educational path highlighted her dedication to her home state of Alabama, where she would spend her entire career.
Legal Career Provided Springboard to Politics
After law school, Sanders-Fortier dove into legal work at the firm Chestnut, Sanders & Sanders. She also took on a pivotal role as president of the Grassroots Democracy organization. These experiences gave Sanders-Fortier hands-on knowledge of Alabama’s legal system and political landscape.
By 2018, Sanders-Fortier felt equipped to take her career in a new direction – the political arena.
Elected to State Senate in 2018
In 2018, Sanders-Fortier set her sights on a Alabama State Senate seat representing District 23. Running as a Democrat, she won her primary unopposed, then cruised to victory in the general election with 65.5% of the vote.
Upon taking office in November 2018, Sanders-Fortier hit the ground running. She served on numerous committees, including Finance and Taxation, Judiciary, and Veterans’ Affairs. During her Senate tenure, she sponsored bills on education funding, child welfare, civil rights history, and honoring community leaders.
Though her time in office was brief, Sanders-Fortier established herself as an engaged, productive legislator. She seemed poised for an upward political trajectory.
Made History in 2022 Gubernatorial Bid
In early 2022, Sanders-Fortier shocked Alabama’s political establishment by launching a campaign for governor. She was the first Black woman to ever seek the state’s highest office.
Facing a crowded Democratic primary field, Sanders-Fortier proved she was a formidable contender. She placed second in the initial primary, then advanced to a runoff against activist Yolanda Flowers.
The June runoff captured the nation’s attention, providing a stark display of Alabama’s racial and gender divides. Both candidates highlighted the historic nature of the race, expressing hope it marked a turning point for Black women politicians in the state.
Ultimately, Flowers edged out Sanders-Fortier to clinch the nomination. Though her gubernatorial aspirations were dashed, Sanders-Fortier’s run blazed a trail for marginalized voices seeking executive office in conservative Southern states.
Championed Progressive Policies for Alabama
Throughout her career, Sanders-Fortier has advocated for policies to uplift working Alabamians. A devout liberal, she supports Medicaid expansion, a higher minimum wage, increased education funding, and criminal justice reform. She is ardently pro-choice, favoring abortion rights expansion in Alabama’s restrictive political climate.
Economically, Sanders-Fortier champions higher corporate taxes to fund public programs. She also believes investing in infrastructure, renewable energy, and high-speed internet access will provide a needed jolt to Alabama’s economy.
While pundits have deemed her stances far too liberal for Alabama’s electorate, Sanders-Fortier refuses to compromise her principles. She aims to push Alabama in a more progressive direction.
Deep Alabama Roots Shape Her Work
Despite criticism that her politics are out-of-step with Alabama, Sanders-Fortier’s personal background reflects many facets of the state. She was born into a prominent African American family – her father was a local civil rights attorney. Her upbringing in Selma, a crucible of the civil rights movement, instilled a commitment to racial justice.
Sanders-Fortier also shares Alabama’s deep religious faith, worshipping at the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. She and her husband have two sons, and the family remains firmly rooted in Selma’s close-knit African American community.
These Alabama roots have kept Sanders-Fortier grounded even as her star has risen. While detractors may paint her as radical, her local ties run deep.
Leaves Notable Legacy Despite Defeat
Though her 2022 gubernatorial bid fell short, Sanders-Fortier’s impact is undeniable. She was the first African American woman to compete in a Alabama gubernatorial primary, clearing the way for more diverse executive leadership. She gave voice to progressive policies in a staunchly conservative state.
Perhaps most significantly, Sanders-Fortier’s presence in the 2022 race – alongside Republican frontrunner Kay Ivey – cemented the notion that women can viably compete for Alabama’s top office. Political gender barriers she helped break will outlive any single election.
For a trailblazer like Sanders-Fortier, losing an election does not equal failure. Her willingness to enter uncharted territory and challenge the political status quo will resonate far beyond one race. Sanders-Fortier has carved an enduring legacy in Alabama politics.
Malika Sanders-Fortier’s political journey reflects the gradual expansion of diversity and inclusion in Alabama’s leadership ranks. By mounting viable campaigns for Senate and governor as an African American woman, Sanders-Fortier struck blows – however small – against the state’s monolithic political culture.
She served as a progressive foil to Alabama’s GOP establishment, offering policy prescriptions outside the mainstream but firmly rooted in improving citizens’ welfare. While she came up short in electoral politics, Sanders-Fortier’s presence helped open the door for future diverse candidates.
Few trailblazers attain overnight success. But their cumulative efforts move the needle for those who follow. Though she experienced defeats, Malika Sanders-Fortier’s willingness to engage in uphill political battles demonstrated bold, principled leadership. Her candidacies will be remembered as waypoints on the long road to progress.
What barrriers did Malika Sanders-Fortier break in her political career?
As the first Black woman to seek the Alabama governor’s office, Sanders-Fortier smashed gender and racial barriers by mounting viable statewide campaigns as a Black female candidate.
What prompted Sanders-Fortier to first run for office in 2018?
After building experience in law and activism, Sanders-Fortier felt ready to transition into electoral politics and pursue a State Senate seat in 2018. This built her base to run for governor four years later.
How did Sanders-Fortier perform in the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary?
Sanders-Fortier finished second in the initial primary, then lost a close runoff contest to activist Yolanda Flowers to determine the Democratic nominee.
What criticisms did Sanders-Fortier face during her gubernatorial run?
Critics deemed Sanders-Fortier too far left on policy issues like abortion and taxes to be electable statewide in conservative Alabama.
Why is Sanders-Fortier considered a political trailblazer?
As the first Black woman to mount viable gubernatorial campaigns in Alabama’s history, Sanders-Fortier achieved trailblazing electoral milestones despite coming up short.