Black Tea Partier Katrina Pierson Takes on Obama—and Her Own Party

Texan Katrina Pierson is vying to become the first black female Republican in Congress, and she’s got Sarah Palin’s endorsement. But can she win?

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Republican congressional candidate Katrina Pierson

KATRINA FOR CONGRESS

Katrina Pierson isn’t who most people picture when they think of the Tea Party.

The movement is, according to a recent poll, 83 percent white, and the 37-year-old political activist is a black woman who, given her multiracial background, might have been derisively described by fellow Texan Ted Nugent as a “mongrel”—just as he referred to President Barack Obama, also biracial, a month ago.

But demography aside, Pierson is all Tea Party. She hails from a deep-red state, favors term limits, wants to "audit" the Federal Reserve and is “a normal person,” in her words, who “just wants the federal government to leave us alone.”

Pierson was recently endorsed by Sarah Palin, who, in her uniquely alliterative style, called Pierson “a feisty fighter for freedom." And if this were 2010, that alone might be enough to get Pierson to Washington. But she's running against an established GOP incumbent, House Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions, and as Slate's Dave Weigel reports, Tea Party coattails aren't as long as they used to be.

Pierson's outsider status is one of the reasons FreedomWorks—one of the big national Tea Party groups—is also endorsing her, because as its outreach director, Deneen Borelli—another prominent black conservative—says, Sessions is one of the “establishment politicians” who are “simply in office for themselves.” And FreedomWorks, says communications director Jackie Bodnar, considers Pierson “a clear upgrade, policywise.”

Policywise, though, her platform is mostly Tea Party boilerplate: “NSA invasion of our privacy,” Obama is “completely lawless” and immigration reform will “completely destroy the black community.” When asked which part of the government social safety net she thought needed to be cut, Pierson didn’t give specifics, only offering that “they all need to be reviewed.”

But even if Pierson’s ideas don’t stand out from the pack, her story definitely does.

Nowadays she’s a regular on Fox News, but in the final weeks of her campaign she’s had to turn the recent revelation of her 1997 shoplifting arrest into a political asset by using it as a jumping-off point for the story of her formative years: how she survived being “surrounded by gangs, drugs and gun violence” in the Dallas metro area, and being brought up by a mother who gave birth to Pierson at age 15, gave her up for adoption and then re-entered her life, but who, Pierson says, was unable to provide her with the guidance she needed as a young woman. For a long time, she said, she lived in an environment where the “government-assistance system of welfare” meant living in “a cycle of poverty” and “a society where government is in full control.”

She’s less specific about what she believes to be the nexus between her personal struggles and the government, but she’s not the only black conservative who inveighs against the social safety net with her upbringing as a backdrop. As GOP rising star Chelsi Henry wrote earlier this month in The Root, her family “received government assistance” when she was a kid, but she now believes in “less intrusive government,” and that her own success was in spite of, not because of, federal help.

The difference, perhaps, between their stories—in the context of well-worn Republican tropes about the perils of welfare dependency—is that Pierson’s mother is white.