In 2015, rubber will meet road as a new Republican-dominated Congress convenes, state legislatures open for business, and the grind of political process forces fresh legislative and legal decisions. Of course, there will be countless players on the field. The Root narrows it down to seven; nothing biblical or metaphysical about that number, just a fresh stab at who we think will make waves over the next 12 months.
1. Loretta Lynch
If you’re about to be the first black female attorney general of the United States, ummm, you get top mention. It’s not a done deal, but Lynch should be replacing outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. Sources suggest she’s made an impression during her Capitol Hill visits, and any GOP Senate plans to block her appointment may have just been scuttled by the PR nightmare posed by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s (D-La.) mingling with white supremacists. Observers will closely watch her investigate black deaths at the hands of police while managing the expectations of an impatient protest movement. The New York City Police Department has sparred with the Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor over police brutality before—and it can tell you just how fierce she is.
2. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.)
We’ve watched with humbling awe the momentary fall, then rebirth, of longtime Southern California Democrat Maxine Waters. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when a blistering House Ethics probe left us wondering if she’d be forced out. But giving up was never her style. Instead, she moved up as ranking Democrat on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, where, in 2015, she’ll be a gigantic thorn in the side of the majority as it tries to repeal the Wall Street reform law known as Dodd-Frank. In the wake of a recession that destroyed over a quarter of the black middle class, Waters is someone African Americans will need in their corner. She’ll be loudly tackling a number of critical economic issues that we don’t hear enough about: If she’s not pushing back against the chattel slavery of credit reporting, she’ll be digging deeper into a suspect federal public housing program.
3. Ken Thompson
He’s the black Brooklyn district attorney you’ve probably never heard of. But you’ll probably hear a lot more about him as ongoing tensions between New York City police and the African-American community heat up. Thompson will be overseeing the grand jury probe into the death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, who police claim was accidentally shot in the chest by a rookie cop in a Brooklyn stairwell. The Brooklyn district attorney is already sending signals that this grand jury round might be a bit different: In a departure from the shadow, defend-the-cop-at-all-costs style of white prosecutors in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., Thompson wants the grand jury to consider actual charges. Watch how he navigates those waters and where his political future ends up. While on the surface he’ll play a hard line on cop misconduct, behind the scenes he’ll chisel a deal with the NYPD. Hence, it was no coincidence when, later in the month, he was praising the department for its role in nabbing East Coast gun traffickers.
4. State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D-Mo.)
Representing Missouri’s 14th District, Chappelle-Nadal was something of a cable television commodity as she crashed straight into the weeks of unrest that made Ferguson a global brand name. Her fluid, no-nonsense, combative style—as she openly ripped Gov. Jay Nixon (D-Mo.)—raised quite a few brows as many of her black political peers were holding back. This year finds Chappelle-Nadal blasting to the top of conservative media most-wanted lists for a set of recent tweets on white privilege. Sure, you’d expect us to put tweeting sensation St. Louis city Alderman Antonio French on this list, but where French plays it safe, Chappelle-Nadal pushes the envelope. Something smells like an ambitious political play as she attempts a national splash through loud protest and legislative drafting. Using the movement as bullhorn, she could be the key to the serious black political mobilization St. Louis County currently lacks.
5. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, so we had to put a black Republican in here somewhere. But the now popularly elected senator from South Carolina is proving that he’s not the typical, fire-breathing demagogue black Republican who’s looking for the next media hit. Scott enters 2015 as the face of pragmatic black Republicanism, something this very small segment of the GOP community will need as ideological pony shows like Ben Carson come out to sell books and spark controversy in time for the 2016 presidential cycle. You probably expected we’d put up newly elected Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah)—but do you want entertainment or do you want true political marketplace? Scott hails from a state where there are actually way more than a handful of black residents, so what he does this year will be consequential, especially as he heads over to a plum Senate Banking Committee assignment. While an unapologetic, pro-business conservative, Scott is still finding time to talk about black folks and poverty—even if his solutions are different from what many are used to hearing. He may not be a 2015 game changer, but he most certainly will be a savvy Senate player.
6. Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.)
Patrick is mulling a presidential bid—just not in 2016. But what he says and does in 2015 could set the stage for a second black man in the White House by the time national fatigue over the first one passes. And who knows? Maybe he ends up as someone’s running mate. Still, to win two terms in a state with a black population under 10 percent is a spectacular feat of political acumen—and it should give many food for thought about what Patrick does next as he leaves the governor’s mansion. It was Patrick’s emotional delivery that should have stolen bigger headlines at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Still in his prime, Patrick is in perfect position to use 2015 as a launching pad for the next decade.
7. Leon Ford Jr.
If you don’t hail from Pittsburgh, then you probably haven’t heard of 21-year-old Leon Ford Jr. Don’t worry about it, though: At some point this year, you will. Ford, who is currently back in surgery for a gun injury that left him paralyzed, is the Michael Brown/Tamir Rice/John Crawford/Akai Gurley who made it. He is the resurrected, unarmed black man shot in cold blood by Steelers Town police during a 2013 traffic stop and who lived to talk all about it. The shooting left him paralyzed, but it didn’t break his spirit. Could you stage a protest and shut down an entire downtown Pittsburgh street in a wheelchair? After dodging unbelievably cruel aggravated assault charges from the Pittsburgh police—after he got shot … by them—Ford isn’t stopping there as he gradually becomes the next authoritative voice and player in #BlackLivesMatter. His presence is already being felt, and he’s leaving tears in his wake. Sources say the magnetic Ford is easily a major candidate for office by the time he’s 30. But in 2015, he might be the next face of a national movement.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.