In contrast to Congress, diversity diminishes in Washington Legislature
This troubles me.
Monday, November 26, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 a.m.
By Brian M. Rosenthal
Seattle Times staff reporter
If Election 2012 marked the beginning of a new political order, as countless national media outlets have asserted over the past few weeks, Washington state didn't get the memo.
Even as women and minorities nationwide appear to be gaining power, the Legislature that will gather in Olympia early next year will be the least diverse group of Washington state lawmakers in a generation, due primarily to declining female representation.
Washington's 63rd Legislature will include 44 women among its 147 members — the fewest since 1990.
There may be just one Latino lawmaker of either gender, the lowest number since 1996. Washington is one of six states that will have fewer Latino legislators next year and could be the only with a decline of two, depending on a too-close-to-call House race in Vancouver.
Overall, there will be 95 white male lawmakers — 65 percent of the Legislature — the most since 1992.
There will also be two African Americans (an increase of one from this year but down from the mid-2000s, when there were three), two Native Americans (the same as now but down from a high of four in 2007), five Asians (the same as in the past few years), and, for the first time, an Iranian American, according to the latest vote tallies. There will be six openly gay or lesbian members, which also matches the current number.
The dearth of diversity is particularly apparent in the Republican Party, whose legislative ranks next year will include either 16 or 17 women (depending on that undecided House race) and no minorities.
Officials say the downward trend is troubling because the state's Latino population and some other minority groups are growing. The state is now just 72.5 percent non-Latino white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"We're moving in the wrong direction," said state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who is poised to become the country's only openly gay state Senate majority leader. "We are no longer reflecting the larger population of our state."
Next year's less diverse Washington Legislature will come at a time when the U.S. Congress will have the highest number of women, Latinos and Asians in its history.
Other state Legislatures are generally not losing female and minority representation, although few are experiencing the same gains as they did during the 1990s, said Beth Reingold, a political-science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Rather, the ranks of U.S. female lawmakers and legislators of color have more or less remained constant over the past decade, said Reingold, who called Washington's trend strange.
Washington, it should be noted, had further to fall than most states: Between 1993 and 2004, its Legislature placed first in the country in female representation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. It now ranks sixth and will fall further when the next Legislature arrives in January.
Most states will have more Latino legislators than Washington next year, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, although that is somewhat expected, since Washington's Latino population is relatively small.
Trend getting attention
The diversity decline here has taken place gradually, but this year's losses are highlighted by several high-profile retirees, including the Senate majority leader who Murray is succeeding, Lisa Brown of Spokane, and longtime Latina lawmakers Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, and Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney, D-Seattle.
That trio is being replaced by two white men and one white woman.
The Washington State Redistricting Commission, which redrew district boundaries last year after the once-a-decade census, made increased minority representation a major goal.
Among other moves, the commissioners created the state's first Latino-majority district, the 15th, in the Yakima area.
But few Latinos volunteered to run for office there this year. A 21-year-old Central Washington University student, Democrat Pablo Gonzalez, challenged incumbent David Taylor, R-Moxee, in Yakima County, in the 15th but earned just 38.9 percent of the vote.
Gonzalez said he felt his surname hurt him.
The state's other majority-minority districts are the 11th, 33rd and the 37th, all in Seattle or South King County.
Tim Ceis, a Democratic member of the Redistricting Commission, said increased minority representation will come, eventually.
"This doesn't happen overnight," Ceis said. "It takes organizing. It takes candidate recruitment. It takes time."
Diversity in the Legislature could get a boost in the Vancouver state House race, where the current, 100-vote leader is Democrat Monica Stonier, who identifies as Hispanic and Asian.
Lawmakers and advocates offered varying explanations for why there aren't more women and minorities in the Legislature.
A pair of Democrats of color who were easily elected this month blamed candidate recruitment.
Federal Way Councilman Roger Freeman, an African American who defeated first-term state Rep. Katrina Asay, R-Milton, in Pierce County, in the 30th District, pointed to a public-education system that does not inspire enough young people to run for office.
For Cyrus Habib, the Iranian American who just won an open Eastside seat, the problem is party leadership.
"We need to do a much better job of recruiting people into the party," said Habib, of Kirkland, who also will become the U.S.'s second blind state legislator when he is sworn in. "The No. 1 reason people give for not running for office is that they haven't been asked."
Those responsible for recruitment said it is harder than it sounds.
Murray, the elected majority leader, said the $42,000-a-year salary for the part-time job of state legislator is often a deterrent to minorities, who may be disproportionately more likely to be poor, and women, who often need to support children.
And Brown, the outgoing majority leader, said women are often hindered by needs at home.
"Women who could potentially serve in the Legislature still have a more difficult balancing act with respect to their families and professional life than men do," she said.
Recruiting new people into political life has gotten harder as politics has gotten nastier, said Kim Abel, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Washington.
"I think the incivility is making it hard for some people to step forward," she said. "Women really are uncomfortable with the whole process of running for office when it is so rancorous, when there's not a focus on issues but on taking things out of context and things like that."
Despite pledges by some to focus on the issue, it's unclear if legislators collectively feel responsible for increasing female and minority representation in Olympia.
Several Republicans said they believe the party has been doing a good job of recruiting women and minorities. They point to women serving in party leadership posts, including Senate caucus chairwoman Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, as well as the state's longtime status above others in female representation.
"I think we have a lot to be proud of," said longtime Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, adding that, "We don't elect people based on gender or race. We elect people based on their philosophy."
Lawmakers rejected one proposal aimed at addressing the issue last year. The Washington State Voting Rights Act would have mandated district-based elections for offices like city-council and school-board seats — the idea being that district elections would help minorities win local positions, and then move up to higher office.
The proposal may come up again next year.
David Perez, a Seattle civil-rights attorney who helped craft the bill, said lawmakers have to do something.
"It's 2012. The fact that we're even having this conversation is demoralizing," Perez said. "But it is what it is. We have to acknowledge it, we can't just ignore it, and we have to just kind of fight it."