SEATTLE – The Washington state Legislature that will gather in Olympia early next year will be the least diverse group of state lawmakers in a generation, mostly due to fewer women.
Even as the U.S. Congress is becoming more diverse, Washington’s 63rd Legislature will include 44 women, or about 30 percent, among its 147 members – the fewest since 1990, the Seattle Times reported Sunday.
Overall, nearly two-thirds of the Legislature, or 95 lawmakers, will be white men – the most since 1992.
Depending on a too-close-to-call House race in Vancouver – where Democrat Monica Stonier, who identifies as Asian and Hispanic, holds a 100-vote lead – there may be just one Latino lawmaker, the lowest number since 1996, the newspaper reported.
There will also be two African-Americans, two Native Americans, five Asian-Americans and, for the first time, an Iranian-American, according to the latest vote tallies. There will be six openly gay or lesbian members.
The dearth of diversity is particularly apparent in the Republican Party, whose legislative ranks next year include no minorities and either 16 or 17 women, the Times reported.
Lawmakers and advocates say there aren’t more women and minorities in the Legislature for a number of reasons, including poor recruitment, low salaries, competing needs for women and the rancorous nature of politics being a turnoff.
“This doesn’t happen overnight,” Tim Ceis, a Democratic member of the Washington State Redistricting Commission, told the Times. He said increased minority representation will come, eventually. “It takes organizing. It takes candidate recruitment. It takes time.”
The commission, which redrew district boundaries last year after the once-a-decade census, made increased minority representation a 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. Democrat Pablo Gonzalez, 21, a Central Washington University student, challenged incumbent David Taylor, R-Moxee, in the 15th but took just 38.9 percent of the vote.
Gonzalez said he felt his surname hurt him.
Beth Reingold, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said other state legislatures are generally not losing female and minority representation, although few are experiencing the same gains as they did during the 1990s.
She called Washington’s trend strange, noting that the ranks of U.S. female lawmakers and legislators of color have more or less remained constant over the past decade.
For Cyrus Habib, the Iranian-American who just won an open seat in King County, 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 second blind state legislator in the country when he is sworn in. “The No. 1 reason people give for not running for office is that they haven’t been asked.”
Lisa Brown, of Spokane, the outgoing Senate 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 told the Times.
Recruiting new people into political life has also 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.
Several Republicans said they believe the party has been doing a good job of recruiting women and minorities.
“I think we have a lot to be proud of,” said longtime Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, adding: “We don’t elect people based on gender or race. We elect people based on their philosophy.”