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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Galen Herz: State, local governments making gains in racial diversity

Galen Herz

By Galen Herz

America’s national governing bodies appear to be on a strong and steady march toward racial representation. A recent Pew Research headline reads, “For the fifth time in a row, the new Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever.”

This is great news for everyone who believes in the ideals of a truly representative democracy. And it’s not just Democrats that are contributing to this trend. In recent years, the GOP has noticeably focused on recruiting candidates of color.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Calvin Moore, a spokesperson for a top Republican super PAC associated with Speaker McCarthy, said, “What we saw in 2020 was that every seat we flipped was won by a woman or a minority, and so continuing that success and winning races requires recruiting new kinds of candidates that reflect their district.”

It’s bipartisan political common sense. Marie Glusenkamp Perez, the newly elected Democratic congresswoman from Washington’s 3rd District, in a recent interview with MSNBC put it simply, “I think people in my district want a Congress that looks like America.”

That’s D.C. – what about here at home? Are these trends around improved racial representation occurring for Washington’s local and state elected positions, too?

That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer in a research project for the Washington Community Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of over 70 groups representing communities of color. Over the past two years, we’ve studied the demographic information of 1,107 state and local elected officials, from the Legislature to school boards. (To keep our data set manageable, we collected the data of the top-30 most populous cities and school districts and omitted many lower profile elected positions such as county clerks.)

Our results show a mixed picture. When it comes to race, there are some parts of our government that look like the 2020s, and some that could be mistaken for being in the 1950s.

For example, the Legislature is one of the more racially representative bodies. After the 2022 midterms, the Washington House is 73.5% white and 26.5% people of color, a 6% gain from 2020. The elder Senate is 22.4% people of color. There’s still ample room for improvement – the 2020 Census determined Washington was 36.2% people of color.

Despite its failings, the Legislature looks like a multiracial kumbaya circle when compared to county councils and commissions, which are a shocking 97.8% white. Not quite as bad, but still awful: County prosecutors are 92.2% white.

We expected to see county elected officials skew whiter than the state’s demographics as a whole, given the large number of rural counties that are whiter on average. But we didn’t expect such a massive overall imbalance.

Lastly, we found that Latinos are, on average, the most poorly represented across all elected offices in Washington. For example, the Legislature is 6.1% Latino, while the state is 14.2% Latino. Only about 1 in 10 school board members is Latino (top 30 districts by population), while 2 in 10 of Washington’s students are Latino. And out of 117 District Court judges, none is Latino.

No matter your ideology or background, I hope we can all agree our government, especially our county governments, ought to be far more representative of their constituents.

While our study looked at race, achieving real representation means identity and other core issues such as class and education. A research project by the media outlets Quartz and the Observer found a third of Americans have working-class jobs and yet only 1% of state lawmakers do. That’s abysmal for our democracy.

Both political parties should redouble efforts to recruit candidates that better reflect their districts.

Critically, lawmakers need to pass voting reforms that have been proven to increase representation, such as proportional ranked-choice voting.

If the Washington public and policymakers take action, we can hope to see future headlines on just how reflective our state and local governments have become.

Galen Herz is a writer, researcher, and organizer who has managed several successful political and nonpartisan initiative campaigns in Whatcom County.