Legislature losing ground on diversity

November 28, 2012 

For reasons not completely understood, state lawmakers gathering in Olympia for the 2013 legislative session will represent the least diverse Legislature in recent years.

Nearly two-thirds of the Legislature – 95 members – will be white men – the most since 1992, according to a recent Seattle Times review.

Just as perplexing is another statistic: Of the 147 members that make up the state’s 63rd Legislature, only 44 are women. That’s the fewest number of female state legislators since 1990.

The state’s slippage in state lawmaker diversity is a strange trend, one that runs counter to what’s happening in other states, which are at least holding on to advances in female and minority lawmakers that first were evident in the 1990s.

In addition, the state legislative decline in diversity comes at a time when the U.S. Congress will be welcoming into the fold the most women, Latinos and Asians in history.

Look no further than the 2010 state census to see why the Legislature should grow more diverse over time, rather than less. In 2010, the state’s overall population grew by 14.1 percent from 2000. But the Hispanic (71.2 percent), Asian (48.9 percent) and multiracial (40.6 percent) populations showed significant growth. In King County, the total minority population grew by 47.2 percent over 10 years ago – from 462,000 to 679,949. Statewide the nonwhite population grew to 27.5 percent of the total, compared with 21.1 percent in 2010.

As the state population grows more diverse, so should the elected officials that represent it. One of the charges of the state Redistricting Commission last year was to create state legislative districts that reflect the state’s changing demographics. As a result, they drew up a Latino-majority 15th District in the Yakima area and three districts in Seattle and King County where minorities are in the majority.

But in the 15th District, few Latinos expressed interest in taking on the incumbent, Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee. Democratic candidate Pablo Gonzalez, a 21-year-old Central Washington University student, garnered just 38.9 percent of the vote.

Leaders of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties should do everything in power to reverse this trend. They can start first by making gender and racial diversity a priority in the recruitment of candidates.

That’s not to say one can expect the change in the diversity of candidates will happen overnight. But there’s no good reason for the state Legislature to regress on gender and racial diversity. After all, from the early 1990s through 2004, this state had more female legislators than any other state.

Some might suggest that recruiting top-quality candidates, regardless of race or gender, is getting harder over time as political campaigns grow more costly for a part-time job that pays $42,000 a year.

Another factor could be the ever increasing partisanship in politics. “I think the incivility is making it hard for some people to step forward,” Kim Abel, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Washington, suggested to The Seattle Times.

Whatever the reasons are for the trend toward less, not more, gender and racial diversity in the state Legislature, they need to be reversed.

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