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September 12, 2007

Wouldn't it be Nice if Our Representatives Looked Like Us?

At its best, America has been about enabling more and more people to be part of the process of governing, of earning and making money, of determining the direction of this country.  It's been hit and miss for sure but there has been progress. 

One of the things I most like about the group, Progressive Majority, an organization dedicated to electing more progressives up and down the ticket, is their focus on assisting women and people of color to acquire the skills and get the attention that makes them viable candidates and then effective elected officials.  Progressive Majority finds progressives to campaign in state races from the legislature to fire districts and school boards.  They help those folks learn to raise money run an effective campaign and communicate with their voters.  They take progressives of all stripes but they have a program called the Racial Justice Program, the goal of which is increasing minority representation. 

Progressive Majority recently conducted a study of minority representation in Washington state.  They found that people of color are underrepresented at all levels of Washington's governments, most particularly at the local level.  Dean Nielsen, Washington State Director of Progressive Majority has written in Progressive Majority's blog, about a candidate for Tacoma City Council, Marilyn Strickland, whom they endorsed, and about why it is so important that she win.  He says,

Despite people of color making up 31% of the population of Tacoma, there's not a single person of color currently serving on their school board, city council or on their county governments.

Marilyn, who comes from both Korean and African-American ancestry, believes that voters embrace diversity, but that comparatively few people of color are willing to become candidates.  Of her own candidacy, Marilyn says that she feels a "responsibility and duty[...]to have a seat at the table" and represent minority viewpoints. 

Dean points to an article in the Puget Sound Business Journal which cites Progressive Majority's study and also interviews Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington:

Barreto cites research which shows that better minority representation leads to increased public confidence and trust in political institutions, as well as increased "support for legislation that otherwise would not have been considered."

Dean goes on to discuss the added value of having minorities run competitively, quoting again from the PSBJ article (which only appears to be available on a pdf file, found at the PM blogsite):

When candidates of color win, things change.  In her City Council race, Marilyn earned almost double the number of non-partisan primary votes as her closest rival and has raised almost double her rival's campaign money.  Marilyn has noticed the effect of her powerful campaign on her community: "there are more people involved and interested in politics who normally wouldn't be - people who are younger, some people of color."

Yep.  Doing the right thing tends to make more of the right thing happen.  Thanks, Progressive Majority.

Posted by Lynn Allen on September 12, 2007 at 08:22 AM in Media, Policy, Washington Culture | Permalink


Being a middle-aged white guy, I suppose I see things a little differently. While I'd like our representatives to be more diverse ethnically, religiously, and sexually, I'd _really_ like it if they were more like us in how they have to manage their finances. Most Congressmembers are millionaires, and I suspect that a substantial portion of our state legislators are, also.

When you see people talking about "death taxes", and how we need to reform bankruptcy laws so all those welfare queens aren't taking advantage of it you really have to wonder if any of them have ever been poor. Requiring everyone to have health insurance if they want to get medical care is another example, I think.

I'd like to take some of them out of their comfy offices and let them spend a year earning minimum wage while trying to eat, have a place to stay, and then pay for all the usurous insurance that the poor have to pay.

Posted by: Cujo359 | Sep 12, 2007 8:40:19 PM

No argument, Cujo. It's very hard for me to trust wealthy people to understand the rest of us, let alone the folks who have real obstacles to overcome.

Every once and awhile someone like Howard Dean comes along, who seems to be able to overcome that kind of priviledged background. But it is rare.

Posted by: Lynn | Sep 12, 2007 10:30:14 PM

Cujo - I couldn't agree more. As someone who spent nearly a year on welfare "back in the day", and struggles to pay for my own medical care as a self-employed person now, I'm looking for candidates who can identify with ME, not the other way around.

Posted by: shoephone | Sep 12, 2007 11:16:36 PM

Although I agree that more working people need to run for office, I'd disagree that most state legislators are millionaires.

Yes, there are a few that are millionaires - Weinstein, Oemig, Marr, Clibborn, etc. to name a few, however, most are not and are working people - fire fighters like Kevin Van de Wege and Geoff Simpson, nurses like Tami Green, Dawn Morrell and Eileen Cody, or are retired from other professions, such as Larry Seaquist, who was a career naval officer.

In fact, many legislators have had to leave because the pay is relatively low (until recently, it was in the mid-30s). That's great if you're from a rural area, but buying a house in an urban area on that income is very difficult. And even though we're technically a "part time" legislature, there's not many employers who will be flexible enough to allow for the legislative schedule.

Congress - that's another ball of wax. Patty Murray is one of the few in the Senate who wasn't; there are more non-millionaires in the House.

At Progressive Majority, we actively track the number of union members and working people who we recruit to ensure parity; we believe in people powered politics. If you look at our national homepage there is a listing of union members who are currently in the farm team. Obviously, not all working people are unionized so the number of working folks is actually higher than that number represents.

Thanks for the comments!

Posted by: Dean Nielsen | Sep 13, 2007 6:59:37 AM

Just wanted to make clear that I did not claim that a majority of state legislators were millionaires. I said it was likely that "a substantial portion" of the legislature were millionaires. Depending how you interpret the word "substantial", Dean may or may not have confirmed that point.

Posted by: Cujo359 | Sep 13, 2007 9:55:54 PM

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