New legislature more diverse, but not enough

By Steve Lawrence Associated Press Writer
Monday November 13, 2000

Lawmakers still not reflective of state’s population; 35 women, 27 Hispanics, first openly gay member among 120 officials 


SACRAMENTO – The new California Legislature will have more women, Hispanics, Asians and gays than the 2000 version, but it will still fall short of reflecting the state’s diverse population. 

There will be 35 women, 27 Hispanics, at least three Asians and four openly gay members when the 120 lawmakers are sworn in next month, including the Senate’s first openly gay member. 

That’s an increase of four women, four Hispanics, two gays and one or two Asians, depending on the outcome of a Sacramento-Stockton area Senate race that will be decided by absentee ballots. 

The number of blacks will remain the same: six. 

The increases are more dramatic compared with 1990, when there were only 18 women, seven Hispanics, no Asians and no openly gay members. 

But all of those groups have a way to go to reflect the California population as a whole. 

Females make up about half the state’s population and will constitute a little over 29 percent of the new Legislature. 

Just over 22 percent of lawmakers will be Hispanics, but 31.5 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates. 

Those numbers will drop slightly when Sen. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, leaves to take a seat in Congress in January, but her replacement is likely to be Hispanic and could be a woman. 

Asians make up just over 12 percent of California’s population, but will constitute only a fraction of one percent of the new Legislature even if Republican Alan Nakanishi, a physician and Lodi city councilman, wins a Senate race against Mike Machado of Linden, that’s still too close to call. 

But if the last decade is any indication, the numbers of women, Hispanic, gay and Asian lawmakers are likely to continue to increase. 

“At some point down the line demographics will catch up with politics,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University. 

There are a number of reasons for the greater diversity, including the rapid growth of the state’s Latino population, efforts by advocacy groups to recruit more women and Hispanic candidates, and voters’ approval of term limits for lawmakers in 1990. 

“Without any question whatsoever the major reason is term limits,” said political analyst Tony Quinn. “Term limits ended the old boy network.” 

There’s also a greater willingness among voters to support women and minority candidates, observers say. 

“People are recognizing that the Latino agenda is synonymous with the American agenda,” said Sen. Richard Polanco, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairman of the Legislature’s Latino caucus. “There is nothing radical about our goals.” 

More women are running for office “because they realize they can run and can win,” said Iola Gold, executive director of the state Commission on the Status of Women. 

Political parties like women candidates, particularly in swing districts, because there’s a sense “they can reach across party lines,” Quinn said. 

There also a greater willingness to vote for gays, at least in major urban areas. 

“There’s still some gay baiting out there but thankfully more and more Americans are recognizing that public servants should be judged on their merits,” said Sloan Wiesen, communications director for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national organization that helps elect gay candidates. 

The 2001 Legislature will have four openly gay members, all women: Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, and Assemblywomen Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, and Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego. 

All four were active in their communities before winning legislative seats, which made them more attractive to voters, said Kuehl, who became the Legislature’s first openly gay member when she won an Assembly seat in 1994. 

“I had been active in a lot of community-based organizations, primarily in Santa Monica,” said Kuehl, a former actress who played Zelda in the old “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” television show. “It gave me a real base of people who already knew my work.” 

She was elected to the Senate this year, making her its first openly gay member. 

Migden was a San Francisco supervisor before she won an Assembly seat in 1996. Goldberg and Kehoe, who were first elected this year, both served on city councils. 

It may be tougher for openly gay men to win legislative seats, Kuehl said. 

“People are more threatened in many ways just by a gay man’s presence,” she said. 

But gay men have won legislative and congressional races in other states. 

“I’m sure we will see gay men in the Assembly and Senate soon enough, especially in a state as diverse as California,” said Lisa Maria Belsanti, communications director for the California Alliance for Price and Equality, an advocacy group for gay, bisexual and transgender people. 

Blacks have lost seats in the Legislature in recent years, dropping from nine in 1990 to six currently. And after this month, there will be no black women in either house. Term limits are forcing the departure of Sen. Teresa Hughes, a Democrat. 

Jeffe said a relatively stagnant black population is one big reason for the decline. 

Blacks have remained at about 7 percent of California’s population since 1990, while the Hispanics’ share of the population has jumped more than 5 percentage points. 

“In 1997, for the first time, the Latino percentage of the electorate was greater than the black percentage of the electorate in Los Angeles,” she said.