Candidates address startling dearth of diversity in State Legislature

The wall of old signs inside of Thompson Signs' warehouse serves as a visual reminder of the mostly white, male political candidates in the northwest. (Photo by Lucas Anderson / UW Election Eye)
(Photo by Lucas Anderson / UW Election Eye)

Our region is growing fast. And as it does, demographics in Washington are quickly evolving. Census data from 2013 reveals that racial and ethnic minorities are now increasing faster than the white population.

Weaving through Beacon Hill — in Washington state’s 37th Legislative District — this growth and diversity is clearly evident. A bystander can hear Hindi, Mandarin and French, all while standing in line to buy a tasty pupusa made by the recently naturalized Salvadoran food vendor.

But so far, representation in our state legislature is failing to keep up with these demographic changes. That same Salvadoran gentleman has only an eight percent chance of being represented by a state legislator of color, not to mention only a three percent chance that his representative is of Hispanic heritage.

There is no official data tracking the racial or ethnic backgrounds of Washington’s legislators, so there’s some guesswork involved. But using the roster of state representatives as a jumping off point for research on the background of each legislator, I found that only 13 out of the total 147 state legislators in the state House and Senate are people of color. All 13 are democrats.

Cindy Ryu, Representative from Washington's 32nd district emphasizes the importance of minority representation in politics. (Photo from leg.wa.gov)
Cindy Ryu, Representative from Washington’s 32nd district emphasizes the importance of minority representation in politics. (Photo from leg.wa.gov)

Korean American, 32nd District Representative Cindy Ryu, one of the six Asian American Washington State Legislators, shares her concern about the lack of minority representation.

“I have seen how members of color helped form public policies that specifically or disproportionately affect communities of color,” Ryu said. “When we have under-representation, we miss out not only on this perspective, but also what members of color could have contributed to robust discussions and deliberations on broader issues that affect all Washingtonians.”

Breaking down the data further illustrates an even harsher truth:

  • One percent of Washington’s Legislature is black, compared with four percent of Washington’s total population.
  • Four percent of the legislature is of Asian descent, compared with eight percent of Washington’s total population.
  • Less than one percent is American Indian, compared with two percent of Washington’s total population.
  • Three percent is from a Hispanic background, compared with twelve percent of the state overall.

This does not include the myriad of other ethnicities that have become concentrated in and around Seattle over the last ten years.

(State population numbers are from 2013 U.S. Census Data, and are rounded to the nearest decimal )

So why does minority representation matter?

Take an issue like housing for example: As Seattle’s population boom causes sky-rocketing rent prices and neighborhood (tech)trification, residents all over the city are grumbling about rising housing costs. The hard reality is that this rising cost of living unduly affects people of color. Seeking recourse is not easy. Language barriers, coupled with inaccessible and often confusing governmental systems, mean these ethnic minority populations don’t know where to find solutions.

Those who look to their state representatives see a legislature composed of sixty percent white-Caucasian males.

There are positive signals indicating change in Olympia. Rep. Ryu is one of several legislators who have made a commitment to increase mentorship within the minority and immigrant communities. Mentorship programs that focus on increasing the pipeline of young leaders of color are essential — currently people from minority communities run for office at much lower rates then their white counterparts.

Voters at the 2012 Republican presidential caucus in Mt. Vernon reflect a lack of diverse representation in the party. There are no people of color in Washington's Republican legislative delegation. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Voters at the 2012 Republican presidential caucus in Mt. Vernon reflect a lack of diverse representation in the party. There are no people of color in Washington’s Republican legislative delegation. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

In 2013 the House Democratic Caucus appointments brought in a fresh group of diverse faces. Representative Brady Walkinshaw, a Cuban American, recently appointed to fill a seat in the 43rd District has a positive outlook.

“It’s getting better,” Walkinshaw said. “I believe that the Democratic Caucus is making strides to reflect the increasing diversity in Washington state.”

This week’s primary ballots (at least the ones west of the Cascades) include a well-rounded group of candidates coming from a variety of backgrounds. Notable minority candidates who appear on the ballot include Korean American Shari Song running for State Senator and Filipino American Greg Baruso running for Representative (Position 1) in the 30th District.

The open senate seat in the 37th District has attracted a range of diverse candidates including, Pramila Jayapal, Indian-American founder of OneAmerica; Sheley Secrest, African-American champion of fairness and economic opportunity; and Louis Watanabe, Japanese-American education activist. Others include Satpal Sidhu, an Indian American running for State Representative in the 42nd District and appointed Representative Mia Su-Ling Gregerson, a Taiwanese American from the 33rd District.

As Washington state embraces its diversity and becomes home to more and more immigrants and people of color, our political leadership needs to keep pace to ensure that their constituents are fairly represented.

And it’s up to us as voters to make sure that happens as well — so if you haven’t already, mail in those primary ballots by Tuesday!

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