No one ever said that changing the face of politics would be easy. But with election day behind us and the votes counted, there’s good reason to hope that change is gaining a foothold in Massachusetts.
This year the Boston mayoral and city council races focused attention on diversity, the needs of communities of color, and the possibilities of new leadership. We heard of talk about ensuring more equal representation for those now left out of meaningful decision-making roles. There were also targeted actions to engage city residents in conversations about what disparities really look like in a minority-majority city such as Boston.
It’s about time. For far too long, persons of color − especially women of color − have been sorely under-represented on governing bodies, to the detriment of our communities and system of democracy. Massachusetts has a disappointing record. We know of only 80 women of color who have been elected to office at any level since 1971.
This fall’s municipal elections were historic given the unprecedented number of women of color who sought local office in Massachusetts. Thirty-six women of color were on the ballot across the commonwealth on November 5, and at least 23 were elected or re-elected to office. This represents a hard-won step toward a more inclusive electoral process, political parity, and a strengthened democracy.
We are now witnessing an opening of the electoral process to a more diverse pool of candidates in Boston and beyond. For instance, women of color are seeking office in what might be considered unlikely places, including small towns without minority-majority populations – such as Westfield, Barnstable, and Gardner – and in suburban communities.
We also see female candidates of color who didn’t make it the first time around vying for and winning office – like Hilda Ramirez in Worcester – a signal that voters’ expectations of who can get elected are changing and that campaigns for candidates of color can grow and strengthen over time. Some women of color are fast becoming established political players, such as Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, who ran unopposed and won her fourth term on Tuesday, and Saraí Rivera, who ran unopposed for a second term on the Worcester City Council. And in Boston, two women of color – including the first Asian American woman to ever serve on the council – topped the ticket in the at-large contest.
In a year’s time, we will have elections for statewide and legislative offices. The challenge remains to convert the energy of municipal campaigns for women of color into a more diversified field of candidates and campaign operatives during 2014 and beyond. Recognizing the tremendous need for resources on the public leadership of women of color, UMass Boston’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy and the Women’s Pipeline for Change have made available a set of new web resources, “Pathways to Political Leadership for Women of Color,” to support those who are demanding and building a system of democracy that reflects the diversity of our communities.
Despite the disappointment of the preliminary loss experienced by Boston mayoral candidate Charlotte Golar Richie, it’s important to acknowledge the remarkable fact that the only woman candidate – who was the last to enter the race and had less money than many of her opponents – came within less than 4,000 votes of a spot on the November ballot. The number of women, men, and youth of color who got involved and actively campaigned for Charlotte, as well as for Suzanne Lee, a candidate for Boston City Council, bodes well for the future of public leadership among women of color.
With a solid strategy and an expanded set of resources, both financial and otherwise, we can propel more highly qualified women of color into public office in Massachusetts.
Ann Bookman is Director of UMass Boston’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy. Delia Rodriguez-Masjoan and Ileana Cintrón are director and program manager at Women’s Pipeline for Change.