In state legislature, a diversity gap persists
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The impending departure of the only African-American woman serving as a state representative underscores a lack of diversity in the Legislature that has persisted for decades, elected officials and civil rights leaders say.
State Representative Gloria Fox, who announced this week that she will not seek a 17th term, is one of just six black lawmakers in the 200-member House and Senate. There are only seven Latino legislators, according to figures from the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
In total, 9.5 percent of legislators are black, Latino, or Asian. In comparison, about 26 percent of the state's 6.8 million residents are people of color.
"It's going to take a lot of work to make sure that we have the true diversity in the House of Representatives," Fox said in an interview.
Redistricting in 2011 doubled to 20 the number of House districts with a majority of voters who are people of color, a move designed to increase electoral opportunities for blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.
But Representative Russell Holmes, who chairs the Legislature's black and Latino caucus, said redistricting pushed the diversity needle forward only slightly: Since the new maps were drawn, his caucus increased from 11 to 13 members.
"Numbers do matter,'' said Holmes, a Democrat from Mattapan. "If we had 19 or 20 members, we would be much more powerful."
Keiko Orrall, the only Japanese-American state representative, said the 2010 election helped change the profile of the House, when three men became the first Asians elected to serve.
Orrall, elected in 2011, and Rady Mom, the first Cambodian-American elected in 2014, help make up the House Asian-American Caucus.
That group is expected to meet with the black and Latino caucus to determine how they can make the Legislature look more like an increasingly diverse state.
"We are making progress,'' said Orrall, a Lakeville Republican. "We're trying to emphasize the need for diversity within the Legislature."
Just 17 of the 160 members of the House of Representatives are black, Latino, or Asian.
And just two people of color sit in the 40-member Senate: Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat elected in a district widely known as the South Boston seat, and Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat of Latino-Asian heritage.
"It is troubling that in 2016 we don't have more people of color elected in office," Dorcena Forry said.
Chang-Diaz replaced Dianne Wilkerson, who represented the Second Suffolk District from 1993 until 2008 and who resigned amid a corruption scandal. Bill Owens held the seat before Wilkerson.
Fox, a 74-year-old Roxbury Democrat first elected in 1985, is the longest-serving female representative in state history. She said she is leaving because she felt it was time to move on to other endeavors.
But she lamented that the Legislature, much as was the case when she arrived on Beacon Hill more than three decades ago, does not reflect the diversity of Massachusetts.
To increase that number, she said, "It means that a lot of people have to be very, very political about how that change really happens."
The primary reason for the dearth of people of color in the Legislature, Fox said, is simple: The lines drawn for House and Senate districts. "You've got to have districts that people of color have an opportunity to run and win in," she said.
Russell, the chairman of the black and Latino caucus, said his coalition has been trying to make gains by targeting seats vacated by retiring lawmakers.
But without money, institutional support, and political infrastructure, it is difficult for minority candidates to gain traction, Russell said. And many potential candidates are reluctant to challenge longstanding office holders.
In Brockton, hopes of electing a black woman were shattered when City Councilor Shaynah Barnes placed a distant third in a special primary election to fill a seat vacated by Representative Michael D. Brady, who is white.
Two other women of color are seeking to make a mark in a crowded special election to replace former senator Anthony W. Petruccelli, who represented a district that stretches from Cambridgeport to East Boston, Revere to Winthrop.
Several political observers said it will be an uphill climb for Lydia Edwards, a black East Boston lawyer, and Diana Hwang, the daughter of Taiwanese parents.
Fox came into office in a special election after losing a 1984 write-in campaign. She said her biggest legislative accomplishments were being a forceful voice and working to bring resources to her district.
"The fact that there is a voice that has been unashamed to speak out, tell the truth, and talk about race and racism, and fight like heck for the resources that you need," she said.
State Representative Byron Rushing said Fox, a former foster child, started first as a community activist rallying for the causes of her people.
"When I met her, she was a tenant at Whittier Street housing development,'' he said. "She was organizing there."
Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative who served with Fox for 11 years, said Fox has long been a zealous advocate for Roxbury families, particularly those who are in crisis.
She visits prisons to work with inmates, helps residents with criminal records find jobs, and advocates for foster care.
Fox also was a steadfast ally of St. Fleur and Forry, who served in the House before her promotion to the Senate.
"She has been that voice," St. Fleur said. "You are not going to find that many people who are committed to that."
Orrall, the Lakeville state representative, said she and Fox have been the only two women of color in the House of Representatives.
"With Representative Fox serving in the House, she served as an example for other African-American women to say, 'I could run for office, too,' " Orrall said. "And so, as the first Asian-American woman in the House, that's what I'm endeavoring to do — to serve and to say, 'You can serve and be a problem solver in the Commonwealth.' "
Across Roxbury, residents and advocates were coming to terms with the planned departure of the woman known to many as "Rep Fox."
"She was often the first on the scene and the last to leave when we called on her,'' said Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP.
"She'll be remembered for the passion with which she advocated for Roxbury,'' Curry said. "We will always remember her defiant proclamation, as she stood in the halls of the State House, 'Welcome to the people's house!' "
But Curry also stressed the need for greater diversity in government and a more inclusive Commonwealth.
Her departure "should remind us that we have work to do,'' he said.