As she announced the end of her distinguished 31-year career in the state Legislature last week, Representative Gloria Fox of Roxbury couldn’t resist recycling one of the most stubborn myths in Massachusetts politics.
Fox was discussing how the state could finally elect a more diverse Legislature. She acknowledged that the problem is complicated, but suggested that some of the answer is obvious. “You’ve got to have districts that people of color have an opportunity to run and win in,” Fox said.
Representative Russell Holmes only wishes it were really that simple. Holmes, a third-term representative from Mattapan, chairs the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. He has spent the past year obsessed with how to increase its ranks. And one conclusion he has reached is that the problem is substantially more complicated than creating more districts with a nonwhite majority.
“We have to mentor the new folks coming up,” Holmes said. “It’s all about a bench. We don’t have a bench.”
The makeup of the Legislature is a long-standing sore point, at least among politically active people of color. The Legislature’s districts were most recently redrawn in 2011, a map that created 20 districts with a majority of people of color. But in the elections that have followed, the number of African-Americans in the House has increased just two seats, from 11 to 13. And in the Senate, there are just two people of color among the 40 members: Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry, both of Boston.
Redistricting alone does not produce the results promised by voting-rights advocates. Of the 20 minority-majority districts mentioned above, just nine are represented by a person of color. The reasons for this are many. For one thing, voting doesn’t necessarily conform to racial patterns. People of color, along with their white neighbors, may very well elect nonminority candidates — such as Liz Malia (Jamaica Plain) or Dan Hunt (Dorchester) — to represent them.
And it works both ways: The South End is much whiter than it was when Byron Rushing, who is African American, was first elected in 1982, but voters continue returning him to office, and rightly so.
But if less emphasis on race on the part of voters is positive, some of the other reasons are more uncomfortable to discuss. Just as the state’s Democratic leadership has been slow to make a priority of promoting female candidates, it has been similarly ambivalent about racial diversity. Not obstructionist, mind you. But it never quite makes it onto the priority list. Even discussing the issue makes people uneasy. Holmes says he and House Speaker Robert DeLeo recently ended a 15-month silence that began when he made remarks DeLeo found offensive regarding a shortage of diversity in House leadership.
“It’s tough for white people to have this conversation,” Holmes said. “The issue of race is very difficult.”
One demographic group has made inroads: Asians. With four members, there are finally enough Asians under the Golden Dome to have an Asian caucus. Holmes would like to eventually unite the two caucuses — but two of the Asian members are Republicans, which complicates matters a bit for the rest of the group.
What would really help in terms of diversity? Holmes suggests that there needs to be a stronger effort to recruit candidates, and train them in how to run for office. That is one way that groups like Emerge Massachusetts have significantly increased the number of women seeking office. Blacks and Latinos need something comparable. More opportunity is key, too. Fox’s retirement is part of a gradual and healthy generational change. Turnover encourages people who want to run that their chance will eventually come.
The last thing that might help will sound odd: Stop obsessing about districts. Leaders like Deval Patrick, Ayanna Pressley, and Michelle Wu, among others, have proved that people of color can win elections outside of black and Latino neighborhoods. It’s time to embrace this change.
Great candidates produce more change than new districts ever could.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.