The Mass. Legislature is not diverse, and that’s probably not changing next year
While there are about two dozen legislative candidates of color vying to make inroads in the Legislature, according to a Globe tally, nearly half of them are seeking seats already held by minority politicians. And many of them are running against each other in the same districts.
As it currently stands, there are 18 members of color in the Massachusetts House and Senate, accounting for 9 percent of all seats in a state where the state population is nearly 28 percent minority. The Bay State ranks in the bottom quartile of states for legislative racial diversity, according to data from the National Council of State Legislatures for 2015, the most recently tabulated data.
“I do not think much is going to change,” said state Representative Russell Holmes, a member of the Mass. Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. “We don’t have the resources to run a campaign that’s very competitive, and many folks who are white in majority-color districts have no one running against them.”
The lack of diversity is partially because the barrier to entry is relatively high in the full-time, professional Legislature, where it’s difficult for anyone to defeat an incumbent, politicians of color and analysts say. They also cited subpar recruitment and support efforts for candidates of color, as well as the political and fund-raising networks in minority communities.
Still, similar obstacles haven’t stopped candidates of color — including those who are black, Asian, hispanic, and Native American — from jumping into other races, both here and across the country. Quentin James, founder of The Collective PAC, which trains and supports black candidates across the country, described 2018 as a “historic” year with more black candidates running for Congress and statewide office than ever before.
“This is a once in a lifetime kind of moment we’re looking at for black politics,” he said.
Similarly, the Latino Victory Project noted the rise in interest it has seen from candidates nationwide.
“We are seeing a ton of first-time candidates in particular stepping up to run in a way that we haven’t seen before and from backgrounds that are pretty nonconventional for folks in politics,” said Mayra Macias, political director for the Latino Victory Project.
James cited backlash to the Trump presidency and persistent racial tensions that have served as driving forces behind the increased number of candidates this year.
In Massachusetts, there are several congressional hopefuls who, if they win, would become the first person of color to represent the state in the US House. In Boston, Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to the City Council, is challenging 10-term US Representative Michael E. Capuano in the Sept. 4 primary.
But the trend, for the most part, has not reached the state level. Among the statewide constitutional offices, there is only one candidate of color — Keiko Orrall, the Republican challenging Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, a Democrat.
When state lawmakers redrew their House districts in 2011 to account for population shifts, they created 20 districts that are majority-minority — where nonwhite residents outnumber white people. Today, only 10 of those seats are held by people of color.
“We have stayed stagnant essentially since redistricting, and the whole point of redistricting in 2011 was to get more folks of color elected,” Holmes said. “I don’t see much change in number of people of color next year who aren’t here now.”
In the state Senate, there are two people of color — Sonia Chang-Diaz and Dean Tran. For years, Linda Dorcena Forry was the only black person in the Senate, and the highest-ranking elected black official in the state, but she stepped down in January. Her successor, state Senator Nick Collins, who is white, won a special election earlier this year, and he’s running unopposed for a full term this fall.
Ray La Raja, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that the state’s full-time Legislature — compared to other states with part-time legislatures — makes it hard for new candidates to defeat incumbents who are established in their communities with name recognition and staffs.
“It’s a bigger hill to climb for a challenger in Massachusetts than other places,” he said.
Sayu Bhojwani, executive director of New American Leaders, which supports first- and second-generation immigrant candidates for office, said that liberal states are not immune to racial disparities in government.
“I think it’s one of the challenges of the Democratic Party where they have taken voters and candidates of color for granted and assumed they are doing OK and that people of color are always going to support the Democrats,” she said. “I think there’s a lack of intentionality of going out and finding people in communities of color.”
State Representative Byron Rushing, a Democrat and a member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, also said part of the problem is how the party recruits and supports its candidates. He said that efforts like the 2011 redistricting may lead to small changes, but that party reform is the key to a significant representational shift.
In a statement, Nigel C. Simon, director of community affairs and outreach for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said the party has hosted “strategic campaign and candidate trainings in key communities” and identified “local affirmative action officers within each of our democratic town committees.”
“We’re working to not only make sure the issues and voices of our communities of color are heard but are investing in and supporting recruitment and engagement efforts in each region of the Commonwealth,” Simon said.
Such lack of diversity comes with consequences, said Segun Idowu, 29, who is running against state Representative Angelo Scaccia in the Democratic primary for the 14th Suffolk District, which includes Hyde Park and parts of Roslindale and Readville.
“When you have more voices coming from communities of color who are elected and can wrangle other legislators to get things passed, I think you see more progress for affected communities,” Idowu said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of Segun Idowu.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the state’s minority population as the percentage of people not counted by the US Census as non-Hispanic white.