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Thought Leadership

Reflections from Netroots Nation 2019

Last week, I had the great pleasure of participating on a panel at Netroots Nation with Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, EMILY’s List’s Western Director for State and Local, Johanna Silva Waki, and moderated by Krithika Harish from the Pipeline Initiative.

The topic of the panel was Building the Bench: Racial Equity and Diversity at the State and Local Level.  Preparing for the talk gave me a great opportunity to take a look at recent research related to diversity at the state legislative level, and to reflect upon the work that Sister District has and continues to do in this space. Here are three takeaways.

‘Electability’ Is a Dog-Whistle Unsupported By Data

We’ve been hearing a lot about the nebulous idea of “electability” lately. It’s usually used as a reflexive rhetorical tool to dismiss women and candidates of color. As in: Oh, s/he isn’t ‘electable’ enough to bother supporting.

But this attitude is actually unsupported by data.  In fact, an important 2019 study from the Reflective Democracy Campaign (RFC) shows just how wrong that narrative is, and provides ammunition for Democrats to flip the script.

RFC looked at the more than 30,000 candidates in races for federal, state and county offices in 2018, as well as those who won. Their analysis found that women of color, white women, men of color and white men all won seats in close proportion to their share of candidates.

This means that women and candidates of color were basically just as electable as white men. For instance, 4% of candidates in 2018 elections were women of color, and 5% of winners. 6% of candidates were men of color, and were 7% of the winners. White women were 28% of all candidates, and 29% of all winners.   In fact, the only demographic that was not elected in a larger proportion than their share of candidates was… white men! White men were 61% of all candidates but just 60% of winners.

State-Level Gains are Great, but Gaps Abound

These data tell a bunch of stories.  Certainly they demonstrate the over-representation of white men in elected office.  But the RFC study also shows that women and candidates of color win when they run — and makes clear that “electability” is a dog-whistle unsupported by the facts.  Again for the people in the back: in 2018, women and candidates of color were just as electable as white men. 

The problem is not electability – the problem is that women and candidates of color do not run in proportion to their representation in the population.

This isn’t to diminish the great gains that folks who are not white men have made at all levels over the past few years.  Between 2012 and 2018 we saw a 105% increase in the number of women of color running for Congress. At the state legislative level, we saw an increase in female state legislators in 47 of 50 states.  This included in Nevada, which became the first state legislature in the country’s history to be majority female (along with a majority of the state’s congressional delegation and state supreme court).

But people of color constitute 40% of the population, and yet only hold 11% of elected offices. Women are 50% of the population but only 24% of Congress. And over 4% of the population identifies as LGBTQ, but hold only .1% of elected offices (that translates to less than 700 out of half a million elected positions in the US). By contrast, white men are just 30% of the population yet hold 62% of elected officials.

At the state legislative level, women hold less than 29% of state legislative seats – and in some states, it’s as low as 14% (Mississippi and West Virginia).  And just 6.2% of all state legislators are women of color.

So, while women and people of color win when they run, there are significant barriers to running — including fundraising.  The Center for Responsive Politics has found that, on average, female Congressional candidates raise about $200,000 less than men.  Sister District Action Network (SDAN) is currently working on an evaluation of fundraising trends and gaps by race/ethnicity and gender at the state legislative level. But the facts are clear: women and candidates of color often do not have access to the same fundraising resources and networks that have empowered white men to succeed for, literally, centuries.

We’ve seen wonderful firsts over the past few years. Here at Sister District, we supported and are supporting the first Latinas elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates (Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala); the first Indian American woman elected to the Michigan legislature (Padma Kuppa); the first Sikh woman elected to the Washington legislature (Manka Dhingra); the first openly LGBTQ women elected to the Washington Senate (Emily Randall and Claire Wilson), and the first openly transgender legislator in Virginia (Danica Roem). But this is just a start. We can and must do more.

To Feed the Pipeline, We Must Invest (More) in Unfriendly Turf

One additional point continued to stick in my mind at the Netroots conference, and in preparing and participating on my panel: there are many points of intervention to encourage and support state legislative candidates who reflect our democracy and communities, but as a movement we are not investing enough along the pipeline.  This begins with recruiting and training candidates to run. A healthy leadership pipeline then requires supporting diverse candidates during their campaigns, with money and visibility and grassroots support. And then it requires providing newly elected legislators with the mentorship, networks and resources that they will need to govern effectively.

Across the country, this progressive pipeline is lumpy — particularly at the state legislative level. In some areas, it’s working well and there are resources and organizations through the length of the pipeline actively working to support diverse candidates. But in other areas, particularly in red states and areas, there are often blank spots in the pipeline where there are few resources for diverse Democratic candidates — and indeed for any Democratic candidates.

This year, we are supporting candidates in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia, and this provides a microcosm for the challenges in supporting a diverse and inclusive leadership pipeline nationally.  At one end of the spectrum, candidates in top targeted districts in Virginia are well supported by a rich tapestry of organizations and institutions, including a functional state party, sophisticated caucuses, national party committees, national organizations providing candidate services and volunteer support, and robust networks of grassroots activism.  But at the other end, it’s a very different situation for candidates in Mississippi and Louisiana, where there are far fewer resources to train, staff, and support candidates. There are so few Democrats in the legislatures in these states that there often are not even functional Democratic caucuses to coordinate Democratic legislative and electoral strategy.

The Right has long known that it is critical to invest in unfriendly turf. As just one example, Americans for Prosperity has long maintained large presences in blue states like California, New Jersey and Illinois. The Right has long known that it takes time to normalize language and ideas, and so it has invested in that long-term narrative-shaping with its own ideas.  As a movement, progressives must realize the importance of this tactic and invest much more in organizing and supporting Democratic candidates in red states and areas. We must engage in a long-term strategy to seed ideas, and stay “in the conversation.”  Many progressive ideas are not fringe left schemes. They resonate with working people everywhere, and great, diverse progressive candidates are in fact running everywhere. As a movement, we must show up and support them.

Sister District Co-founders Lala Wu and Lyzz Schwegler, and Head of Technology Cat Robinson also spoke at Netroots. Read about their presentations here.