By Trevor Brown
OKLAHOMA CITY — READ IN: Advocates hope younger generation will make government more inclusive
Voters elected more than two-dozen new faces to the state legislature during this month’s election.
Despite the turnover, several demographics – most notably blacks, Hispanics and women – remain underrepresented in the state legislature in comparison with their population in the state.
Politicians and advocates say progress is slowly being made to add diversity to the Oklahoma’s political arena. However, they say there is vast room for improvement.
“We are underrepresented in the state on all levels,” said Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, who is a member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and Women Legislators’ Lobby. “Inclusion of all races and nationalities is important because we have cultural differences ... and if you don’t have representation at the table, most of the time the population with no voice suffers.”
An analysis of the state legislature that will convene in 2011 finds that women, who make up 50.6 percent of the state population, gained two seats to bring their total to 19 seats or 12.7 percent of the legislature.
The election caused no change to black or Hispanic representation. The six black state lawmakers make up 4 percent of the legislature – compared with the 8 percent that blacks make up of the state population. Rep. Charles Ortega, R-Altus, remains the House of Representatives’ lone Hispanic member.
Latino Community Development Agency Executive Director Patricia Fennell called the lack of diversity a “tremendous problem” for the Latino and Hispanic community, which totals 8.2 percent of the state population.
“We basically have no voice in the legislature, and that is exemplified by the anti-immigration bills that have been proposed lately,” she said. “So absolutely this is a concern to us.”
Fennell and Pittman both agreed grassroots efforts, specifically targeting younger people, are crucial to convincing minorities and women to seek office, take part in government and vote. Fennell said there are many obstacles to overcome, but she is optimistic state government will be more inclusive.
“The younger generation and those in college now, I don’t see them being politically apathetic,” she said. “Those people are going to speak for the community, and it is just a matter of time before we see more people in the Latino community making a difference.”
The gender gap
Rep.-elect Emily Virgin, D-Norman, is one of the four new female members elected to the legislature. She said, based on her experience, women might have to work a bit harder to be elected. However, she said it is not a big enough obstacle that it should dissuade women from running.
“I think sometimes (voters) didn’t give me as much credit as they would a man,” she said, “but I found if I had a conversation with a person that hesitation went away.”
Prior to the election, Oklahoma ranked second to last in the nation for its 11.4 percent female representation in the state legislature. Sara Jane Rose, who is president of Sally’s List, a new progressive group working to recruit woman to seek office in Oklahoma, said she agrees with Virgin that women do not face an electability problem.
Rose said generally when women run they have at least an equal chance as a man. During the past election, for example, all the 12 incumbent women representatives either faced no challenger or won their race.
The problem, Rose said, is encouraging more women to seek office. Rose said women are less likely to run on their own, and political parties or groups, such as hers, are needed to help recruit and train candidates.
Rose and Virgin both said they are optimistic women can boost their numbers in 2012. Rose said she hopes Gov.-elect Mary Fallin, who will become the state’s first female governor, will inspire more female candidates. Virgin, who is 24, said she predicts women near her age also will hear the call to run.
“Just looking at friends my age in law school, I know many of them have political aspirations,” she said. “I think my generation is seeing this is a good way to be involved and it is something that is important.”
Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.