The Mis­souri and Kansas leg­is­la­tures don’t look like Amer­ica

The Kansas City Star - - Opinion -

DE­SPITE BE­ING LESS THAN ONE-THIRD OF THE POP­U­LA­TION, WHITE MEN STILL HOLD A MA­JOR­ITY OF ELECTED PO­SI­TIONS NA­TION­WIDE.

A record num­ber of women will head to Con­gress in 2019. In Florida and Ge­or­gia, two emerg­ing Demo­cratic stars were within strik­ing dis­tance of be­com­ing the na­tion’s first African-Amer­i­can gov­er­nors. Other non-tra­di­tional can­di­dates pre­vailed in races through­out the coun­try.

This week’s midterm elec­tions pro­vided hope­ful signs that the na­tion is inch­ing closer to a gov­ern­ment that truly rep­re­sents its cit­i­zens.

Con­gress will look more like Amer­ica, and that’s good news. But closer to home, there’s a lot more work to do — no­tably in Kansas and Mis­souri, where white men still dom­i­nate in pol­i­tics.

The num­ber of mi­nor­ity leg­is­la­tors won’t change sub­stan­tially in ei­ther state as a re­sult of these midterms. Women and other non-tra­di­tional politi­cians made only mod­est gains in Kansas and Mis­souri.

While Kansas elected a woman gov­er­nor and will send a Na­tive Amer­i­can woman to Con­gress, the lack of di­ver­sity in the Kansas and Mis­souri leg­is­la­tures re­mains an is­sue and should be a wakeup call for lead­ers of both po­lit­i­cal par­ties. As they look ahead to the next elec­tion cy­cle, they should make re­cruit­ing and pre­par­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers from var­ied back­grounds a pri­or­ity.

“Pol­i­tics are a lot like busi­ness,” said Kenya Cox, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for Kansas African Amer­i­can Af­fairs Com­mis­sion. “When we start en­gag­ing con­ver­sa­tions with un­com­mon voices like AfricanAmer­i­can or Latina women, we come out with a bet­ter prod­uct.”

Women and peo­ple of color are be­gin­ning to change the land­scape of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. But a 2017 study by the Re­flec­tive Democ­racy Cam­paign found that de­spite be­ing less than one-third of the pop­u­la­tion, white men still hold a ma­jor­ity of elected po­si­tions.

That is cer­tainly true in Kansas and Mis­souri.

In Kansas, 47 of 165 leg­is­la­tors, or 28.5 per­cent, are women, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Women in Pol­i­tics. Four are black and one iden­ti­fied as mixed race.

On the Mis­souri side, 45 of 197, or 22.8 per­cent, of state law­mak­ers are women. Six are black.

The re­al­ity is that both Kansas and Mis­souri are con­ser­va­tive states. Nei­ther has ever had a per­son of color serv­ing in a statewide elec­tive ex­ec­u­tive role. And the po­lit­i­cal par­ties’ benches in both states look aw­fully thin when it comes to di­verse young lead­ers who even­tu­ally could make bids for higher of­fice.

“I do not think we are apt to see a se­ri­ous statewide race in Mis­souri by an African-Amer­i­can any­time soon,” said Pev­er­ill Squire, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri-Columbia. “I would, of course, be de­lighted to be proven wrong.”

A cul­ture of racism, a large white pop­u­la­tion and an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion, along with a slowly de­clin­ing per­cent­age of young peo­ple would create chal­lenges for any black gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date, said Gar­rett Grif­fin, author of “Racism in Kansas City: A Short His­tory.”

While progress has been slow in both states, there were some glim­mers of hope in Kansas this week. Vot­ers elected Bran­don Woodard and Su­san Ruiz, the first openly LGBTQ mem­bers of the Kansas House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. And Davids will be one of the first two Na­tive Amer­i­can women to serve in Con­gress and the first openly LGBTQ per­son to rep­re­sent Kansas.

“It’s hard to say if this is a trend,” said Don Haider-Markel, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Kansas. “LGBT can­di­dates have run for the Kansas Leg­is­la­ture in the past and weren’t suc­cess­ful. But it is re­mark­able that nei­ther (Woodard, Ruiz or Davids) had sig­nif­i­cant prior po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

To build on these vic­to­ries and to con­tinue to im­prove di­ver­sity in both state­houses, po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cials in Kansas and Mis­souri must tackle the bar­ri­ers that too of­ten leave women, mi­nori­ties and non­tra­di­tional can­di­dates on the side­lines, in­clud­ing ac­cess to fund­ing and sup­port from the party. Voter sup­pres­sion and ger­ry­man­der­ing are is­sues as well.

A lack of di­ver­sity at the state level has sti­fled both states when it comes to new ideas and dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. And un­less Kansas and Mis­souri po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cials be­gin the work now of cul­ti­vat­ing a wide range of women, mi­nor­ity and non-tra­di­tional can­di­dates, the nee­dle won’t budge much in 2020.

JOHN SLEEZER The Star

Con­gress­woman-elect Sharice Davids will be one of the first two Na­tive Amer­i­can women in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

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