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California's new Legislature has biggest gender gap in quarter century

Asm. Garcia at her district office in Downey. Garcia is pictured next to her "throne of tampons"; as a legislator she has introduced a bill to eliminate taxes on tampons.
Aaron Mendelson/KPCC
State Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia sits in her district office in Downey next to her "throne of tampons." Garcia introduced a bill to eliminate taxes on tampons, telling KPCC "my experience as a woman affects my policymaking."

As California's state legislators began a new session this week, data shows the 120-member Legislature is far more male and white than the state it represents.

The new Legislature will have fewer female lawmakers than any since the early 1990s. And the proportion of Latinos in the statehouse lags far behind the state's demographics.

The information comes from the California State Library, a public research arm of state government. Experts say the gaps seen in the lawmakers' numbers have a significant impact on decisions and policies, and they won't be easily closed.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia's path to Sacramento shows many of the barriers that candidates hoping to change the face of state government have to overcome. 

When Garcia decided to run for office for the 58th Assembly District covering parts of southeastern Los Angeles County, she was on the beach in Argentina.

She had been protesting political corruption in Bell, after moving back into the area to take care of her parents. Her day job was teaching math. When Garcia was first asked about running for the Assembly, she dismissed it, until she said the guilt caught up to her mid-vacation.

"I had been talking to the community about taking back our community, about being able to govern ourselves," she said.

Garcia cut short her trip to run for office as a long shot candidate in 2012. Another candidate in the race belonged to a local political dynasty and received the benefit of far more outside money. (That candidate, Tom Calderon, was recently sentenced to a year in prison for his role in a bribery scandal.) A few weeks into the campaign, Garcia broke her leg.

"I was like, 'this can't get any more comedic.' I have no support, I have limited money, and I'm a year behind. And now I have a full cast."

Despite the challenges, Garcia managed to put together more votes than any other Democrat in the primary. She stamped her ticket to Sacramento in the general election with 72 percent of the vote.

"Cristina Garcia is kind of a unique example of people saying, 'It's not your turn, wait in line.' And she didn't," said Loyola Law School's Jessica Levinson. "That doesn't happen all that often."

This year, Garcia secured reelection to a third term.

Legislature skews male, white

Simply put, California's politicians don't look like the districts they represent.

The Legislature for the 2017-2018 session will have fewer women than any since the 1991-1992 session, according to the state's data. Just 26 of the state's 120 lawmakers are women, about 22 percent.

The issue extends to candidates running for office, not just those who win. KPCC analyzed the results of legislative races in the November 2014 and 2016 elections. Of 395 candidates for Assembly and Senate, just 97 were women — that's about one in four.

Other elected offices have seen more gender parity: California has had two female U.S. senators for decades, and the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors now boasts four women. But those are the exceptions.

The state's data also exposes significant gaps between the race and ethnicity of Californians and their legislators. While Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the Californians, they're just 22.5 percent of state legislators.

The reverse is true for whites. They make up 38 percent of the state but 57 percent of Senate and Assembly members. The proportions of black and Asian-American/Pacific Islander legislators are roughly in line with the state's population.

Despite the ethnicity gap, the next two years will feature a more diverse group of legislators than the group they succeed. Last session, 39.2 percent were people of color or mixed race. For 2017-2018, that will jump to 43 percent.

Barriers to more equal representation complex

Women and minority candidates can't get elected if they're not on the ballot. But an intimidating mix of factors can discourage even the most engaged community members from breaking into politics.

Mindy Romero, who studies civic engagement at University of California, Davis, ticked off a list. "You need know-how. You need expertise. You need encouragement to run. And you need money. And so communities that don't have that political history have less of all of those things," she said.

Romero said Latino underrepresentation in state politics is nothing new. One factor in the imbalance is the state's voting population, which is whiter and older than the state as a whole.

Another is the size of our political districts. California's population — greater than the nation of Canada — means that districts are huge. "It's really difficult to build the infrastructure that you need to run basically in a small state," said Loyola Law School's Levinson.

That campaign infrastructure requires cash.

"One of the reasons why we see fewer women in public office and fewer folks of color in public office is access to money," Romero said. And the amount of money in politics has spiked, with state races routinely drawing millions of dollars in spending.

Women are at a disadvantage in fundraising. "Women just don't have the same relationships with people who give a lot of money and spend a lot of money," Levinson said. Without connections to big donors, raising the money required to reach voters and respond to negative advertising is difficult.

Disparities in gender and race stretch to city councils and water districts. With fewer women and people of color in the pipeline, not many will move up to higher office. Seeing fewer people like themselves in office can turn off potential candidates. Levinson calls that a "negative feedback loop."

Cristina Garcia, who now chairs the California Legislative Women's Caucus, said she's concerned the number of women in Sacramento could shrink even further. "The idea that it's going to take care of itself is naive," she said.

She thinks the political parties need to play an active role, by identifying female candidates and pushing them to the front of the line. She also suggested parties ensure their political spending supports women on the ballot.

Getting in the room

The lack of representation isn't about optics — it's about policy, those active in politics said.

"If you are not in the room when the discussion takes place, then your interests are not going to be reflected in the outcome," said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic consultant in California. "It's very simple."

Sragow remembers the era when decisions were made in smoke-filled rooms among white men. He said the state deserves credit for changing that practice, with rooms that are much more diverse than in the 1990s, and now smoke-free.

Yet the gap between voters and the state as a whole is stark. This year, around 14 million Californians cast a ballot in the presidential race. There are almost 40 million people in the state.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California report shows how the state's voters and non-voters view the world differently. Non-voters were more likely to say the government should do more to counter income inequality, provide healthcare for undocumented immigrants, and support school construction with bonds.

So could the political landscape change?

Sragow, Romero and Levinson were each emphatic that women can win — if they're on the ballot. Women won about 45 percent of the time in the 200 state legislative elections reviewed by KPCC, sometimes defeating another female candidate.

As for ethnicity, Sragow said it "absolutely matters" at the ballot box, but winning is typically about voters feeling affinity with candidates.

Big changes in the makeup of the statehouse will take time, if they arrive at all. Levinson said the lack of diversity in government isn't just a problem in politics. She points to the dearth of CEOs who are women and people of color. And another California institution, the Academy Awards, have a well-publicized diversity problem.

"For the foreseeable future, there's no world in which we get to equal representation," Levinson said.