People of color very much a minority in elective office

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Representing almost a quarter of the seven-county metro area — some 712,000 residents — people of color do not serve in elective office in numbers anywhere near the robustness of their population suggests.

Out of the current roster of 200 lawmakers at the State Capitol, people of color number in the single digits —  if the racial/ethnic make-up of the state were proportionally represented, the number should be more than 20.

“I think minorities are under represented in the Minnesota Legislature,” said Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Nationally, the Legislature ranks in the top 10 in terms of fewest number of minorities, according to National Conference of State Legislatures data.

In other areas of government, people of color are few.

Out of 42 occupied county board seats (one is vacant) in the metro, two commissioners, Toni Carter and Rafael Ortega, serving on the Ramsey County Board, are people of color.

According to the 2010 Census, about a third of the people in Ramsey County are minorities, making it the most diverse county in the metro.

But Hennepin County follows closely behind, and even suburban counties such as Anoka, Scott and Washington, have minority populations of about 15 percent.

The inner-ring suburban cities of Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park are the most diverse cities in the region, whites being a minority in Brooklyn Center.

But as in nearby Columbia Heights, with its 35 percent minority population, and Richfield, with its 37 percent minority population, the city councils have no people of color serving on them.

People of color have run for office in his city, explained Brooklyn Center Mayor Tim Willson.

“The voters chose not to vote them in, and voted for someone else,” he said.

In a 2001 survey of city and county governments in the metro area, Minnesota Public Radio found the late Eden Prairie Mayor Dr. Jean L. Harris, a trail-blazing African-American woman so respected as to have an award named after her, was one of 10 minorities holding office out of 840 elected officials.

Today, although people of color serve in elective office in St. Louis Park, Centerville, Forest Lake, Maplewood and Mendota Heights — on school boards, such as Bloomington, Hopkins and Robbinsdale — they remain a small minority.

“I wish I had an answer for that,” said city of Maplewood Council Member James Llanas, a Hispanic, when asked why more people of color aren’t found in public office.

Reasons have been suggested.

Llanas, for one, indicated in some cultures the idea of pushing family members into the spotlight, the price of politics, is a repellent.

“It’s important that we have more representation,” said Hector Garcia, executive director of the Council on Affairs of Chicano/Latino People.

The number of Chicano/Latino people in Minnesota is growing rapidly, he said.

Still, about 40 percent of newly arriving Chicano/Latinos are immigrants, Garcia explained.

They’re not necessarily used to American politics.

Indeed, they may come from countries where political activity is dangerous.

“So it’s hard initially for them to engage,” Garcia said.

Minnesota DFL State Party Outreach Director Mona Langston expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s a very intimidating process,” she said of running for elective office.

Langston, who often speaks with minority groups by teaming with local community groups, describes a gradual process of first learning the needs of a given community, say, Somalis in Eden Prairie, before detailing party politics.

“We have to earn their trust,” she said.

To Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, elected in 1994 as the county board’s first minority member, the first Hispanic, the issue of people of color and elective office is complex.

Hispanic families, for instance, tend to be younger families — not the best age to be drawn into politics, he noted.

Unlike in Minneapolis and St. Paul where concentrations of people of color tend to hone a political edge, minorities in the suburbs are often dispersed.

Additionally, the “comfort level” with diversity in the suburbs remains uneven, Ortega indicated.

“I think it makes it more difficult to get elected,” he said.

Three years ago, Ortega was pulled over by a suburban cop who wanted to know whether he owned the car he was driving, Ortega explained.

“I still think we have a long way to go,” Ortega said.

Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota Institute on Race and Poverty, said people of color are under represented in part because white people tend to vote more frequently.

Whites are more likely to be U.S. citizens, he noted.

And whites have longer histories and stronger connections to the political process, Orfield explained.

“In general, it (people of color in office) lags behind the population change,” he said.

And there may be self-imposed limitations.

University of Minnesota Political Science Professor Dara Strolovitch, author and expert on the causes and consequences of political inequalities, said minority people tend to judge themselves harshly in terms of political potential.

“Women and people of color are less likely to think they’d make good candidates,” she said.

And they tend to be asked less often to run, she explained.

Not everyone views the issue of people of color and elective office the same.

“I never thought it was a big issue,” said city of Forest Lake Council Member Mike Freer.

“(But) I don’t see race,” said Freer, an African-American.

Freer feels no additional burden on him as a public official because of his race.

Forest Lake is 93 percent white.

Voters approve or disapprove of his actions, explained Freer, to the same degree they do of white city council members.

“I love what I’m doing,” Freer said of serving on the council.

Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz strongly rejects that numbers are even relevant with people of color and public office.

Picking over the numbers is viewing a decision-making process that’s highly personal through a political lens, she argued.

“It has more to do with the people,” she said of individuals seeking elective office.

It’s a question of fortitude, experience, willingness to serve, said Kautz, former president of The United States Conference of Mayors and of Samoan ancestry.

But data suggests, Strolovitch explained, having minorities in elective office serves as an invitation to other minority people, who may otherwise feel alienated from the process.

“In a democracy, legitimacy is important,” she said.

Beyond this, studies suggest numbers are important in terms of steering agendas, explained Strolovitch.

In a well known analysis concerning women in politics, Drude Dahlerup, Stockholm University professor of political science,  indicated the “critical mass” at which a large minority can make a difference, though still a minority, at around 30 percent.

Though some view the number of people of color in elective office as lagging, change may be on the horizon.

Ortega, looking back at his entry into politics, sees cultural education taking place.

Education and time are pacesetters, Ortega indicated.

“Everybody goes into the soup,” he said of the blending of cultures.

Diversity, to his college-age daughter’s generation, is normal, Ortega explained.

But there’s no magic.

“You’re always going to have that. That’s an eternal problem,” he said of racist attitudes.