Webcast Recap

Christine Sierra, Professor of Political Science, University of New Mexico; Dianne Pinderhughes, Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies, University of Notre Dame; Carol Hardy-Fanta, Director, Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, University of Massachusetts at Boston; Pei-te Lien, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara.

The rapidly changing political landscape of United States is reflected in its newly emerging leadership of elected officials of color. As little is known about this growing class of political leaders, the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project constructed a database, consisting of more than 10,000 elected officials of color, and drew on it to survey 1,384 state and local officials by telephone. Four of the principal investigators involved in the Project presented its key findings at the Wilson Center in a program organized by the Division of United States Studies.

The investigators concentrated on the state and local levels, in part because 90 percent of minority elected officials serve in local government positions and nine percent hold positions in the state legislature. The state and local levels have also become the center of policy experimentation and implementation during recent years, as activity in many key policy areas (immigration and health care, for example) have devolved from the federal level to state and local governments.

The survey found that African Americans comprise 53 percent, Latinos 38 percent, Asians seven percent, and American Indians two percent of the officials studied. Over one-third are female. Professor Christine Sierra reported that African-American elected officials are concentrated primarily in the southeastern and northeastern United States and in California (only three states have no black elected officials); Latinos, in the Southwest and Northeast; and Asians in the states of California and Hawaii.

The responses to the survey, the investigators discovered, challenged many of the assumptions that society holds about elected officials in general. For example, as Professor Dianne Pinderhughes noted, a significant portion of the respondents was well-educated and highly qualified to be in elected office – just as one would expect of elected officials. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents had a college degree and 30 percent had a graduate degree. What was different about the respondents, however, is that many of them had parents with a high school diploma or less. Their paths to office varied from those traditionally followed by white officials, who tend to come to politics with a law or political science background. Instead, as Professor Carol Hardy-Fanta noted, the minority officials came from the fields of education, community advocacy, parent-teacher organizing, civil rights, and faith-based organizations. Most sought public service as a way to address issues they saw as important to their communities, and to give back to those communities or provide service to them. Interestingly, while 80 percent of men in the survey were married, only 53 percent of the women were – perhaps indicating the difficulty for women of juggling elected public service with family responsibilities. While 76 percent of the respondents affiliated themselves with the Democratic Party, 32 percent described themselves as liberal, 34 percent called themselves middle-of-the-road, and 29 percent said they were conservative.

On policy issues, the investigators found more consensus than disagreement among the respondents. Forty-six percent listed education as the most important issue, while 32 percent listed employment/wages and 20-21 percent listed safety. Asked about women's concerns, 80 percent supported more child-care services, 90 percent supported anti-sexual harassment laws, and 79 percent supported abortion rights. There was no gender gap on these issues. On immigration issues, 78 percent supported the availability of government services in languages other than English. Support dropped to 50 percent, however, when it came to the issue of drivers' licenses for immigrants, Professor Pei-te Lien reported. Forty-two percent of the male officials and 53 percent of the female officials were in favor of non-citizens voting in local elections and, interestingly, there was no racial gap in that result. The war in Iraq was another of the four issue areas discussed at the conference. Seventy-five percent of the officials surveyed disapproved of it; 80 percent thought that U.S. troops should be brought home soon.

Nancy Navarro and Valerie Ervin, two local elected officials of color, told the audience that the survey results reflect their experiences in public office. Ervin, the first and only African-American woman to serve on the Montgomery County Council of Maryland, said that her path to office was by no means traditional, as it was grounded in the labor movement. She implicitly brought class as well as race and gender into the discussion by noting that members of the Council, though holding a full-time position, receive only a part-time salary – a legacy of a time when most council members were wealthy, white male land-owners. This custom clearly serves as a barrier for minorities and other citizens who seek to serve. Nancy Navarro, a Latina and president of the Montgomery County Board of Education, was motivated to seek public office by concerns about the effectiveness of the school system for its various populations. The Montgomery county school system is a majority-minority system, and Navarro felt – as did the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Survey's investigators – that it was important for the officials in public office to reflect a variety of perspectives.

Further information about the GMCL survey is available at www.gmcl.org.

Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of United States Studies 202-691-4129