Do your lawmakers look like you? Delaware’s legislature is slow to diversify

The News Journal | by Sarah Gamard

Delaware’s General Assembly doesn’t resemble the population it serves.

While the 62-person General Assembly has gained a handful of younger, more diverse lawmakers, it is still disproportionately ruled by mostly white men.

It’s these men who ultimately determine which bills are debated, which ones become laws and how taxpayer dollars are spent. They decide how the state addresses racially charged issues like police reform and how criminal and ethical allegations against fellow officials are handled.

Voters have sent more women and people of color to Dover in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go before the state House and Senate reflect their constituents.

Women currently make up 52% of the state population but just 30% of the 62-person General Assembly.

Black people make up 23% of the population compared to 19% of the Statehouse. Those 12 Black lawmakers are concentrated in New Castle County.

And Hispanic and Latino people make up 10% of the population compared to 3% of the Statehouse.

Of the General Assembly’s 10 highest leadership positions, only two are held by women and only one is held by a person of color.

While there have been efforts to change the demographic makeup of the General Assembly, it’s hard in a state where incumbents don’t face term limits. Advantages with campaign funds and political connections often keep them in office.

The 2022 election will offer a once-in-a-decade opportunity to change the look of Delaware’s legislature. Because of redistricting all seats will be on the ballot, and several veteran lawmakers have already decided not to run for reelection.

Progressive groups plan on propping up challengers to unseat more incumbents. Those groups argue Delaware’s lawmaking body needs to look and think like the people they are serving.

Delaware’s majority-white government has led to the state not being business-friendly, but “business-subservient,” said Rep. John Kowalko, a progressive Newark Democrat who is retiring at the end of 2022.

“It has been historically an old white man’s club,” Kowalko said. “The Delaware Way is really the influence of the powerful, influence of the rich to the dereliction of our responsibilities for the people.”

Racial issues and ethics issues

State leaders are not blind to the lack of diversity in the legislature but they have different views on its impact on state government. Change will take time, they say.

The House and Senate’s top lawmakers decide when and if bills are voted on, as well as the fate of ethics probes into their colleagues. The top 10 leaders, including the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore, are chosen by the rest of the members.

House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat and the only woman in House leadership, said she did not think the group being mostly white and mostly male had consequences.

Her “voice” is heard in leadership meetings, she said.

Longhurst is co-chairing the newly formed “women’s caucus,” which plans to draft bills tackling gender disparities in education, health care, public safety and other issues in part because women have been falling out of the workforce during the pandemic.

Longhurst points out that there wasn’t a “pipeline” of women lawmakers in the past as there is now.

“I think in the future, someday, maybe there’ll be more women in leadership and less men,” she said. “But that comes with a pipeline of knowledge and experience to get there.”

She lauded the increased diversity in the legislature and said she hopes more “step up to the plate” to fill open seats of retiring lawmakers.

“I want to see more females and women and men of color in leadership,” Longhurst said. “I love the leadership that I’m working with, but having a more diverse leadership is also moving us forward.”

Last year, the local NAACP cried foul in the different ways leadership handled two lawmakers, one white and one Black.

The all-white House ethics committee in September dropped an ethics complaint against former Rep. Gerald Brady, a white Democrat from Wilmington who faced calls to resign after using an anti-Asian slur in a June email making light of human trafficking. In February, Brady resigned and was charged with two misdemeanor counts of shoplifting.

Senate leaders took a noticeably different approach against Sen. Darius Brown, a Black Democrat from Wilmington who was arrested in May. Brown was acquitted in early January, but he still faces a Senate ethics probe for the arrest and a separate verbal altercation he got into with a fellow lawmaker.

The House’s decision to drop an ethics complaint against Brady was influenced by its leadership being all-white, said Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, a Newark Democrat and Black Caucus member who filed the complaint.

“A group of five white people is likely to come up with a different conversation and conclusion than a group of diverse people when we’re talking about racism,” Wilson-Anton said. “They have a different lived experience around racism and what’s acceptable and what’s not. … I wouldn’t go out and say, ‘Oh, they’re all racist.'”

In a statement, Longhurst said she takes “great pride” in having been elected by the Democratic caucus, and that she represents all members and considers different viewpoints “on all issues.”

“I know that is not a substitute for the personal experiences others have lived, and that we always have to keep those perspectives in mind,” Longhurst’s statement said. “Everyone brings different life experiences to this body. While it is not perfect, I believe we work hard to consider those differences and constantly look to improve.”

By the numbers

Despite making up less than a third of the lawmaking body, Delaware’s 19 female lawmakers are at a near-record-high. The most female lawmakers the state ever had were 21 between 2004 to 2006.

The Republican Party only has one female lawmaker — Rep. Ruth Briggs King of Georgetown — who is also the only woman representing Sussex County. Delaware has only one Latino lawmaker, Republican Sen. Ernie Lopez of Lewes, who is retiring at the end of the year. He’s only one of two Hispanic lawmakers along with Sen. Laura Sturgeon, a Democrat from Brandywine.

The 2020 elections added a net of four more women and four more lawmakers of color.

Noticeably more women chair committees this legislative session (24 women compared to 21 men) compared to the last session (13 women compared to 31 men), though men outnumber women as vice-chairs. Session roles run for two years.

Black lawmakers chair 10 committees compared to four last session, and white lawmakers chair 35 committees compared to 40 last session.

The two highest-ranking committees are chaired entirely by white lawmakers, and one of them only includes one non-white member.

Two women — Rep. Debra Heffernan of Bellefonte and Sen. Nicole Poore of New Castle — chair what is arguably the most powerful committee in the General Assembly that drafts the bond bill, an infrastructure spending package that this year will surpass $1 billion. But on that 12-person committee, only one member — Sen. Marie Pinkney of New Castle — is a person of color. Seven are white men.

Another 12-person committee that drafts the annual government budget is chaired by Sen. Trey Paradee of Dover and Rep. Bill Carson of Smyrna, also both white men, and includes five women and three people of color.

House and Senate leaders choose who sits on those two committees, which decide how to use tax dollars to fund government programs.

The committees should be representative of the taxpayers and people who benefit from those programs, Wilson-Anton said.

“As long as the leadership of both the Joint Finance Committee and the bond committee are not representative of Delawareans, they’re going to have trouble representing Delawareans,” Wilson-Anton said.

The leftist strategy

In 2020, a handful of underdog candidates toppled longtime Democratic incumbents in New Castle County primaries. The winners were younger, more progressive and more racially diverse than the lawmakers they unseated, and two are members of the LGBTQ community.

Sen. Sarah McBride, a Wilmington Democrat, also became the first openly transgender senator in the U.S. in an open seat race. Before 2020, no openly gay or transgender candidate had been elected to the Delaware Legislature.

Karl Stomberg of the Delaware Working Families Party, a political group that helped topple incumbents in 2020, said they plan to target more seats this year than they did in 2020.

Stomberg pointed to how many lawmakers are former police officers, retirees and lawyers. His group’s goal is to get more socioeconomically diverse candidates in addition to racially diverse candidates, he said.

“If you’ve ever had to deal with being evicted, or if you’ve never had to go through the criminal justice system, or you’ve never had to work two or three jobs, you’re not going to have the same sort of knowledge that is really important when legislating,” Stomberg said.

Their objective is to pass progressive legislation such as one to increase police transparency by amending the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and another to give more legal protection to people facing eviction. Progressive lawmakers also plan to push yet-to-be-filed environmental justice bills that will likely challenge Delaware’s longstanding relationship with chemical companies.

Diversity efforts reach roadblocks

The Democratic and Republican parties are actively recruiting more diverse candidates and women.

They’ll find ripe opportunity in at least four open seats in the 2022 election.

Three lawmakers — Democratic Rep. John Kowalko of Newark, Democratic Rep. David Bentz of Christiana and Republican Sen. Ernie Lopez of Lewes — announced their retirement by the end of 2022. There’s also a new district in and around Long Neck near Rehoboth Beach that was formed last fall as a result of population changes found by U.S. census data.

Democrats passed up an opportunity to pick a diverse candidate for the March 5 special election to fill the Wilmington House seat of Brady following his resignation.

Committee members chose former Wilmington City Councilman Bud Freel, a 69-year-old white man, over Red Clay school board member Adriana Bohm, a 52-year-old woman of color as their candidate.

Before the members voted, an attendee challenged Freel about a pledge he had made when he recently retired to “pass the torch” to a new generation — particularly women of color — to govern.

“Do you still agree with your statements?” he asked, pointing to Bohm. “Would you be willing to step aside?”

Freel pointed to his history of supporting women of color in government and said that this particular race was different because the seat was temporary. The district was set to disappear at the end of 2022 due to redistricting.

Freel said he was the ideal candidate because he didn’t plan on running for re-election against an incumbent in the next election.

Bohm, an ambitious candidate earlier than Freel in her political career, had also promised not to run against an incumbent but said she would consider running to replace one if they stepped down in the future.

Diversity was also a key theme for the Republican Party in 2018 and 2020, though the strategy didn’t appear to help them win seats. Many GOP incumbents were ousted by the so-called “blue wave” in 2018 that brought Democratic voters to the polls in protest of President Donald Trump, and more were ousted in 2020.

The Delaware GOP is still trying to recruit diverse candidates, including from Latino and Haitian communities in Southern Delaware, according to chairwoman Jane Brady.

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