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The 2017 Minnesota Legislature: more ethnically diverse, but fewer women

An updated look at diversity in the Minnesota Legislature.

The Minnesota House saw a net gain of three women, but the Senate lost 7.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

When 200 newly elected or re-elected Minnesota legislators take their oaths of office in January, the legislature will look a little different than it did before.

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Specifically, there’ll be fewer women than there were previously, and more racial and ethnic minorities than there were — ever. But the Legislature is still not as diverse as the state as a whole.

Now that the election’s over, here’s an update on where women and minorities sit in the Minnesota legislature.

Fewer women

This wasn’t a great election for women in the Minnesota statehouse. Come January, their ranks will have shrunk by four, from 68 to 64.

The first women legislators in Minnesota — two lawyers, a flapper activist, and a teacher — took office in 1923, not long after the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote in every U.S. state. Following that breakthrough, the number of women legislators stayed relatively stagnant until the 1970s, when ranks began to increase steadily. Since 2007, there had been 68 or more women in the legislature each session, until this election took place.

Women in the Minnesota Legislature
In January, 64 women will be sworn into the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate. That's fewer than the 68 female legislators serving in 2015-16.
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, Minnesota Secretary of State

A net gain of three women in the House won’t be enough to offset the loss of seven in the Senate.

The 2016 election wasn’t a time of great gains for women in state legislators in the rest of the U.S., generally, either.

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University is closely watching how statehouse races across the U.S. shake out for women legislators following the election.

There are still many races that are too close to call, but it looks as though women’s share of state legislative seats nationwide will stay around 25 percent, where it’s been for several years, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics.

“We were hopeful there’d be more of a bright spot,” Sinzdak said.”It’s always important to have diverse representation in our governing bodies. You need women’s voices at the table when these important policy decisions are being made.”

Minorities in the legislature

There was a bright spot — or at least some progress — elsewhere. As the number of women legislators has risen slowly since the ‘70s, so too has the number of lawmakers who are people of color. The 16 self-identified members of  racial or ethnic minorities who will take office in 2017 represent the largest share ever.

Minorities in the Legislature
With 16 members who identify as racial or ethnic minorities, the 2017 Minnesota Legislature will have more people of color than ever before.
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, DFL, House Republican Caucus, Senate Republican Caucus

This month, Minnesotans elected more Native American state lawmakers to a session of the Legislature than ever before. Come January, there will be four — all members of the House — including incumbents Reps. Susan Allen and Peggy Flanagan, plus newcomers Jamie Becker-Finn and Mary Kunesh-Podein.

Five incumbent Hispanic or Latino American lawmakers were re-elected, including Sens. Melisa Franzen and Patricia Torres Ray and Reps. Jon Koznick, Eric Lucero and Carlos Mariani.

Next year, Minnesota will have more sitting black legislators than in any previous year, with the election to the House of Representatives of Erin Maye Quade and Ilhan Omar, who is the first Somali American state legislator in the U.S. Sens. Bobby Jo Champion and Jeff Hayden and Rep. Rena Moran, were re-elected.

The number of Asian American legislators also increased, with the re-election of Sen. Foung Hawj, and the addition of a new legislator, Fue Lee, to the House. Both are Hmong American.

Still, these gains aren’t enough to mirror Minnesota’s diversity: 8 percent of legislative seats will be held by minorities, while people of color make up about 19 percent of Minnesota’s population.

Diversity in the Legislature vs. the state of Minnesota
When legislators are sworn in for the 2017 legislative session, the statehouse will be more diverse than ever before, but still less diverse than the state as a whole.
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, DFL, House Republican Caucus, Senate Republican Caucus

Minnesota isn’t the only state where the legislature isn’t as diverse as the population. We don’t have numbers updated post-election, but as of earlier this year, just 14 percent of state legislators nationwide were self-identified minorities, according to the New American Leaders Project, compared to about 38 percent of the U.S. population.

In September, Sayu Bhojwani, the founder and president of the New American Leaders Project, told MinnPost that minorities and immigrants running for legislatures have to overcome barriers not faced by other candidates.

“The people who tend to get approached by parties … tend to be people who are not first-generation political participants,” she said. “I’m not sure I’d say the parties are opposed to diversity … but like any other institution, they continue to cultivate their own.”

Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect representative-elect Erin Maye Quade’s racial identification.