When it comes to diversity, California is on a different plane. It's a state where minorities compose the majority, where women like Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris are national leaders, and where the mayor of its biggest city speaks Spanish and touts his Mexican heritage.
Yet new data from the nonprofit Reflective Democracy Campaign finds that California and Los Angeles have a long way to go in ensuring that elected officials reflect the diverse demographics of the Golden State.
Though only 19 percent of the state's population is composed of white men, 55 percent of its elected leaders, down to the county level, are white men, according to the campaign. Women of color in the Golden State are the least represented, the data shows: While 31 percent of the state's population is composed of minority women, they occupy only 8 percent of elected seats. Minority men compose 30 percent of the population but have about 16 percent of public offices.
White women are slightly overrepresented in elected offices: While their population fraction is 20 percent, they have 22 percent of elected positions, the campaign found. Women as a whole, however, including whites and minorities, hold just 30 percent of elected offices in California.
In Greater Los Angeles, which includes Orange County as well as the city offices in the region, people of color compose nearly 70 percent of the population but hold 44 percent of public seats. The 15-member Los Angeles City Council, where white men compose the largest demographic, has only two women on board, Nury Martinez and Monica Rodriguez. Conversely, the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors enjoys a woman majority and includes two people of color.
“In L.A. in the city, women are not faring well at all,” says Brenda Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. “A lot of people who would identify as liberal and progressive feel generally that things are getting better. That's why this data is so valuable. When you dig into it, you see how far we have to go.”
Nationally white men compose 31 percent of the population but hold 65 percent of elected offices, the data shows. The numbers were culled from a 2016 snapshot of 40,000 elected officials from the federal to the county level across America. In total, 90 percent of elected officeholders in the United States are white, the campaign found.
Fair representation is crucial to democracy, Carter says, because informed decisions need to be made by folks who know and reflect their communities. What's more, she says, if citizens don't feel represented, they'll abandon a system of laws that isn't necessarily fair to all.
“The reason it's so important is that to be a member of a different demographic group in the United States generally means having a different life experience,” she says. “Not 100 percent different. But what it means to be an African-American man or a white woman means you experience the world differently, and that has relevance to decision-making and politics.
“When a population's life experience is excluded, you get to where we are now,” she adds, alluding to the election of President Donald Trump. “We get in trouble. We can't expect the American people to have faith in a system they don't have a stake in. That's when the system breaks down.”
She says, in fact, that Democracy is failing in America. Though gerrymandering has had its effect on carving out seats of power for white men, Carter says the Democratic Party is as much to blame as any institution. “In general, the No. 1 cause we can look at is who's choosing who's getting on the ballot,” she says.
“Political gatekeepers, parties, major donors,” Carter says. “Who has the resources to win?”
Judith Warner, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, answered that question: “We've been hearing a lot about the decline of white men in America,” she said in a statement. “Yet, as the Reflective Democracy Campaign's data show, white men are alive and well in American politics. In fact, their power is way out of proportion to their presence in our population. When you factor in the levels of office they occupy, white men hold four times the political power of women and people of color. Does that sound like disempowerment to you?”