The Pennsylvania General Assembly, one of the largest full–time legislatures in the nation, struggles to achieve diversity in both the state House and Senate, according to Census data and the views of several local political observers.
There are 203 state representatives — 19 are minority. There are 50 state senators, and four — Art Haywood, Vincent Hughes, Shirley Kitchen and Anthony Williams — are African American.
Pennsylvania’s population is 10.5 percent African American, according to the U.S. Census. However, Blacks make up 8 percent of the Senate in Harrisburg and 9.3 percent of the House lawmakers.
Even more stark is the district breakdown. Of the 19 minority members in the House, 14 are members of the Philadelphia delegation. The remaining five represent areas with considerable minority populations: Margo Davidson (Delaware County), Ed Gainey (Allegheny County), Thaddeus Kirkland (Delaware County), Henry Lewis Jr. (Chester County) and Jake Wheatley Jr. (Allegheny County). Subtract the Philadelphia delegation and the state House is 2.4 percent Black.
All of the state senators represent districts that include portions of Philadelphia. Subtract them and the state Senate is 100 percent white.
“Those are dismal numbers and if we are going to change those dismal numbers we are going to need to create broad–based candidates, like a Seth Williams, like a Corey Booker,” Jay McCalla, a deputy managing director under two former mayors, John Street and Ed Rendell, said in reference to Philadelphia’s district attorney and the U.S. senator from New Jersey, respectively.
“They need to do the Barack Obama thing — put together the Black votes, establish a white core and create a special ethnic appeal. That’s what they have to do if they want to expand beyond simply representing Black districts,” added McCalla, who is now an executive at WURD talk radio.
On one hand, it could be argued that the racial makeup of both chambers mirror that of the districts their respective lawmakers represent.
According to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures in conjunction with Pew Charitable Trusts, the number of African-American lawmakers at the state level jumped from 2 percent to 9 percent between 1971 and 2009 nationwide But since 2009, the advances of women and African Americans in legislatures have stalled.
This comes as the African-American population in the United States has risen from about 11 percent in the 1970s to about 13 percent now.
“The main challenge is getting legislators who commit to an agenda that helps low– and middle–income families get ahead, as opposed to just supporting a business agenda,” said Haywood, whose 4th Senatorial District comprises parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.
Message and agenda are equally important, Haywood said, noting the issue for him in the Senate is getting legislators, particularly from Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties that surround Philadelphia, to be fully committed to the agenda in their home districts and when they cast their votes in Harrisburg.
“We have individuals who say they are for these issues when they are in their home districts, but in Harrisburg, they don’t provide leadership when it matters,” Haywood said. “We need people who are focused on representing the people trying to stay in the middle class, or trying to get there. They feel the system is not producing solutions for them. I’d feel angry too.”
On the other hand, this is a problem that African-American voters and legislators have themselves created, McCalla argued.
“I think it’s poor organization on the part of African Americans at this point, regarding coalition building. There’s a concentration of Black elected officials in Philadelphia, because there’s a concentration of Black voters,” he said. “It’s not hard to see why North Philly, West Philly and Mt. Airy had African-American representation for decades. But in Pittsburgh, which has a smaller concentration of African-American voters, certainly there’s enough of an African-American population in Pittsburgh to support a state senator.
“It seems to me, that on one level, there might not be enough of an interest in elected office, just like it’s hard to recruit Black people for the police department here,” McCalla added. “Certain positions in certain times might not attract certain people. We have a high political class in Philadelphia, but that may have less appeal in other communities.”
Former state Rep. Tony Payton said the issue boils down to racism mixed with having the impetus to run.
“Part of the issue is that historically, we’ve had segregated communities and now when it comes to drawing legislative lines, communities of interest are drawn together,” said Payton, who represented the 179th House district from 2007 to 2012. “You will see in some areas they have had African-American representation for some time, but in other places, like Delaware County, African-American representation is new.
“It could be that not a lot of people of color [are] offerings themselves up in those areas,” Payton added. “I don’t know the reason for that and it would be hard to speculate, but it just seems there haven’t been a lot of Black people running. But diversity is an issue at–large in this country and we have to drive to be multicultural and more inclusive.”
Coalition building is the single most overlooked element of a campaign and its one minority politicians should consider, McCalla said.
“We’ve got to get better at coalition-building,” he said. “If we occupy 30 percent of a district, we should consolidate that, then get a little of the Italian vote, a little of the Catholic vote, a little bit of the Swedish vote and a little bit of the Asian vote; that’s coalition-building,” he said.
“That can be more difficult, because they will have to learn to speak different languages,” McCalla continued. “The Black politicians are well-versed in the issues that affect us, but then they would have to learn the issues concerning the immigrant community, and what challenges the Asian community faces.
“That’s the one thing limiting the African-American politician: if it isn’t concerning the Black community, we don’t try,” he said.