Oklahoma fails to make gains electing women and people of color

Oklahoma Legislature dedicates portrait of the state's first female legislator, Bessie McColgin, in 1920. Pictured L-R: Congressman Frank Lucas, Senator Charles Ford, President of the Oklahoma State Senate Historical Preservation Fund, Inc., Artist Mike Wimmer, Octavia DeBerry, daughter of Bessie McColgin, Senate Republican Leader Glenn Coffee, Lisa Coffee, great granddaughter of Bessie McColgin.

Oklahoma Legislature dedicates portrait of the state’s first female legislator, Bessie McColgin, elected in 1920.

Last week’s election raised the number of female members of Congress to 100 for the first time in history, according to a post-election article in Vox. Women now make up 19 percent of the Representatives and Senators serving in Congress.

Even such modest progress is elusive in Oklahoma. Prior to this year’s elections, just 20 legislators – 4 of 48 Senators and 16 of 101 House members –  were women. This ranked Oklahoma 3rd last, behind only South Carolina and Louisiana, in female representation. But of the 28 newly-elected members of the Legislature, just two – Democratic House member Claudia Griffith and Republican Senator Stephanie Bice – are women. With the retirement of three sitting female legislators – Skye McNeill, Rebecca Hamilton and Connie Johnson – the number of female legislators will decline from 20 to 19.

With two female House Democrats – Kay Floyd and Anastasia Pittman – switching over to the Senate, there will be 6 women in the Senate in the upcoming 55th Legislature (3 Democrats and 3 Republicans) and 13 women in the House of Representatives (10 Republicans and 3 Democrats). Overall, women will make up just 12.8 percent of the Legislature. For the second time, however, a woman, Rep. Lee Denney, will hold the position of Speaker Pro-Tempore in the next legislature, while women will also serve as Republican Caucus Vice Chairman (Elise Hall) and Secretary (Katie Henke)

Women are better represented among Oklahoma’s statewide officeholders, with 3 of 11 positions (Governor Mary Fallin, Superintendent of Instruction Joy Hofmeister and Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy) now held by women. However, that’s one less than before the elections, as Corporation Commissioner Patrice Douglas was replaced by Todd Hiett. None of Oklahoma’s seven-member Congressional delegation is a woman.

For minorities, the picture is hardly brighter. Ervin Yen, a Taiwanese-born doctor, made history by becoming the first Asian-American member of the Legislature when he was elected to the Senate representing Oklahoma City. The new legislature will have five African-American members, down from six in 2014 due to the departure of former-Speaker T.W. Shannon. Meanwhile, there will continue to be just one Hispanic member, Rep. Charles Ortega, the first in state history. If the legislature reflected these groups’ share of the overall state population, there would be 11 African-American and 15 Hispanic legislators. Several Hispanic candidates ran strong campaigns, including Mary Sosa, who led the race to replace Rebecca Hamilton in the heavily-Hispanic HD 89 after the first ballot, but fell short in the runoff. There are currently no Muslim or Jewish members of the Legislature.

Native Americans represent the one notable exception to the under-representation of Oklahoma’s minorities. In 2013, the  bipartisan House Native American caucus included 26 members, up from 19 in the previous legislature (There are no reliable numbers on Native American members of the Senate).  In addition, the only two Native American members of Congress are from Oklahoma – Tom Cole and MarkWayne Mullin.

The next two election cycles, 2016 and 2018, will see a large number of current legislators reach their 12-year term limit, creating many new open seats. This will give both parties plenty of opportunities to recruit and support women and minorities in winnable districts, and to improve Oklahoma’s dismal performance in electing a Legislature that looks even remotely like the population it represents. We hope both parties will take seriously the importance of recruiting legislators who can represent the diverse experience of Oklahomans.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Blatt helped found OK Policy in 2008 and became the organization's Executive Director in 2010. David previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers. He lives in Tulsa with his wife, Patty Hipsher, a special education teacher in Broken Arrow, and their son, Noah.

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