Minority representation in the Connecticut legislature is not keeping up with the state’s gender and racial makeup, according to a new study, which found the General Assembly has gotten less diverse over the past five years.
The National Conference of State Legislatures found the percentage of white lawmakers rose from 74% to 82% from 2015-2020. One-third of lawmakers are women, up slightly from 2015. According to Census estimates, Connecticut as a whole is 51% female and 66% of its population is non-Hispanic white.
Research has shown that racial diversity has an impact on what issues are brought to the forefront on behalf of communities of color.
“You want racial, gender and sexual orientation diversity. You want people who come from different economic backgrounds and jobs,” House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said, adding that he believes the 2020 Democratic candidate pool is “probably the most diverse slate” he’s seen since he was first elected in 2010 and will fill some of the diversity gaps if they win.
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, echoed that sentiment, saying that Senate Democrats are always “encouraging viable women and minority candidates to run.”
Looney said that diversity in Connecticut’s Senate adds to the quality of discussion of issues and leads to a more careful consideration of how certain issues affect varying communities.
“The faces of the Democratic Party reflect the diversity of the community, which is what we’re all about. The Republicans don’t share that or care about that that much, but we certainly do,” Looney said.
Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said Republicans have taken steps to increase diversity in the legislature too.
“We have six women and five racial minority candidates running this year,” he said. “I challenge that ridiculous, hogwash statement [that Republicans don’t care about diversity].”
Fasano also mentioned that the Republican Senate caucus has advocated for bills that benefit racial and gender minorities, referencing a coronavirus-related health equity bill that he said Democrats pushed back against during the 2020 special session because if “it was a Republican idea, they won’t do it.”
Deputy House Republican leader Rep. Vincent Candelora of North Branford elaborated that while state Republicans don’t look for candidates solely based on diversity, the party still finds representation necessary.
“Certainly we think it’s important to make sure we have as much diverse representation as we can. One of the things that we’re proud of as a caucus is making sure that we have the women and minorities in our caucus in leadership positions,” Candelora said, noting Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, the top House Republican on the influential judiciary committee.
There are more women serving in the Connecticut legislature today than there were in 2015, but House Republican leader Themis Klarides of Derby said the number actually declined after the last election. Of the four caucus leaders at the General Assembly, all are white and Klarides is the only woman.
“In the past several years, women representation has gone down,” she said. “The House Republicans have the highest percentage of women of any caucus in the legislature, which I’m proud of. But I don’t have an answer of why it’s gone down, and it’s gone down on the Democrat side, too.”
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said that selecting minority legislators to be in leadership positions was significant because of “the perspective they bring to the table.” He pointed to Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, who is the chair of the education committee.
“Having that perspective as the chair of education was very important to me,” Aresimowicz said. “We truly value the diversity and we rely on it within our caucus and our leadership team.”
Moreover, initiatives like the public financing Connecticut Citizens’ Election Program have brought more women and minorities into the legislature. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, told Hearst Connecticut Media earlier this year that he “did not come from money” and that the program “made it possible for me to run and serve the public — as one of them.”
Rep. Quentin Phipps, D-Middletown, said that there’s an opportunity to develop more training and leadership programs for communities of color, the LGBTQ+ community and others. He pointed to Emerge Connecticut, an organization that assists Democratic women interested in running for office as an example of such an effective program.
“If we wanted a more diverse legislative body, we’re going to have to invest in programs like what Emerge does for women,” Phipps said.