In recent years, Ohio lawmakers have made it more difficult for women to get an abortion, cut funding to public transit projects, killed off bills calling for an end to capital punishment and tried to mandate drug testing for welfare recipients.
What these bills had in common is their fate was decided by a group that is predominately white, male, well-educated and solidly middle to upper class — folks who generally don’t get abortions, don’t rely on city buses, rarely see relatives go to prison and do not rely on public assistance to pay their bills.
Minorities and women are under represented in the 7,383 legislative seats across the United States, as well as in Ohio, although the state legislature is close to the racial makeup of the state when it comes to African-American representation.
African-Americans hold 11 percent of the Ohio legislative seats, while 12.2 percent of the state’s population is black. Nationwide, blacks make up 13 percent of the population but hold 9 percent of the legislative seats, according to a study released this month by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Latinos make up 17 percent of the U.S. population and 3.4 percent of Ohio, yet they hold 5 percent of legislative seats across the country and 2 percent in Ohio.
The biggest imbalance in representation is between men and women. While women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, they hold just one in four state legislative seats in Ohio, and have a similar percentage across the country.
That lack of diversity impacts what issues get traction, which ones get ignored and what viewpoints are considered, experts say.
“They bring a different life experience. It doesn’t mean that people who fit that category can’t have a sensitivity but many of them don’t have a sensitivity, depending on their backgrounds,” said former Democratic state senator Nina Turner of Cleveland. Turner, who is African-American, grew up the oldest of seven children in a family that relied on welfare as well as her paychecks she earned as a teen working fast food and retail jobs.
“If women and women of color in particular cannot penetrate the halls of power so that they can bring a different voice to the policy-making table, then public policy will never change,” Turner said. “I think both political parties have an obligation to make sure, all things being equal, that they are pushing for and giving the support to women in those spaces so that they can be elected to office. It should be a mission for both parties.”
“With someone not in the room, a group not in the room representing different genders, sexual orientations, races – it’s a bunch of people guessing what that must be like,” said state Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, one of just three Latinos to ever serve in the Ohio General Assembly.
Before his election to the Ohio House, Ramos worked as a legislative staffer and remembers sitting on the sidelines as lawmakers discussed an English-only bill. “I wish I could have said something and I couldn’t. It wasn’t my place to correct members during a caucus. But it was my sense that ‘You have no idea.’”
Number of female Ohio lawmakers has increased
The number of women in the Ohio General Assembly made steady increases between 1975 and 1994 but the number has fluctuated between 21 and 33, according to data kept by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. This year marks a high water mark with 33 women lawmakers.
State Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Clearcreek Twp., is one of just three Republican women and seven females in the 33-member Ohio Senate. Jones said having women in positions of influence is crucial.
“It just stands to reason that when you have people with different experiences at the decision-making table you’re going to have decisions that are more reflective of the population that we serve,” she said.
The NCSL study found that women in state legislatures increased sixfold over 1971 and women tend to win elections just as often as men but they’re less likely to run. Jones said often women aren’t encouraged to run for political office. And mothers of young children face a double standard — people question if they have the time and energy to hold political office but they wouldn’t raise that same question for a father of young children, Jones noted.
Kira Sanbonmatsu, senior scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University and author of “More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislatures,” agrees with Jones.
National surveys of state lawmakers in 1981 and 2008 both showed that women are more likely than men to take into account their children’s ages when weighing whether to run for office. She noted that while the division of household labor and society’s expectations have shifted, there is still an imbalance that places a greater load on women.
The number of women in statehouses hasn’t grown significantly in the past decade. “So it’s not inevitable that women are going to make gains.”
Sonbonmatsu said keys to putting more women into state legislatures is encouragement and recruitment by supporters, donors and political parties — particularly within the GOP. Just 17 percent of Republican state lawmakers are women while 34 percent of Democratic legislators are women, she said.
“We would argue that government that looks like the people is going to be more reflective of the people than a government that doesn’t look like the people,” Sonbonmatsu said.
House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, recruits Democrats to run for legislative seats and said it is surprising how often high-quality female candidates will take themselves out of consideration because they face too many other demands on their time. “Women seem to have so many more pressures and responsibilities — or at least that’s the expectation of society,” he said. “The expectation is that the woman is going to do more of the lift.”
Strahorn said he would still like to recruit more women to run and serve with them in the Ohio Statehouse.
“They see things differently, not better, just differently. It helps you problem solve better,” he said.