Congress soon will be more diverse. The Missouri and Kansas legislatures? Not so much

Sharice Davids wins Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District

Sharice Davids defeated four-term incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder to capture Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.
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Sharice Davids defeated four-term incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder to capture Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

A record number of women will head to Congress in 2019. In Florida and Georgia, two emerging Democratic stars were within striking distance of becoming the nation’s first African-American governors. Other non-traditional candidates prevailed in races throughout the country.

This week’s midterm elections provided hopeful signs that the nation is inching closer to a government that truly represents its citizens.

Congress will look more like America, and that’s good news. But closer to home, there’s a lot more work to do — notably in Kansas and Missouri, where white men still dominate in politics.

The number of minority legislators won’t change substantially in either state as a result of these midterms. Women and other non-traditional politicians made only modest gains in Kansas and Missouri.

While Kansas elected a woman governor and will send a Native American woman to Congress, the lack of diversity in the Kansas and Missouri legislatures remains an issue and should be a wake-up call for leaders of both political parties. As they look ahead to the next election cycle, they should make recruiting and preparing a new generation of political leaders from varied backgrounds a priority.

“Politics are a lot like business,” said Kenya Cox, executive director for Kansas African American Affairs Commission. “When we start engaging conversations with uncommon voices like African-American or Latina women, we come out with a better product.”

Women and people of color are beginning to change the landscape of American politics. But a 2017 study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that despite being less than one-third of the population, white men still hold a majority of elected positions.

That is certainly true in Kansas and Missouri.

In Kansas, 47 of 165 legislators, or 28.5 percent, are women, according to the Center for Women in Politics. Four are black and one identified as mixed race.

On the Missouri side, 45 of 197, or 22.8 percent, of state lawmakers are women. Six are black.

The reality is that both Kansas and Missouri are conservative states. Neither has ever had a person of color serving in a statewide elective executive role. And the political parties’ benches in both states look awfully thin when it comes to diverse young leaders who eventually could make bids for higher office.

“I do not think we are apt to see a serious statewide race in Missouri by an African-American anytime soon,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “I would, of course, be delighted to be proven wrong.”

A culture of racism, a large white population and an aging population, along with a slowly declining percentage of young people would create challenges for any black gubernatorial candidate, said Garrett Griffin, author of “Racism in Kansas City: A Short History.”

While progress has been slow in both states, there were some glimmers of hope in Kansas this week. Voters elected Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz, the first openly LGBTQ members of the Kansas House of Representatives. And Davids will be one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress and the first openly LGBTQ person to represent Kansas.

“It’s hard to say if this is a trend,” said Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “LGBT candidates have run for the Kansas Legislature in the past and weren’t successful. But it is remarkable that neither (Woodard, Ruiz or Davids) had significant prior political experience.”

To build on these victories and to continue to improve diversity in both statehouses, political officials in Kansas and Missouri must tackle the barriers that too often leave women, minorities and non-traditional candidates on the sidelines, including access to funding and support from the party. Voter suppression and gerrymandering are issues as well.

A lack of diversity at the state level has stifled both states when it comes to new ideas and different perspectives. And unless Kansas and Missouri political officials begin the work now of cultivating a wide range of women, minority and non-traditional candidates, the needle won’t budge much in 2020.