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Just 116 Of The 7,400 State Legislators In The U.S. Come From Working-Class Backgrounds

That's At The Root Of Very Big Problems— Class War

Lee Carter is no longer in the Virginia House of Delegates, nor any other elected office. That’s a shame because he was a union electrician, a Marine veteran and an avowed and proud socialist who defeated GOP whip Jackson Miller (by a stunning 9 points). He had no support from the Democratic Party (of course) against the deep-pocketed Republican and the state’s Democratic establishment was as shocked— and concerned— as the Republicans were when he won. He had a stellar record in the legislature— introducing and passing, for example, a bill that capped the monthly co-pay for insulin at $30. He was best known as the legislature’s most outspoken and persistent advocate for workers’ rights, fighting to overturn Virginia’s anti-union right-to-work laws. Although he was co-chair of Bernie’s Virginia presidential campaign, the state Democratic establishment never warmed to him and his progressive populism. I always had the feeling that Virginia’s Democratic establishment resented Carter because he was against the state’s biggest electric utility monopoly, cash-rich Dominion, which funds both political parties. Carter was the first legislator who popped into my mind when I saw Robbie Sequeira essay yesterday, Working-class people rarely have a seat ‘at the legislative table’ in state capitols.

Sequeira wrote that “Just 116 of the nearly 7,400 state legislators in the United States come from working-class backgrounds, according to a biennial study conducted by Nicholas Carnes and Eric Hansen, political scientists at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago, respectively. The researchers define legislators as “working class” if they currently or last worked in manual labor, service industry, clerical or labor union jobs. They found that 1.6% of state lawmakers meet that definition, compared with 50% of U.S. workers. Only about 2% of Democrats and 1% of Republicans qualified as working class... The dearth of working-class legislators raises concerns that economic challenges such as wage stagnation and the rising cost of living will get short shrift in state capitols.”

“Working-class politicians,” he wrote, “are more likely to have personally experienced economic hardship, so they are more interested in policies to mitigate it, Carnes said. And they often propose solutions that differ from those put forward by colleagues who aren’t working class, even if it means diverging from party doctrine. ‘State legislatures make consequential decisions, and if you have an entire economic class of people that are not in the room when policy decisions are being made, that’s going to tilt the kind of problems politicians pay attention to,’ said Carnes. ‘It also dictates the kinds of solutions they consider against the interests of whoever’s out of the room.’ Working-class representation in state legislatures has always been low, he noted, but the most recent count is even lower than it was two years ago, when the percentage was about 1.8%.”

Ironically, it’s a red state that has the highest percentage of working-class lawmakers, Alaska— but that's still only 5% and just 3 members of the legislature. New Hampshire has the highest total number of working-class legislators, but they have an immense legislature, biggest in the country— 420 members, and just 8 are working class.

For working-class Americans, financial and societal barriers are a major disincentive to pursuing state offices, said Amanda Litman, co-founder and co-executive director of Run for Something, a progressive organization that recruits candidates for down-ballot races.
A 2021 national survey by Tufts University found that local candidates who experienced poverty in their youth felt especially constrained.
“Structurally, it’s really hard for people who aren’t already rich, or already independently wealthy, have rich partners or rich families to enter politics,” Litman said. “And the gatekeepers at the state level have typically recruited candidates who were safe bets, which is a candidate who can independently raise money.”
The eligibility criteria for statewide office vary greatly by state. Only five states— Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine and Minnesota— allow public financing options for candidates vying for state legislative seats.
…Some states have worked to raise legislative pay, which could entice more working-class people to take a shot at elective office.
Earlier this year, Kansas raised salaries for rank-and-file lawmakers from about $29,000 to $57,000 after some said the lower pay wasn’t enough to live on. Arizona, Kentucky, New Jersey and Vermont are among the states with measures this session that could increase lawmakers’ pay.
New York passed legislation in 2022 that made its lawmakers the highest paid in the country. Pennsylvania has cost-of-living adjustments.

Mark Gamba, who represents a district south of Portland that includes Milwaukie and Oak Grove (and Reed College), is one of the most progressive members of the Oregon legislature. “As 1 of 3 renters in the entire Oregon legislature,” he explained yesterday, “I can tell you that it is virtually impossible to live on what we are paid— $33,000 a year. This eliminates people who are not either independently wealthy, married to someone who makes a good living or retired. That leaves out the majority of the population from being able to consider elected office. The pretense is that this is a part time, citizen legislature. Neither of those turn out to actually be true. No one with a working class job can take six months off for a legislative session.” 

Whatever the exact number is can vary depending on the definition and methodology but the broader point remains that individuals from working-class backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in elected office at both the state and federal levels. It seems like every other member is an attorney and most of the others— on the federal level— are rich businessmen. This underrepresentation has profound implications for policymaking and governance, as legislators from working-class backgrounds bring different perspectives, priorities and lived experiences to the table, usually very different from rich people. Their absence from positions of power contributes to a lack of diverse voices in decision-making processes and perpetuates inequalities in policy outcomes. There’s a need to address structural barriers to political participation, such as the high cost of running for office and limited access to political networks and resources. Additionally, systemic inequalities, including disparities in education, employment opportunities and access to political power, can further marginalize individuals from working-class backgrounds and hinder their ability to pursue careers in politics. Dealing with this leads to taking seriously reforms to campaign finance laws and candidate recruitment pipelines. It’s important for an inclusive and representative democracy to include more members of the working class.

Early this morning, Marisol Rubio, the Blue America-endorsed progressive candidate for the open state Senate seat in the East Bay, noted that “The working class is being forced to work two jobs to barely make ends meet. This is especially true among Black and Latina women who are the lowest paid workers compared to white, non-Hispanic men for the same job. According to the Urban Institute (2021), ‘Even among those with a bachelor’s degree, the median income of men who are heads of household is currently more than $25,000 above women who are heads of household.’ Equity and social justice begins by making sure that one full-time job is enough to pay for one’s rent, transportation, and basic needs. The minimum wage must be a living wage.” The conservative Democrat opposing her, state Rep Tim Grayson has been hostile to the interests of working families during his time in the legislature. He’s been consistently singled out as one of  the worst Democrats in Sacramento, a member of the Hall of Shame.

Jessica Anderson is running for the Virginia House of Delegates (in the Williamsburg area) with a strong Blue America endorsement. She read the same story by Sequeira and told us that “We’re learning more and more every day that working class Americans not only deserve, but they need to have a seat at the legislating table. As I read Representative Kaela Berg’s bio in particular, her journey from working class single mom to state legislator in Minnesota resonated deeply with my own story. I myself am a wife and mom, who currently works part time for a local elementary school and has spent most of my adult life living paycheck to paycheck, and I have to make a lot of sacrifices in time and money to run for office in my district. People like us represent a majority of American citizens, yet of the 73% working class citizens, they only make up .63% of our state government. Point 63 percent! As I knocked on over 6,000 doors and had real life conversations with fellow working class and retiree voters last year, running for state Delegate, I discovered something. Most of these individuals could relate to my story and they were impressed that I could  speak to issues that resonated with them and could offer solutions, because I lived them. The 'seat at the table' should NOT be something you can only attain if you are a member of the wealthy class.

“Another statement from Representative Berg that also resonated with me was that she struggled through this process, in spite of her success, and experienced imposter syndrome. The working class, particularly women, have been made to believe we are not ‘qualified’ for certain roles, particularly in government, despite us being directly impacted by the laws they create. Fun fact, there was another medical diagnosis from 1890s called ‘bicycle face,’ and like imposter syndrome it was nothing more than a man-made medical term to hold women back from progress. Women discovered bicycles gave them freedom of movement, without requiring a man, and changed the way they dressed, discarding dresses and turning to pants or bloomers. In response, the male dominated medical industry said bicycles would cause women to have bulging eyes, clenched jaws and reddened faces to scare them away from taking control of our lives, via a bike. Imposter syndrome is just another attempt to convince us we do not have what it takes to sit in these spaces and deny us the opportunity to be a part of the solution. I am grateful for Representative Berg, as well as Representative Nate Roberts of Idaho for stepping outside of their comfort zone, doing the work and paving the way for people like so many others and myself. As the government continues to prove how out of touch they are with their constituents, ensure you are seeking out members of your community who truly represent you and your best interests, and who knows, that person might even be YOU!”

Randy Bryce, a union iron worker in Wisconsin, scared Paul Ryan out of Congress. Last night he told us that “We need more working people in office throughout the entire country. Those who have felt pain as a result of horrible policies enacted by too many who have never seen, or understood what we do to keep the country moving. Those who live paycheck to paycheck and have to make tough decisions such as whether to pay the electric bill or take junior to get a cavity filled. Today Congress is made up of more than 50% lawyers and too many millionaires to count. They use the stock market to judge how well the US is doing. Newsflash— most of us working people can’t afford to buy stocks— we’re using “Kohls cash” to buy underwear. After my run for Congress we started up IronPAC. It’s used to help keep people up to speed on current issues that affect us as well as get some donations to people who will help make a difference. Mentoring and giving advice are also something that we do. It’s not just federal races that we need to win but state races as well. Each one affects the other. Each one needs more of us to grab the steering wheel and get this ship turned around. Who knows better what we need than one of us? Please find someone near you who has put in the work and help get them elected. Feel free to reach out if you know of a good working person who could use a boost!”

7 commentaires

Oh, and where is the diversity of party affiliation? Zero representation in the Virginia house for anyone who's not a Democrat or Republican?


"if you have an entire economic class of people that are not in the room when policy decisions are being made, that’s going to tilt the kind of problems politicians pay attention to" Well yeah, but only progressives see diversity as a positive. The national conversation is one that pits diversity vs excellence, as if excellence as a workforce is less likely the more diverse that workforce is. And diversity as a source of excellence is something that became a talking point among progressives within my life time. Before that, the value of diversity was not to the current workforce, but to inspire others: "I saw someone who looked like me in a position of power! It made me feel powerful…


19 mars

1.5% is far higher than I would have predicted.

And it's just as the money has designed it. Impossible for commoners to get there and impossible for them to live on the shit wages for being there.

For a little perspective, minimum wage where I live is, most places, about $16/hour. That's $33, 280 (gross) per year (assuming someone works a full year's worth of hours). And THAT is impossible to live on unless your household has multiple of those earners. Subtract $6K for that mandatory shit health insurance. And if you have a kid, subtract about that same amount, minimum, for child care. Better hope your car never breaks down EVER! And pray you and your kid neve…

21 mars
En réponse à

$25 minimum wage, health CARE for all, the wealthy and their wealth taxed, Glass-Steagall enforced, women's rights codified AND ENFORCED nationally, LGBTQ rights codified AND ENFORCED nationally, voting rights codified and enforced nationally, the constitution enforced (special emphasis on the 1st, 14th and 25th), sensible gun control, Trump and about 100 coconspirators in prison, at least 4 nazi supremes impeached for corruption and perjury, stop all support for israel until they stop their gaza cleanse, resume support for Ukraine, remove big money from campaigns, wrt speech -- corporations are NOT people... just to start with.

But the prerequisite for any ONE of these is flushing the hapless worthless feckless lying CORRUPT neoliberal fascist pussy democrap party and replace it with…

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