There’s a record number of women running for political posts this election cycle. Some are motivated by the federal political landscape, others by the Me Too movement.
Oregon is no different. But here, the surge of candidates is less about Donald Trump and a viral social movement. For the last decade, Democrats in this state have been building an infrastructure to ensure they have a deep bench of women, people of color and LGBTQ political candidates.
“True movement building takes time,” said Jillian Schoene with one of those groups, Emerge Oregon. “And we’ve been working to increase the number of elected woman in Oregon for almost 10 years.”
Nonprofits and political action committees that recruit candidates have created an infrastructure to ensure women and candidates of color are elected. These groups — like Emerge and Emily’s List and the Color PAC — help candidates set up their campaign. If they lose, they prepare them for the next cycle. If they win, the groups help the candidates use their position effectively.
And it’s working. For the first time in state history, women made up the majority of the House Democratic caucus in 2016. The Oregon House elected its most diverse freshman class two years ago. A people of color caucus formed for the first time in the state Legislature.
The caucus worked to ensure a historically accurate curriculum was mandatory in public schools. They tackled pay equity and paid family leave.
“It’s an easy argument to make that the last two years have been the most progressive in our history. I certainly attribute that to more women and more women of color in leadership positions,” Schoene said.
This wave of diversity has prompted debates about underrepresented groups that might otherwise not have happened. During an exchange on the House floor in 2017, Democratic Rep. Diego Hernandez stopped while pushing a bill to adopt statewide ethnic studies standards to answer a question from Republican Rep. David Brock Smith.
Smith asked why, if there are more women in the state of Oregon than men, women are defined as a social minority.
“We understand we currently live in a society where gender equality has not happened,” Hernandez said. “And understanding history, we understand most of the textbooks were not written by women.”
This election cycle, Democrats are hoping to hold on to their current seats and increase the gains they have made. Emerge is supporting 35 women on the ballot this year, 17 percent of whom are people of color.
The state still has a long time to go before it reaches equality. According to one recent study, people of color make up 22 percent of Oregon’s population but only held 6 percent of elected offices at the county level and higher.
Also, this evolution is politically lopsided.
There are only three female Republicans in the House and one person of color. There are only two women in the Senate Republican caucus and one is also the only woman of color.
House Republican Leader Mike McLane is actively working to counter the idea that the GOP is the party of the old white guy.
“Our party, the Republicans, have enjoyed a long diversity of thought but we haven’t always done a good job highlighting the diverse voices that exist within our party,” McLane said. “And we’ve tried to rectify that in our recruiting effort this year.”
This election cycle, House Republicans have more women and people of color running than in previous years.
But a look across the aisle reveals building a more diverse party can take years of work.