Number of women, Hispanics lag in Tallahassee
By Gray Rohrer
TALLAHASSEE — When Gwen Margolis was first elected to the Legislature in 1974, women were still a curiosity in the Capitol.
"Just to participate in everyday business life was just so new, nobody knew what to expect," Margolis said.
Women were generally given seats on child welfare, education and health care committees back then, Margolis said, but she pushed for a spot on budget panels, helping propel her to become the first female Senate president in 1990. There has been just one woman Senate president since.
Today, women and Hispanics remain severely underrepresented in the Legislature compared with their makeup in the general population, an Orlando Sentinel analysis of 50 years of state records shows.
Women make up just over 25 percent of the Legislature but are 51 percent of the state population. Hispanics are 14 percent of the Legislature and 24 percent of the population.
Blacks have more seats at the table – 17 percent of lawmakers are black, which is on par with the state population – but all but one are Democrats, which undercuts their power in the Republican-controlled Capitol.
Experts say that means issues key to all three groups often go unaddressed.
"You can't expect to get good policy when you're not including all the voices and all the talent that our country has to offer," said Erin Loos Cutraro, CEO of She Should Run, a national nonpartisan group encouraging more women to seek office.
Decades of change
In November 1966, the first midterm elections since the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed, Florida voters elected 161 white men to represent them in a Legislature with 168 seats.
Fifty years later, with a two-term black president and a woman leading the Democratic presidential nomination, more than half of the Legislature is still made up of white men — 83 out of 160 seats.
Starting with the feminist movement in the 1970s, the number of women in legislative bodies grew exponentially for a few decades. But in recent years in Florida and across the country, that growth has slowed to a crawl.
In Florida, the number of female legislators tripled between 1970 and 1976, and doubled again by 1996, when there were 37. Twenty years later, there are 41 women in the Legislature, slightly more than 25 percent of both chambers. Women make up about 51 percent of Florida's population, Census Bureau records show.
Lawmakers and academics place the blame in part on term limits and a reluctance of many women to enter public life.
Proponents of term limits argued they would provide more chances for women to get elected. But instead they have forced out veteran female lawmakers, and gains for women have leveled off.
"One of the big arguments in favor of term limits was that it would increase the number of women and the number of minorities who would serve in state legislatures. It turns out ... it's made almost no difference at all," said Karl Kurtz, a former director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which issued a report on the demographics of state houses in December.
Leaders of both major parties said women often need to be asked several times before deciding to run for office.
"I tell young girls all the time – men don't think twice about it, and we need to stop thinking twice about it," said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. She was first elected to the Legislature in 2004.
Social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage have divided women within the parties, making consensus on other issues such as equal pay harder to achieve, said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.
"Our politics, even as they relate to women, are so polarized; it's so disheartening," Cruz said.
Flores said having more women in the Legislature brings a broader range of experiences to problem solving in state government.
"Women simply bring a different perspective to things," Flores said. "Even on issues where we disagree, we find common ground in the way we converse on issues."
Both major parties have launched efforts to get more women into politics.
Ruth's List, a Democratic organization in Florida, started such efforts in 2009. Cruz, who is in charge of Democratic election efforts for the House, said she'll have a slate with several female candidates for the election this year.
Republicans have their own national group, Maggie's List, to help elect conservative women. Flores touted the efforts of non-partisan groups such as She Should Run and Political Parity, which are aimed at getting more women into public life.
The key Flores said, was to build a strong "bench" by electing women to local government offices first.
"I'm very hopeful that a generation from now we won't have the same issue," Flores said.
Regardless of party, more barriers await women who make it to the Capitol. Though women have been named to more leadership positions recently, Toni Jennings, a Republican from Orlando, is the only other woman selected to be Senate President. Every Florida House speaker has been male.
The Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows refugees from Cuba to become permanent residents after staying in the U.S. for one year, took effect the week before Florida voters headed to the polls in November 1966.
The law helped a steady stream of immigrants braving the 90-mile gap between Cuba and Key West to build a political base in Miami-Dade County.
But as late as 1980, there still were no Hispanics in the Legislature. Today there are 23 Hispanic lawmakers, or about 14 percent of the Legislature, even though Hispanics are 24 percent of the state's population, according to Census estimates.
The new members have brought the issues of immigration and awareness of the refugee's experience with the Castro regime to the Capitol. Because most Cubans were Republicans, their increasing numbers helped the GOP wrest control of the Legislature from Democrats in the 1990s.
Most of the recent growth of Hispanic seats in the Legislature, however, has come from Central Florida, where a large influx of Puerto Ricans is changing the political landscape.
"It's critical that we have leadership in the Hispanic community during some of the debates in the Legislature," said Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, who is Puerto Rican.
Soto cited legislation in recent years that has made standardized tests available in Spanish and that allows children brought to Florida by their parents illegally to pay lower in-state tuition rates.
Increasing the number of Hispanics, but in particular Hispanic women, is a priority of both parties as well.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, now a GOP member of Congress, became the first Hispanic woman in the Legislature in 1982. In the 34 years since, the highest number of Hispanic women in the Legislature at any one time has been three – the same number today.
Soto and Flores said building a cadre of elected officials at the local level is essential to having a pipeline of Hispanic women to send to the Capitol.
"It's going to take a while for us to get a bigger seat at the table," Soto said.
Blacks lack clout
Arthenia Joyner was arrested for trying to desegregate a Tallahassee movie theater in 1963. Five years later, she was an aide to Rep. Joe Lang Kershaw, the first African-American elected to the Florida House since Reconstruction.
"We were the only two black people in the Capitol that weren't servants," Joyner said.
Today, Joyner is the Senate Democratic Leader, and there are 27 black lawmakers in the Legislature — about 17 percent — which is on par with the African-American percentage of Florida residents.
But that parity counts for little in terms of political power because nearly all black lawmakers are Democrats, and they are outnumbered almost 2 to 1 by Republicans in both chambers. So the black caucus' priorities are often marginalized.
A push in 2013 by the caucus for changes to Florida's Stand Your Ground law was rejected. This year, a bill by Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, to require state law enforcement to investigate incidents of violence involving police was never heard.
"As long as it is an African-American rather than an American problem, we don't make the kind of progress we need," Thompson said.
The parity is part of the paradox of the Obama era. The election of the country's first black president, hailed as evidence of a "post-racial" America by some, has yielded regular incidents of racial strife, many because of police violence.
The shootings of unarmed young black males such as Trayvon Martin in Sanford in 2012 have stirred frustration by African-Americans, voiced by groups such as Black Lives Matter.
Although federal investigations into some shootings have followed, and alternative policing methods and body cameras have been discussed in some cities, no substantial bills have passed in Florida.
The frustrations of African-American lawmakers despite their parity in numbers suggests those fighting for women's and Hispanic issues have much further to go as well, even if their numbers eventually catch up to the population at large.
Joyner said she is used to long battles.
"Our causes don't get advanced on as rapidly as we would like ... but you just have to keep fighting," Joyner said.