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Politics / POLITICS

Racial Diversity? Not in the Senate

During a mock swearing in ceremony conducted by Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Tim Scott, (R- S.C.) holds up his right hand while his mother, Francis Scott, looks on. (Chet Susslin)

photo of Elahe Izadi
January 4, 2013

Sure, the 113th Congress is one of the most diverse ever -- the record number of female senators, an influx of openly-gay lawmakers, and a House Democratic Caucus that is filled with up-and-coming minority members representing increasingly diverse districts.

But amid all the celebration, there’s still this inconvenient truth: The Senate is an almost all-white body.

At a time when more than one-third of Americans are nonwhite, just five senators are racial minorities. Digging deeper, there are now more Republican minorities in the Senate (South Carolina’s Tim Scott, Florida’s Marco Rubio, and Texas’s Ted Cruz) than Democrats (New Jersey’s Robert Menendez and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono).  The Democratic coalition relies heavily on overwhelming minority voters' support, but it doesn’t have many leading, prominent nonwhite messengers -- beyond President Obama -- to promote the party's  message.


All of this makes the looming battle for New Jersey's Senate seat a fascinating dilemma for the Democratic Party.  Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising African-American star, has declared his intention to run for the Senate, even though 88-year-old Sen. Frank Lautenberg hasn’t announced his future political plans – and sounds decidedly uninterested in stepping aside voluntarily.  Adding another twist to the equation, Rep. Frank Pallone, long seen as a prospective statewide candidate, is seriously considering running if Lautenberg retires, Roll Call reported.

Either way, Booker is on a collision course for a hotly contested primary against a white, establishment Democrat -- unless party leaders intervene to push Lautenberg aside and clear the field for Booker. Booker has high name identification and solid approval ratings, but he operates mostly outside the state’s political infrastructure, where county chairs and party lifers hold outsized influence. 

It’s a case of Man versus Machine – and the outcome will suggest how invested the national party is in ensuring that up-and-coming minority officeholders get support. Traditionally, party committees don’t get publicly involved in primary contests, but they often work behind the scenes to smooth the way for favored candidates. Democrats are heavily favored to hold the Senate seat in New Jersey, putting it down the list of priorities for new Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado.

But Democrats missed a chance to see their caucus’s diversity increase after Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii died last month. Inouye, the Japanese-American who had represented Hawaii in Washington ever since it became a state, had requested that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is also Asian-American, be appointed. But Gov. Neil Abercrombie chose his political ally Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who is white, to fill the seat and represent Hawaii, which is 25 percent white. State politics ruled the day.

Of course, race isn’t the end-all and be-all of what matters when it comes to legislating, let alone campaigning. It’s debatable how much Democrats need to focus on increasing the diversity of their Senate Caucus to attract the support of minority voters. Democrats aren't the party with the identity crisis.

But at a time when America’s racial diversity is increasing, it’s a wonder how one of its highest legislative chambers is only getting whiter, with the majority of its racial diversity represented by Republicans. And, just as in Hawaii, the outcome of a possible showdown between Lautenberg, Pallone, and Booker in New Jersey may hinge much more on the machinations of state politicians than the future demographic direction of the national Democratic Party.

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