While votes are still being counted, it appears that the next legislature will include the most women and LGBTQ members of all time. Advocacy groups are already celebrating, but how much difference will diversity make in politics?
Ahead of Election Day, advocacy groups were predicting — or at least hoping — that California voters would elect a record number of women and LGBTQ people to the legislature.
Based on the results so far, it appears that history will be made – and that the State Assembly and Senate will look more like California than ever.
With eight open LGBTQ candidates, including four potential new lawmakers, plus four bridges, the legislature is on track to have at least 10% LGBTQ representation for the first time ever, according to Equality California. In that case, California would be the first state to achieve proportional LGBTQ+ representation in its legislature — and the number could reach as many as 14 of the 120 state legislature.
And the number of women lawmakers is heading for at least 43, a record, and even 52, according to Close the Gap California. In the last session, women held 39 seats out of 120 — down from a recent low of 26 seats in 2017.
The likely increase in diversity is due in part to new districts and vacancies that have created a window for new candidates.
In the June primary, an unprecedented 113 women ran for parliamentary seats, 38% of all candidates, and 80 made it through November. In unincumbent districts, 61% of female candidates walked out of the primary — nearly double the 33% success rate in 2020, according to Close the Gap, a political advocacy group working to empower Democratic women. Nine general elections on Nov. 8 pitted two women against each other, including Jasmeet Bains, a candidate for the Democratic state assembly in Bakersfield who would become the first South Asian woman in the legislature.
“The reality is that women win at running just as often as men,” said Susannah Delano, executive director of Close the Gap. “What we’re seeing now is more women running, that is, competing on the field, and being elected in equal numbers.”
A record number of LGBTQ+ candidates ran for office in California this year — 178, more than any other state, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. That was no coincidence, said Samuel Garrett-Pate, managing director of external affairs at Equality California, a political advocacy and civil rights group. It has spent the last two years recruiting and supporting LGBTQ+ candidates and pushing for new districts that would empower LGBTQ+ voters.
“Representation is power”
More women in the legislature will help shape policy priorities that Delano believes will include reproductive health care, equal pay and family economics issues. More than half of the projected new class will be women of color, and the vast majority will be Democrats.
“Representation is power,” Equality California executive director Tony Hoang said in a statement.
Garrett-Pate said the shift in legislation “will address any number of issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community.” In the past session, the LGBTQ caucus successfully pushed forward landmark legislation to make California a haven for transgender healthcare.
“There is a lot of work for us to achieve full equality. It’s not that easy to just pass civil rights protections,” Garrett-Pate said. “It’s hard work that takes a long time, but we know that we can make greater progress when there are more people in the room to help with these decisions.”
There would be a large number of firsts in the new representation.
Among the leaders in their races is the Palm Springs City Councilman Christy Holstein, a Democrat who would become the first bisexual woman elected to the Legislature, representing Assembly District 47.
There’s also Democrat Corey Jackson, on the verge of becoming the first black LGBTQ+ person elected to lead the Assembly District 60 race. As a member of the Riverside County Board of Education and founder of a nonprofit focused on youth service, Jackson said he has a “doubly marginalized perspective” as African Americans are often marginalized within the LGBTQ+ community as well.
He said his priority will be to uplift “the most historically marginalized and oppressed”. “California still has a humanity problem where we believe there are some that are higher quality, some that are lower quality, some that are considered more human than others,” Jackson told CalMatters. “My goal is to do what I can to put an end to this.”
He also led the Riverside County fight to declare racism a public health crisis. And the The California Nurses Association counts on his support for single-payer health care — a priority for progressives that hasn’t made much headway in the legislature.
Jackson said he faced numerous whisper campaigns that cast him in a negative light about his sexuality but was able to overcome them because of his public service: “People don’t say, ‘Oh look, there’s Corey, he’s gay . They say, ‘This is Corey. He is one of our leaders in the church. He’s one of our fighters or civil rights activists.’”
Caroline Menjivar, who is leading an all-Democratic race for a Senate seat, would be the first ever LGBTQ+ lawmaker to represent the San Fernando Valley. She is also a military veteran and Salvadoran Latina.
She said her intersectional identity allows her to bring in “the voices of other groups” and look at problems “through different lenses.”
That helps, she said, in a race against Daniel Hertzberg, also an LGBTQ candidate and son of outgoing Senator Bob Hertzberg. “The door has been locked on me so many times,” Menjivar told CalMatters. “People wouldn’t give money because ‘Bob is my boyfriend. You know, you’re up against my friend’s son. Oh, you know, Bob would be so mad at me, no.” Everything was ‘Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob’.”
“Not once was it said, ‘He’s a better candidate…’. So it was like running against an incumbent without running against an incumbent.”
Menjivar plans to use her background as a social worker to try to increase Medi-Cal reimbursement for psychiatric services and combat workplace burnout for psychiatrists. She also wants to use her experiences with evictions to counteract the housing shortage in the country.
“Legislators need to hear these stories to be pushed into… a vote,” Menjivar said.
The increase in diversity from the 2022 election is not guaranteed to last, but it could increase.
Largely due to the 12-year term limit enacted in 2012, Delano expects at least 24 seats to be filled in 2024, and another 20 in 2026 and 2028. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, the first openly gay Senate leader, is among those , retiring in 2024.
Though women have to wait for parity in the legislature, Delano said this election was a “huge step forward.”
“Women are just getting started,” she said. “We’re just beginning to see the kind of transformation that we’re going to have.”