Raleigh, N.C. — Women make up half of North Carolina’s population but occupy only 22 percent of seats in the statehouse, the vestige of a thick glass ceiling that still lingers over the lawmaking body.
North Carolina ranks among the lower half of states in terms of female legislators, according to April data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado has the highest percentage of female lawmakers, at 41 percent, while Louisiana has the lowest, at 13 percent.
Women are slowly transitioning into the statehouse, but the legislature has a long way to go before closing the gender gap, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford.
“Women have been historically underrepresented at the federal and the state level,” Harrison said. “We’re making some progress, but we’ve certainly got a long way to go.”
The gap often emerges in the early stages of the election process, said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg.
“(Women) tend to be less likely to volunteer to file, so the men often jump in before they can be recruited,” Samuelson said. “Family demands may also cause them to delay entering politics.”
More mentoring of female officials in local government would help close the gap, she said.
The scarcity of female legislators can result in laws that lack the perspectives of women, said Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Orange.
“I would imagine, since the majority of folk who make legislation are not women, then perhaps that consideration of what you would expect to come from a woman’s point of view is under-recognized,” Foushee said. “I think that was quite apparent in the last session.”
Last year, for example, the General Assembly approved legislation placing new rules on abortion clinics.
Harrison said female legislators often empathize with the concerns of working families.
“They’re much more sympathetic to the plight of working families, and obviously on issues like women’s reproductive rights,” she said.
Samuelson said the raft of abortion legislation passed last session was the product of female lawmakers prioritizing women’s issues.
“The abortion bills were all handled by women because we believed those issues were especially important to women,” she said. “That is an example of the presence of women making a difference.”
Lone Latino in legislature
Latino representation in the General Assembly is also low, despite a population that more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.
The state’s roughly 800,000 Latinos made up 8.4 percent of the state’s population in 2010, according to U.S. Census data. But Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, is the only state lawmaker who identifies himself as Hispanic or Latino, said Paula Valle Castanon, spokeswoman for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
By comparison, blacks comprise 22 percent of the state population, and black lawmakers made up 18 percent of the legislature in 2013.
Apodaca, who said he is of Mexican descent, said he thinks Latino representation will grow as Hispanic immigrant communities put down roots in North Carolina.
“As time goes on and they assimilate into society, you’ll see more and more,” he said, noting a handful of Latino officials in local governments throughout the state.
“I think as we progress, you’ll see more Hispanics involved,” he said.
The under-representation of Latinos signals a dearth in perspective that leaves its mark on policy, said Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford.
“Across all elected bodies, the amount of Hispanic people that we have, versus the representation, is deplorable,” said Brandon, who is black.
He said many Latinos lack access to the state’s complex political system – access that starts at the polls, where only about 120,000 Latinos are registered to vote, making up about 2 percent of the state electorate.
Many adult Latinos aren't U.S. citizens and therefore can't vote, which is one factor in the low number of registered Latino voters. But the number may rise as the U.S.-born children of immigrants come of age – native births now outrank immigration as the main driver of growth in North Carolina’s Latino population, according to state data.
Brandon said a limited understanding of the political system keeps many Latinos both out of the polls and off the ballot.
“It’s a very difficult system to deal with,” he said.
He sponsored a bill that would allow in-state college tuition for children of undocumented immigrants and said increased Latino representation would help build understanding among legislators of different cultural backgrounds
Apodaca said most immigration policy issues affect the federal government, as lawmakers attempt to pin down a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
“Right now, the main policy issues lie with the federal government, as we’re seeing with the immigration bill and what’s happening on the borders right now,” he said.
Brandon said he thinks Democrats should reach out to young Latino activists and help them gain access to state politics.
“I think the Democratic Party really should be doing more,” he said. “We should be reaching out to young political activists and giving them the tools that they need to be able to become that city council member, that can become that state House representative, that can become that U.S. congressman.”