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Report: White Men Dominate Massachusetts Politics, Even More Than Expected

A new report shows that women and people of color are hugely underrepresented in Massachusetts state politics.

Researchers at MassINC expected to find white men dominating Massachusetts politics, but even they were surprised at the degree.

Despite a slight increase in female candidates in 2018, women represent fewer than a third of legislative districts. Nationally, the state ranks in the bottom half for gender parity.

Only four people of color hold leadership positions in the legislature — two in each party.

People of color as a share of "Gateway City" residents (in red, on the right of each pair) and elected leaders (in blue, on the left of each pair), 2019.
Credit MassINC
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MassINC
People of color as a share of "Gateway City" residents (in red, on the right of each pair) and elected leaders (in blue, on the left of each pair), 2019.
Share of seats in the Massachusetts legislature held by female members (in red, top line), and state rank by female representation (in blue, bottom line).
Credit National Conference of State Legislatures / MassINC
/
MassINC
Share of seats in the Massachusetts legislature held by female members (in red, top line), and state rank by female representation (in blue, bottom line).

Report co-author Ben Forman said fundraising strongly favors incumbents.

That's one reason MassINC recommends public financing of legislative campaigns, which has been nixed by Massachusetts legislators in the past, but instituted by a few other states.

"It definitely leads to more women and more people of color running for office, more engagement in communities of color in campaigns, more people turning out to vote," Forman said. 

One way people move into legislative positions is by starting as a staff person on Beacon Hill, but Forman said those jobs tend to be low-paid.

“About half of the staff in the state legislature make less $46,000 a year annually," he said. "So people who come from working-class families have a difficult time living in Boston, and taking those jobs, so that they can get the access that gives them an advantage when the seat opens up."

Forman also pointed out a more complex reason for relatively low political participation among underrepresented groups — which could help explain why gender parity has actually gone down in the past decade.

Since campaign reform has made it harder to donate directly to the major parties, he said the institutional power of both the Democratic and Republican parties in Massachusetts has weakened, while the power of individual power brokers has increased.

“It used to be that parties played a really important function, developing voters, developing candidates, developing platforms that ensured we had sort of competition of ideas out there," Forman said. "Parties were really trying to represent the ideas of actual people in order to build majority coalitions. And that doesn't happen anymore."

MassINC also said disparities would go down if local and statewide elections were held in the same year, and if there were more investment in local news outlets to better inform voters and potential candidates. 

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998. Her features and documentaries have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, Third Coast Audio Festival Award, and the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize.
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