What an election year this has been. Enough to have us all in despair over the state of American democracy. So as my civic duty, I’m providing room for optimism by sharing what’s going on beyond the top of the ticket.
Let’s start with the story of Isela Blanc, whom I met in Spring 2015 at a candidate training organized by The New American Leaders Project, Isela, a community leader, tried to convince me, and herself, that she was better “behind the scenes” than in front of the room, that she would be a better campaign volunteer than a candidate. The training changed her mind. Eighteen months later, she won the Democratic primary for a seat in the Arizona State House and is poised to head to the legislature after the general election in November 2016. She is one of many candidates from Arab, African, Caribbean, Asian and Latino communities who are helping to change the face of American leadership.
You haven’t heard about Isela and her many counterparts around the country because we’re disproportionately focused on the Presidential and Congressional races. But in the course of my work, I get to recruit, support and learn from diverse candidates running for office in an effort to change the conversation in their communities.
Chances are you haven’t heard much about people like Marisol Alcantara, Abdullah Hammoud, Ilhan Omar, or Tony Navarette. All will change the composition of state legislatures, places where their voice and vantage point is critical, regardless of who is President. This new guard is comprised of Americans whom we should be paying attention to: women, immigrants and millenials. Too often, when we think about these groups in a political context, it’s as potential voters to be drawn or dragged to the polls. But they are leaders in their own right, and their elections can close to a wide representation and policy gap.
Only 5.4 percent of the 7,383 state legislators in America are women of color, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. That number will likely increase with coming elections and immigrant women like Isela. In New York City, Dominican-born Marisol Alcantara, after winning the Democratic primary for Senate district 31, will be the only Latina in the New York State Senate. Also making history this year — Ilhan Omar. She defeated a 44-year incumbent to become the only Somali state legislator in the country, representing Minnesota’s legislative district 60B.
Millenials often feel they lack a voice at the policy making table, according to Joelle Gamble at the Roosevelt Institute. That too is poised for change. In Michigan, Abdullah Hammoud, who just won his Democratic Primary for Michigan’s 15th House District, is the son of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants and a health advocate. Tony Navarette is a proud member of the LGBT community, a community organizer and now the representative-elect headed to the Arizona State House for District 30.
Our country is 38 percent people of color; infuriatingly only 14 percent of our state legislators are people of color. But what matters about these elections is not just the candidates’ ethnicities. It’s their experiences as immigrants and children of immigrants, as first generation college students, as advocates and organizers on progressive issues. When Tony speaks in the Arizona State House, he will speak with his multiple identities as an LGBT male and son of immigrants. When Ilhan fights on behalf of her district, she will bring with her multiple identities as a social justice advocate, woman of color and parent.
Together, these six new state legislators, their counterparts already in office and future elected leaders, need to create a more positive bipartisan and nonpartisan policy dialogue that responds to the needs of vulnerable Americans of all backgrounds. Many more young, and not so young, diverse and committed Americans are running for school board and city council as well, where they will lead and participate in conversations that can change student outcomes, influence zoning and development decisions and improve economic conditions.
Elections, even every four years, aren’t just about President and Congress. As regular Americans, our votes and campaign contributions count so much more at the local and state level. So, for the next few weeks, don’t despair. Check out candidates for local and state office, make a campaign contribution, and go vote for the people whose decisions will have an immediate impact on your community. And after November 8, don’t stop. Run for office, ask someone to run, volunteer for or support a candidate. Elections are won year-round, not just on Election Day.