2006 Elections Reflect American Diversity

By Michael Jay Friedman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - Americans of diverse racial and ethnic origins and religious beliefs are seeking political office in the 2006 elections. They uphold a tradition of political pluralism and participation that dates to the founding of the United States.

From 1788, when Pennsylvanians elected three German Americans to the First Congress, to 2006, when the mayors of the nation’s three largest cities - New York, Los Angeles and Chicago - boast of Jewish-, Mexican- and Irish-American heritage, and the mayor of the fifth (Philadelphia) is an African American, Americans have elected as their representatives men and women of all races, ethnicities and creeds.

Several African Americans are major party candidates for some of the 33 contested U.S. Senate seats this year. They include Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele in Maryland and Democrats Erik Fleming in Mississippi and U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee.

Fifty-one black candidates are running this year for seats in the 435-member House of Representatives. In Massachusetts, former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick is favored to become Massachusetts' first African-American governor.

Female candidates continue to enjoy success at the polls. Fourteen women currently serve in the Senate, and 12 (including six incumbents) are on the 2006 ballot. There were 138 female members of the House of Representatives in the 109th Congress.

At the state level, six women are running for governor - including candidates in Alaska and Massachusetts. Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics reports a record 2,431 women are running for state legislative seats.

These figures reflect steady efforts by both major political parties to attract candidates that will appeal to an increasingly diverse population.

Some minority groups are entering the political arena in greater numbers. Although Hispanic Americans are the nation's largest minority group, many have not yet reached the voting age of 18. Even so, two Hispanics were elected to the Senate in 2004, and 27 currently serve in the House of Representatives.

In September, a national Latino conference held in Los Angeles pledged to recruit 1 million new Hispanic voters. Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine,praised the strategy. "Marches can get people's attention, but it doesn't necessarily get a higher percentage of the community involved in civic participation. That's what things like get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives do," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Both the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States (which partially overlap) have launched voter-registration drives and increased financial donations to political campaigns. Fully 84 percent of registered Muslims cast ballots in the 2004 election, a rate significantly higher than the national average.

Four Christian Arab Americans currently serve in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. In 2006, candidates in Michigan and Texas hope to join them. In Minnesota, congressional candidate Keith Ellison is favored to win his House race and become the nation’s highest-ranking Muslim elected official.

Asian Americans also are increasing their political presence. By 2005, some 550 Asians held political office, including two senators and five U.S. representatives. In a notable local 2005 contest, Korean American Jun Choi defeated a four-time incumbent en route to becoming mayor of Edison, New Jersey, the state’s fifth largest municipality.

Like most officeholders, ethnic political leaders typically begin their careers in neighborhood or local office. As the more successful move on to state or national office they must appeal to and represent the interests of many diverse groups.

In Massachusetts, for instance, Deval Patrick has called for an "education renaissance" among African Americans, but as candidate for governor he promises full-day kindergarten and early education for all the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds.

For more information, see 2006 Midterm Elections.