Incoming 110th Congress Reflects American Diversity

By Lea Terhune
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Now that the 109th Congress has adjourned, Americans and their elected representatives are looking ahead to the 110th Congress, which will convene on January 4, 2007. It will be a Congress that reflects America’s diversity, closing not only the gender gap - with the highest number of women elected to Congress in history - but also the ethnic gap.

Texas Democrat Ciro Rodriguez defeated Republican Henry Bonilla in a runoff election December 12 in the state’s 23rd District, the last congressional race to be decided. His victory gives the Democrats a 31-vote edge in the House of Representatives, with Democrats holding 233 seats to the Republicans’ 202. Rodriguez is Hispanic, one of an increasing number of federal and state legislators from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

“The more the tables of power reflect the beautiful diversity of our country, the sooner our policies will reflect the aspirations of the American people,” Nancy Pelosi told Simmons College graduates in spring 2006. Now slated to become speaker of the House in the 110th Congress, Pelosi has promised to appoint ethnically diverse congressional committees.

African Americans claimed 42 seats in the House, including two nonvoting seats, and they are likely to figure prominently in important committee appointments. “This is by far the peak - ever - for the Congressional Black Caucus,” an analyst for the Washington-based Joint Center for Economic Studies, David Bositis, told the Associated Press. The single African American in the Senate is the charismatic Barack Obama, who is seen by many as a potential presidential candidate in 2008.

The complexion of the 110th Congress glows with a rich demographic mix that includes naturalized, first- or second-generation Americans of Asian and Latin American origins. Americans with a distinctive ethnic base played a significant part in the 2006 elections not only as candidates, but as supporters of candidates who represent their interests. As immigrants make American society and culture their own, they also develop political muscle. The elections were taken seriously by many Arab, Hispanic, South Asian and East Asian Americans who organized, volunteering their time for campaigns.

Arab American Institute (AAI) President James Zogby said after the midterm elections, “The political organization of Arab American Democrats and Republicans helped engage record numbers of Arab Americans in the civic process and raised the visibility and importance of this emerging swing vote.” 

AAI communications director Jennifer Kaufman told USINFO, “Arab Americans played a very decisive role in the Jim Webb [Virginia Senate] race and others - and we believe it is a harbinger of the impact Arab Americans will make in the '08 elections, especially in the new battleground states of Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”  The large Arab-American communities in those states threw their political weight behind Senate victors Jim Webb, Bob Casey Jr. and Robert Menendez, among other federal and state candidates. They campaigned through the mail, on the phone and canvassed for candidates responsive to issues important to Arab Americans.

Ethnic identity-based groups hosted fundraisers and knocked on doors to get out the vote. Community-active Sikhs, concerned about ethnic profiling because their turbans and beards make them vulnerable, also were dedicated campaigners. In Maryland they vigorously supported the victorious Senator-elect Ben Cardin and Governor-elect Martin O’Malley. The concerns of such organizations are more about having a voice in the democratic process than necessarily electing members of their own ethnicities. The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Muslims to vote with blunt counsel:  “Remember, if you don’t vote, don’t complain.”

Breakthroughs in religious diversity were made as well. Two Buddhists were elected - Japanese American Mazie Hirono from Hawaii and Henry “Hank” Johnson Jr. from Georgia. Minnesota’s Keith Ellison is the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Both Ellison and Johnson are African Americans. (See related article.)

Although there are Democratic and Republican ethnically based support groups, the Democrats attracted more backing from such groups in the 2006 midterm elections. This helped tip the balance of Congress to the Democrats.

It is still a delicate balance, particularly in the Senate, where the Democrats retain a razor-thin majority of one vote. That vote might be in jeopardy because of the sudden illness of Democratic Senator Tim Johnson from South Dakota. The 31-vote Democratic lead in the House is a more comfortable margin for the Democrats.

State legislatures around the country are even more reflective of cultural variety than the U.S. Congress. Names like Chaudhury, Ali, Tahir, Yee, Barve,  Dandekar, Takai, Machado and Nunez in state legislatures reveal roots that mirror the full spectrum of American citizenry. State assemblies are a training ground of choice for those who aspire to represent America under Washington’s Capitol dome.

For additional information on U.S. society, see 2006 Midterm Elections and Population and Diversity.