In November 2014, voters across the state dropped off ballots. Inside were bubbles filled in beside names for district representatives and senators. The bubbles dictated who would represent Washington voters in each of the 147 positions in the Washington State Legislature.
During the 2015 - 16 session, these legislators and senators sponsored and voted on bills that will go on to become state law. The job involves bipartisan work in the House and Senate. Legislators propose bills, many of which may not even get time on the floor for a vote. These elected officials must push forward agenda items that represent the wide range of needs and desires of the 7 million people that live in Washington state.
If the Washington State Legislature was a school, lawmakers would need to stay after class to explain the middling grades they receive on issues of racial equity.
Overall, the Washington State Legislature received a C+, or a 78 percent, according to a report that analyzes lawmakers’ racial equity work on education, economic security, criminal justice, health and environment.
In Dec. 2015, Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN!) released its “Facing Race” report — a grading card that analyzes how members of the Legislature act on racial equity. Washington CAN! released the report as lawmakers were preparing for the 2016 legislative session, which began Jan. 11.
The report, which has been published almost annually since 2009, examined 34 bills that were presented in the 2015 regular session, as well as special sessions called by Governor Jay Inslee. “Facing Race” in 2016 looked at the missed opportunities to pass bills that would support communities of color. These bills were selected because of the direct impact they would have on communities of color in Washington.
“The report was an attempt to get the legislature to take more action and to give them a list and say, ‘Here are the recommendations and the things that communities of color who are working on the ground on these issues think you should do to get started!’” said Dr. Margaret Diddams, one of the authors of the report.
Washington CAN! is a grassroots organization that represents advocacy groups across sectors of faith, social services, labor and more. The report is endorsed by many of these same organizations, including Real Change.
Particular criteria were enforced during the analysis, with each of the bills having to at least address explicit racial outcomes, access to benefits, advancement of civil participation, protection against racial violence, or elimination of existing inequalities. Of the 34 bills that could have advanced racial equity, the Legislature passed fewer than half.
For example, HB 1505 was a bill introduced in 2015 that would have allowed prosecutors and judges to grant youth referrals to restorative justice programs rather than resort to youth incarceration — expanding upon the 2012 legalization of restorative justice for youth in special circumstances. It did not pass.
These failures matter in the long run. Sixty-six percent of the youth in the juvenile criminal justice system are people of color, according to the report. Native American and black youth in Washington are four times as likely to be locked up compared to their white counterparts.
Washington is recovering from the 2008 recession, Diddams said, but the disparities between the richest and poorest are growing, whether measured by educational outcomes, incarceration rates or housing. Washington is becoming more inequitable for people of color.
“We’re just increasing racial disparity, which is the result, in large part, of inaction of the legislature,” Diddams said.
Grading on voting history and leadership
In addition to grading bills that made it to the voting floor, the “Facing Race” report grades individual legislators by taking into account their voting history and leadership in creating bills that elevate equality.
Senator Pramila Jayapal represents much of South Seattle in the 37th District. While it was only her first term as a legislator, she holds the highest grade in the “Facing Race” report: 111 percent.
“Coming straight from the social justice movement, I came in with a huge opportunity to bring those same values from outside that I worked on in advocacy into the Senate,” Jayapal said.
Despite her personal high score, Jayapal said that it is a challenge for people of color who work within Washington politics. Jayapal is the only woman of color in the Senate, and represents the district with the highest number of people of color. There are only 13 people of color out of 147 individuals who make up the House and Senate.
“We have to work this very fine line of bringing up race and racial equity as much as we possibly can front and center, but also doing it in a way that invites a wide contingent of people to be apart of it, and that’s not always easy to do,” said Sen. Jayapal. “The values that we’re standing up for are not Democratic values and Republican values, but unfortunately we have been blocked in the minority in moving some of these things forward.”
Yakima, one of the largest cities in the state, is a part of District 15 — the district with the second highest percentage of people of color. Forty percent of people in
Yakima are Latinos. Yet the district’s senator, Jim Honeyford, received an F grade in the “Facing Race” report.
The changing demographics of Washington state are an indication that things must also change in the Legislature in order to accurately represent its constituents. People of color are projected to make up 50 percent of Washington’s population by 2050.
With the 2016 session underway, there are many opportunities for bills to pass that address inequities in Washington, Jayapal said.
“We have to make sure we’re funding the system as a whole, but also funding things that address the opportunity gap, which sets the bar for every other interaction that a person of color has in their life,” Jayapal said.
Jayapal pointed to the Washington Voters Rights Act and equitable access to higher education and community college as issues she aims to bring forward during this upcoming session.
“For the legislature to get a C+ overall is distressing,” Jayapal said. “We think Washington State is a state that values diversity, values contributions that come from people of all different ethnicities and races ... if we’re getting a C+, what is it that we can do to make sure those missed opportunities get followed up on?”
Jayapal explained that it’s going to require organizing on the inside of the legislature, as well as pressure from communities of color.
She said she hopes this report is used as a way for people on the ground to rethink which bubbles they fill on their ballots the next time their representatives and senators are up for re-election.
The coalition plans to continue this pressure by knocking on office doors of representatives in Olympia this President’s Day to present the report to individual members of the Legislature.