Wisconsin now has 12 legislative districts where a majority of constituents are racial or ethnic minorities, and yet just six are represented by minority legislators.
Last session, before redistricting, there were 10 minority-majority districts, eight of which were represented by minority legislators.
That partly explains why this year, for the first time, the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus is inviting white lawmakers who represent minority-majority districts to participate in meetings, though it’s stopping short of granting them full membership with the ability to vote on actions the group might take.
There’s also discussion among the traditionally Democratic group about whether Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, R-Franklin, whose district is 85 percent white, should be invited.
Including Rodriguez, the seven minority legislators are the fewest the state has had since 1992.
“I think that I, along with other people, see an opportunity,” said caucus chairman and freshman Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee. “Our numbers may not be that large. A lot of our effectiveness is going to be the help of our other partners and advocacy groups in the community.”
The caucus met for the first time this session in October when members discussed a need to be more inclusive and focus on consensus building. Barnes said the group plans to focus on issues affecting minority communities across the state — high unemployment, disproportionate incarceration rates, voting rights and education achievement gaps.
The caucus plans to hold monthly meetings, including several in different minority neighborhoods, rather than exclusively in the Capitol.
At its next meeting the caucus also will continue to discuss membership issues, including whether to invite Rodriguez, the third Latino member and the first Republican Latina to serve in the Legislature.
Rodriguez, whose office didn’t respond to a request for comment, has been an advocate for private school vouchers, a topic that has divided Milwaukee’s minority community. Barnes himself unseated incumbent Rep. Jason Fields, a Democrat and voucher supporter.
The district represented by Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, was majority white when he was elected in 2005. But it is now two-thirds minority, and Kessler, who is white, said he is pleased the caucus is opening its doors to white lawmakers. He said he plans to be an active participant.
“The election of President Obama has changed the nature of what representatives do,” Kessler said. “That has made the process much more race neutral.”
Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, a former caucus chairwoman, did not take part in the October meeting and was surprised that the caucus planned to allow white legislators to participate.
“People who are black, Republicans or Democrats, come to the black caucus of state legislators,” Taylor said. “It’s not based on their district, it’s based on their race.”
Like Wisconsin, other states’ black caucuses include Latino and other minority membership. The National Black Caucus of State Legislators, which lists the Wisconsin Black and Latino Caucus as an affiliate, describes its membership as “over 600 African American state legislators.” The organization’s offices were closed last week, so it couldn’t be determined how many other state caucuses allow participation by white legislators.
Separate national organizations exist for Latino legislators, such as Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Black Caucus became the Black and Hispanic Caucus when Zamarripa’s predecessor, Rep. Pedro Colon, joined. Zamarripa asked to change the name to the Black and Latino Caucus.
Zamarripa said she would welcome inviting Rodriguez to join the caucus, even though their ideological views differ.
“It’s important for us to bring in diversity from (around) the state,” Zamarripa said.
But Barnes was hesitant to endorse inviting Rodriguez into the caucus, adding, “That’s still a conversation that needs to take place.”
The congressional and state legislative black caucuses first formed in the 1970s as districts were redrawn with the goal of increasing minority representation.
Their original mission was to draw attention to issues in urban ghettos, but they also developed as race-based associations, said David Canon, a UW-Madison political science professor and expert on race politics.
In the 1990s, the Congressional Black Caucus was criticized for booting Rep. Gary Franks, a black Republican from Connecticut, after labeling him a mole for the GOP. In 2007, the caucus was criticized again for affirming it would include only black members after Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, the state’s first Jewish representative who represented a majority black district, tried to become a member.
Barnes acknowledged if Wisconsin’s Black and Latino Caucus gave white legislators from minority-majority districts the ability to vote on caucus matters, it could diminish the voice of minority members. But he also sees the caucus representing the “peoples of the black community” rather than exclusively black people.
“For us, it’s more the community that’s represented,” Barnes said. “I’m not the biggest fan of identity politics. … Personally I would love to see more people of color in the Legislature, just because it’s a better reflection of the state and the country. But just to support anyone just based on race, I can’t agree with it.”