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Why Pennsylvania’s statewide offices are almost always white and male

Billy Penn analyzed everything we could find to see how many women and people of color have served in statewide offices.

Correction appended

Pennsylvania Treasurer Tim Reese knows his circumstances aren’t the norm. In 2015, the Montco-based entrepreneur became the first person of color to serve in elected statewide executive row office, but he did not land there through the will of voters. Reese is an appointee.

Predecessor Rob McCord, who was elected in 2008, resigned from his post in 2015 shortly before pleading guilty to extortion. Gov. Tom Wolf picked Reese, who previously managed investment firms, to serve out the remainder of McCord’s term. Reese stated early on that he had no intention to run to keep his seat, which is up for grabs this November. Why did it take so long for a person of color to serve on the executive row?

“I don’t know; I can’t really answer that. I’m not a part of the political machine. I’m a businessman,” Reese told Billy Penn.

But he’s well aware that he’s a rarity in mostly white, mostly male Harrisburg.

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“I see myself somehow creating a legacy, creating a legacy for African Americans but also for someone who’s not a typical legacy child in the political system to maybe get through.”

And he’s one of very few minorities to hold statewide office in Pennsylvania. Billy Penn analyzed archived news reports, research, Census records, birth records, death records, marriage license applications and county histories, among other sources, 1  to see how many women and people of color have served in statewide offices. Between the 18th Century and today, just five women have been elected to seven 2 statewide executive positions. Another 25 have been elected to statewide judicial seats, out of more than 200 judges. Five African-Americans have been elected to these same courts, according to the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness. No woman has been elected governor or sent to the U.S. Senate. In history of the Commonwealth, there have been no Asian-Americans, nor anyone Latinx and no one openly LGBT.

Pennsylvania’s electeds aren’t representative of the state at the district level, either. In 2015, 77 percent of the population was white, compared to the 91 percent of the General Assembly who identified as White, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Fifty-one percent of Pennsylvanians were women, yet 18 percent of our lawmakers have been.

When you look at statewide offices, those gaps tend to widen. In recent years, the state’s appellate courts have become more balanced in terms of gender. Race is a different story. Out of all three courts, there’s one sole person of color serving: Commonwealth Court Judge Lillian Harris Ransom, appointed by Wolf this summer.  Out of statewide politicians, the sole woman was Kathleen Kane. After being convicted on perjury charges, she resigned.

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The closest we came to finding a minority that was not African-American, female or both was Matthew S. Quay, a 19th century state Republican Party boss who was elected to the state Treasury and the U.S. Senate, who, per some accounts, had a distant Native American ancestor. But James A. Kehl, Quay’s biographer, wrote that these claims have never been fully backed and likely spread to provide an explanation for why Quay supported Native causes in Congress. We checked his family’s Census records too; he’s listed as white.

“It’s unfortunate that we don’t have as many minorities as we should have,” said State Rep. Harry Lewis, a black Republican serving Chester County. “[We’re] a very powerful bloc.”

Treasurer Reese believes there’s “a hunger in this latest election for new ideas and fresh faces” out there. People don’t typically talk about the Treasury “unless something bad happens,” he said. Maybe that could be part of the issue: “Stop looking at politics as one monolithic beast,” he recommended. “Maybe it’s a little less daunting if you take the elephant in the room by parts.”

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The cost of statewide campaigns

Pa. Rep. Dwight Evans has run for statewide office twice. In the spring, he defeated Chaka Fattah in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania’s 2nd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Fattah, until his resignation in June, was the only minority Pennsylvanian to hold a Congressional seat this term. That seat is vacant now. Evans is all but certain to win the general election next month.

In 1986, Evans sought, then 31, to be the state’s lieutenant governor. At the time, no minority had ever served in the seat. To this day, only one has: Catherine Baker Knoll. Knoll, a white woman, ran with Ed Rendell in 2002, and previously made history as the second woman treasurer in Pennsylvania’s history. Evans himself would note that during his gubernatorial candidacy, President Barack Obama was still 10 years away from his first Illinois Senate win, and nearly 20 years shy of his U.S. Senate election. Meanwhile in Pennsylvania in ’86, Wilson Goode was serving as Philadelphia’s first black mayor.

That was the wave: That American urban politics could accommodate black councilpersons and a burgeoning tradition of black mayors was taking shape. But statewide offices? Not yet.

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Evans wasn’t the party’s choice in ‘86. “I never thought that I would get picked so the best way to do that was to run,” he told Billy Penn. “That was my motivation for running because I felt like if I ever wanted to get elected statewide, that I needed to actually get in the game.”

So Evans’ campaign canvassed around the state following a route they called the Underground Railroad. Some stops were patterned after Harriet Tubman’s path, but some weren’t, he admitted. “I got in car with one guy, and we just traveled from place to place,” he said.

He saw oft-told contrasts between the rural T and the big cities. “Being from Philadelphia was more than an issue of race,” he said. He added that when Rendell won the governor’s office, that was a victory he felt. Still in ’86, Evans quickly learned a couple more key factors. “You needed to have money. You needed to be known. When I ran in 1986, I didn’t have either one.”

Candidates of color for statewide executive office in this state are unusual. Insiders say the high cost of statewide campaigns could be discouraging minority politicians. Even offices further from the media spotlight, like treasurer and auditor general, can command million-dollar campaigns to be competitive candidates. In 2015, Pennsylvania had the most expensive Supreme Court race ever seen in the U.S., according to the Brennan Center for Justice, with its candidates spending nearly $16 million total. Nearly $4 million of these expenditures were from the campaign of Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, brother to IBEW Local 98 union leader Johnny Doc, who has some political influence, to say the least.

“There’s certainly people who have looked at this and said the price of poker is too high. And those are rational decisions,” said JJ Balaban, a partner at the Campaign Group, a political advertising firm.

OfficeWinnerCampaign SpendingYear
GovernorTom Wolf$33 million2014
Senator, Class 1Bob Casey (incumbent)$12 million2012
Senator, Class 3Pat Toomey$17 million2010
Lieutenant GovernorMike Stack$1.7 million2014
Attorney GeneralKathleen Kane$5.7 million2012
TreasurerRob McCord (incumbent)$1.4 million2012
Auditor GeneralEugene DePasquale$770,0002012

Evans ran for governor in 1994. It was another race he didn’t make out of the primary, but where he aimed to raise his profile. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he spent $1.4 million, which was the fifth-highest amount out of primary candidates that year. Democratic nominee Mark Singel spent approximately $8.4 million. The victor, Republican Tom Ridge, spent $12.5 million. Wolf spent $33 million to unseat Tom Corbett, the “most vulnerable” guv in the country at that time.

Reese agrees: Money is a chief deterrent from diversifying Pennsylvania politics. “There’s an economic value associated with political participation and we simply don’t have the capital,” he said.

He described himself as someone who “stayed in my lane.” That’s to say he picked a field, focused on it, and had most of all the privilege to do so. He could study how markets and capitalism worked. “My parents, they didn’t [grasp] this,” he said. “They were just busy being Americans and working and having a family.”

Balaban stated that the fundraising reflects wealth gaps documented across communities. “Every fundraising campaign begins with asking friends and family to write a check,” he said.

Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics, notes that mere incumbency is something that makes diversity tougher to realize. “Political parties as part of their bylaws are generally required to support their incumbents,” she said. “Women are smart, they see the incumbency advantage, they know that it’s really difficult to unseat an incumbent whose district may have been drawn specifically for him.”

Incumbency advantage translates as a financial boost in most cases. A 2014 study found that incumbents in state legislatures and in Congress, generally attracted more financial support from their parties and from special interest groups. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, 94 percent of incumbent lawmakers in Pennsylvania raised the most money in the respective races, and the same share of incumbents won.

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Winning over more conservative voters

Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez agreed. Cost might be defraying qualified candidates. But the urban-versus-rural dynamic is bigger than mere cultural differences. She pointed to Pennsylvania having the second-largest senior population percentage-wise in the country. She then spoke to the state having a high number of registered hate groups. She called Pennsylvania “ground zero” for the immigration debate. Hazleton’s anti-immigrant ordinance and the case of a Puerto Rican man who was mistakenly detained in Allentown both led to landmark court decisions, and created national precedents for immigration policies and sanctuary cities.

In recent decades, the Hispanic population in the Lehigh Valley down through South Central Pennsylvania has soared, giving the state the 13th-largest Latinx contingent in the U.S., and only two Latinxs can be found in our legislature — Philadelphians Angel Cruz and Leslie Acosta, the latter currently resisting pressure from fellow Democrats to resign. While all minorities are underrepresented in our legislature, blacks are better represented than Asians and Latinxs, comparatively. There is only one Asian state rep, Patty Kim of Dauphin County. Three percent of Pennsylvanians are Asian, and seven percent of Pennsylvanians are Latinx.

Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, said when thinking of Pennsylvania elections specifically, consider the laws on the books.

“Pennsylvania has not been a particularly welcoming place for LGBT people,” he said. “When you weigh in the factors that Pennsylvania remains the only state in the Northeast where you can fire someone for being gay, or deny them a public accommodation or evict them… it is a message that being out, or seeking public office, or being vocal can sometimes get you into trouble.”

Martin believes that many communities in the state continue to “wrestle” with accepting LGBTQ people. “Tack on top of it your same-sex partner who you might bring around,” Martin said, hypothetically, of a gay candidate on the campaign trail. “Those things just make it very hard.”

It can be the same for women and people of color who run for statewide office in a conservative place like Pennsylvania.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Balaban said. Of women in particular, he noted, “There’s a political culture that’s not very accepting of strong female candidates… There’s 18 congressional seats and two senators. It’s hard to chalk that up to random.”

Balaban was careful to note that while attitudes in support of LGBTQ rights have shifted dramatically in recent decades, in Massachusetts for example, a client of his, Maura Healey, 3 became the first openly gay state attorney general in only 2014.

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‘Even if there’s demand… it’s a supply issue.’

Rep. Lewis of Chester County is the only Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker of color. He told us that he was recruited. At first, the retired educator didn’t think politics were for him. But with a little time, he changed his mind. “The Republican party has needed diversity for a while,” he said. “They’ve seen what it’ll take; they’ve seen the change in communities.”

Lewis, 75, has been a Republican since he first registered to vote in the mid-’60s. He said the environment has been great. “I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement,” said Lewis. “I know what’s like to be made to feel unacceptable, and that has never happened in the statehouse.”

He’s finishing up his freshman term in the statehouse. He has no plans at present to run for statewide office. “I haven’t thought that far along the line,” he said. “I’m busy trying to win this election.”

Multiple experts raised the same point in interviews: Not that many people of color or openly LGBT people have even run for these seats.

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A few notable examples: C. Delores Tucker, a civil rights activist and former Secretary of State, ran for lieutenant governor in 1978 and for U.S. Senator in 1980. Anthony Williams ran for governor in 2010. NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann was the first person of color to be an official nominee of a major party for governor.

Balaban cited the old adage, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

In regards to gender equity, Pennsylvania’s top courts stand out. In 2008, three women were elected to the Superior Court. In 2010, another four were. Balaban thought such sweeps signaled a desire for change in the electorate. Brown explained that female candidates have more appeal at the polls than the breakdown of electeds suggests.

Brown told Billy Penn that “women do not run at the same rates as men, unfortunately, but when women do run they win at the same rates as men,” she said. “Even if there’s demand… it’s a supply issue.”

Political networking and party organizing in the state have been very white and very male, for both parties. This has contributed to a lack of female pols with a track record of successful campaigns and party support, explained Brown.

“Katie [McGinty] is the first one to be as close as she is,” Evans observed. McGinty’s U.S. Senate campaign has repeatedly noted that if she were to defeat incumbent Republican Pat Toomey in the general election next month, she’d be the first female U.S. senator from Pennsylvania ever.

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“The challenge, so the data says, is to identify and recruit more women to seek out those offices.” Persistent cultural traditions trouble this task further, she continued. Women, denied the right to vote until the 19th Amendment passed, haven’t always looked to elected office to participate in civic affairs. Rather, women have so often turned to clubs, philanthropy, nonprofits and volunteerism. “There are a lot women leaders in this state,” said Brown, “and there are a lot women working to make the Commonwealth better, but they’re choosing these other avenues.”

Plus, there’s talented young people that are pursuing fields outside of politics.

“Do we have highly qualified people like that? Yes,” Quinones-Sanchez said. “But those people have an option to be in Corporate America and other places and make more money for less stress than take on the public service.”

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Larry Ceisler, principal at Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy, has noticed that there’s plenty of urban politicians who could pull enough local support to make them competitive in statewide races, but so many of them don’t pursue state offices. Former Mayor Michael Nutter is one example, he said.

“Maybe their interests are not statewide,” said Ceisler. “Often people whose bases are urban, it’s urban issues that drive them.”

Brown said that women match, if not outpace, men with fundraising, but it typically takes more phone calls, more legwork. Canvassing statewide in a commonwealth as large as Pennsylvania is no small feat; connecting with voters outside the urban progressive zones where minority politicians have fared best is an added challenge, especially for out LGBT politicians.

“I mean look, it’s a complicated place to run statewide for straight people,” Equality Pennsylvania’s Martin said. “There isn’t a lot of encouragement being out and running for statewide office. There aren’t a lot of role models either.” Currently, State Rep. Brian Sims is the only out gay legislator in the General Assembly; he was also the first.

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Quinones-Sanchez said the party hasn’t really invested in supporting Hispanic lawmakers in smaller Latinx-heavy towns yet fully. Reading is 58 percent Hispanic; Lancaster is 39 percent; Kennett Square is 49 percent; Allentown is 43 percent. None of their representatives in the house are Hispanic.

Brown said both parties in the state recognize that more diversity is needed. Lewis said the party is actively looking for more Republicans of color who’d like to run. He’s tried to encourage folks personally, but hasn’t convinced anyone to get on the ballot yet. Evans remains focused on his party’s role. “The Democratic Party has to face up to the reality of the inclusion element.”

Several experts agree that there’s a problem with who’s being tracked for these offices. If parties aren’t supporting diverse candidates for boards and commissions, and if our state legislature isn’t representative of us, then where will the credible candidates come from?

“How many state reps of color outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh exist?” asked Quinones-Sanchez. If we’re counting the Philly burbs in that, there’s only Lewis and Kim. “That’s the pipeline. It’s not there.”

Auditor General, Treasurer and Attorney General are all up for election this November.

The Democratic and Republican nominees are all white men.

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