Wisconsin minority caucus invites white lawmakers
- Associated Press
- December 30, 2013 - 10:20 AM
MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Legislature's Black and Latino Caucus has invited white lawmakers who represent mostly minority districts to participate in its meetings for the first time.
Wisconsin has 12 legislative districts in which most residents are members of a racial or ethnic minority, but only seven districts are represented by a minority lawmaker, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Monday (http://bit.ly/1cht2h2 ).
For that reason, the caucus has asked white lawmakers representing mostly minority districts to attend meetings. However, it stopped short of offering them full membership with voting rights, for fear of weakening the voice of minority members.
Caucus chairman Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, said he saw the group as representing the "peoples of the black community," rather than black residents exclusively.
"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."
Barnes said the caucus, which met for the first time this session in October, will focus on issues affecting minorities statewide, including unemployment, disproportionate racial incarceration rates, voting rights and education achievement gaps.
State and congressional black caucuses formed in the 1970s to draw attention to issues affecting blacks in urban areas, but they evolved as race-based associations, said David Canon, a UW-Madison political science professor and expert on race politics. Members generally vote together on issues affecting minorities.
The traditionally Democratic group also may invite Republican Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, of Franklin, whose district is mostly white. Rodriguez's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee, said she would welcome Rodriguez's participation, even though their political beliefs differ.
"It's important for us to bring in diversity from (around) the state," Zamarripa said.
Wisconsin's seven minority lawmakers are the fewest the state has had since 1992.
Democratic Rep. Fred Kessler's Milwaukee district was mostly white when he was first elected in 2005, but now it is two-thirds minority. Kessler said he is pleased to see the Black and Latino Caucus open its doors to lawmakers like him.
"The election of President Obama has changed the nature of what representatives do," Kessler said. "That has made the process much more race neutral."
But Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, a former caucus chairwoman, said she was surprised the group planned to admit white lawmakers. Taylor did not attend the October meeting.
"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."
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