Meet Donna Edwards of Maryland, a veteran congresswoman who represents the new face of Democrats in the U.S. House.
Come January, women and minorities for the first time in U.S. history will hold a majority of the party’s House seats, while Republicans will continue to be overwhelmingly white and male. The chamber, already politically polarized, more than ever is going to be demographically polarized, too.
“One thing that’s always been very startling to me is to see that on the floor of the House of Representatives when you look over on one side where the Democrats caucus and you look to the other side and it looks like two different visions of America,” Edwards, 54, a black woman who has served in Congress since 2008, said in a telephone interview.
The visuals will be striking when the House debates whether to overhaul the country’s tax code and considers ways to keep the costs of Social Security and Medicare under control. The white males of the Republican Party will be arguing to reduce benefits while the women and minorities of the Democratic Party will make a case for keeping the nation’s safety net where it is.
With eight races still to be settled, white men had secured about 90 percent of Republican seats and about 47 percent of Democratic seats, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
There will be at least 57 female Democrats in the House, about 30 percent of the caucus. Republicans will have at least 20 women, less than 10 percent of their party’s House majority, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The final tally in a few states could add to that count.
Democratic Hispanics are poised to outnumber their House Republican colleagues 23 to five, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
“Latinos took advantage of the redistricting process,” said Arturo Vargas, the group’s executive director. “There will be more opportunities as the elections develop over the next decade.”
Black representatives should number 41 on the Democratic side of the aisle, the Congressional Black Caucus said. That compares with either one or two seats for black Republicans.
“When voters and citizens look at the Democratic Party, what they see is America,” said Edwards.
Republicans, who will continue to set the House agenda, could end up with just one woman heading a committee and a single woman in their top leadership ranks.
On the other side of the U.S. Capitol, women will hold a record 20 Senate seats next year. That includes both Democrats and Republicans.
“About a third of our caucus is going to be women,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters in the Capitol.
“It’s clear we’re the party of diversity,” the Nevada Democrat said.
The Republicans who have majorities in legislatures controlled the redistricting process in enough states to lock Democrats of every color and gender out of contention in dozens of House seats for years to come, said David Wasserman, House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“Republicans, in drawing safe districts for themselves, have also boxed themselves in somewhat in their long-term appeal,” he said. Packing minority voters into fewer districts “has reduced their own incentive to reach out to minorities in the electorate. That is not helpful for the party’s brand over the long term.”
Minority babies outnumbered white newborns in 2011 for the first time in U.S. history, census figures show. The U.S. population is projected to become majority-minority by 2042, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Congress lags the general population in terms of how representative it is of the population,” said Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor specializing in American politics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“You rarely, if ever, see a press conference with Democratic leadership that doesn’t reflect the diversity of the House caucus, and that’s a pretty dramatic change just from Speaker Tom Foley in the early ’90s,” said Pearson, referring to the Democratic lawmaker from Washington State who served as speaker from 1989 to 1995.
Men have been so dominant in the House for so long that it wasn’t until 2011 that Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, ordered that a women’s bathroom be installed off the House floor. Female senators got theirs in 1993.
In the 1970s, when the Democratic leadership decided it was time to put a woman and a black congressman on the House Armed Services Committee, it wasn’t exactly a moment of celebration, said Loren Duggan, Bloomberg Government’s chief congressional analyst.
The disapproving chairman, fellow Democrat F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana, refused to add two chairs, so Democrats Patricia Schroeder of Colorado and Ron Dellums of California had to share a seat at the committee’s organizational meeting, said Duggan.
“The House has come a long way,” he said. “Dellums took over the committee in 1993. Schroeder stayed in the House until 1997 and even sought the presidential nomination. Today, House Democrats are led by a woman and the No. 3 Democrat is a black man.”
Women and minorities are in line to become the top Democrats on almost half of the 22 committees, including powerful panels such as Judiciary, and Oversight and Government Reform.
Under the Democrats’ seniority system, Maxine Waters of California, a black woman, is in line for the party’s top slot on the Financial Services Committee.
Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, the longest-serving female in the House, is next in seniority for the top Democratic position on the Appropriations Committee. That would be a first for a woman. Nita Lowey of New York is challenging Kaptur for the seat, Lowey’s spokesman Matthew Dennis said today in an e-mail.
Kaptur, first elected to Congress 30 years ago, recalled in a Nov. 5 interview how, no matter how comfortable former Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, tried to make her feel, she didn’t think she could pull up a chair when he and her other male colleagues were hanging out in the Cloakroom watching baseball on television.
“If you didn’t know what happened in the major and minor leagues for the last 50 years and quote every major player, you wondered if you could enter into the conversation,” she said. “I just remember how that felt. It’s changed a lot now.”
Analysts at the Cook Political Report and other Washington organizations predict that only one Republican woman has a shot at being elected to a top party leadership position in the House: Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who’s vying for the No. 4 job, conference chair.
Candice Miller of Michigan probably will become chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee.
The House majority party’s smaller number of females can present challenges.
Sandy Adams of Florida, the only Republican woman on the Judiciary Committee, was front and center at all the press conferences when the House considered the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, H.R. 4970. She lost her primary, so party leaders have only men returning to that committee.
The Democratic Party’s more diverse caucus sometimes translates into a more disagreeable caucus.
“It can create some tensions within the Democratic caucus with the more moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog members, who are very focused on fiscal responsibility, and, say, the Black Caucus, which sees a generally larger role for government,” Pearson said.
The Blue Dog Coalition has shrunk with every recent election, and Nov. 6 was no different, with the defeat of Democrats Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Larry Kissell of North Carolina. The group will have at least 14 members next year, compared with 24 now.
“Their loss of Blue Dogs, who happen to be predominantly white men, means they’re likely to be in the minority for some time unless they benefit from some huge wave, and there’s simply no wave on the horizon,” Wasserman said.
“The redistricting map that has solidified Republicans’ position in the House this year is bad news for Democrats not only in 2012 but for the foreseeable future over the next decade that these maps will be in effect.”