Posted on July 27, 2018

As Delaware Becomes More Diverse, Legislature Goes the Other Way

Scott Goss, Delaware Online, July 26, 2018

Delaware, like many other states, is slowly becoming more diverse, with whites projected to make up less than half of the population in the next 30 to 40 years.

But you would never know it by visiting Delaware’s Legislative Hall, a Colonial Revival building in downtown Dover bounded by a one-way street recently renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard.


Whites now make up 90 percent of the Legislature while nearly 80 percent of state lawmakers are men.


More than half of the 51 legislative races on the primary and general election ballots now have at least one black, Hispanic or female candidate. Those candidates are predominantly — but not exclusively — Democrats.

“Women and people of color are accepting the gauntlet of public service more than ever before,” said Sen. Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, a Wilmington Democrat who in 1994 became the first and only black woman ever elected to the state Senate.


If elected, those candidates — most of whom are political newcomers — could change the face of Delaware’s legislative branch.


After years of under-representation, those candidates can now see a clear path to victory, thanks largely to the impending retirements of a dozen longtime lawmakers, including Henry.

Their influence also could impact everything from the state’s criminal justice system and an equal rights amendment to the state Constitution pending before the General Assembly to which nonprofits receive state funding.

Few of the legislative races this year are likely to flip seats from one party to another. But several could change who sits in them — shifting the demographic from white to black or male to female.

Eroding diversity

Women make up 52 percent of Delaware’s roughly 960,000 residents. Blacks account for about 23 percent of the state’s population, while Hispanics make up more than 9 percent.

Yet the representation each of those groups has in the state Legislature is far below those levels and has been slipping.


Some of that loss has been due to retirements. But in several instances, female incumbents were simply defeated by men, including four women — three Republican and one Democrat — who lost their seats during the 2008 blue wave that ushered President Barack Obama into office.

The decline of black lawmakers has been less steep, largely because it had less room to fall.

Just four years ago, there were five black legislators in the General Assembly, mostly from districts in Wilmington. That’s less than 10 percent of the Legislature and a zenith that still falls short of the six legislative districts where black residents make up a majority.

Today, four black lawmakers hold office or 6.5 percent of the Legislature. Two are not seeking re-election this year.

Meanwhile, only two Hispanic lawmakers have been elected to the Legislature in recent decades, both of whom are currently in office. That caucus, which makes up 3 percent of the General Assembly, will be cut in half when Rep. Joe Miro, R-Pike Creek, retires this fall.

A few groups have been actively recruiting women of all races to seek elected office.


History in the making for some

The relatively few black lawmakers in Legislative Hall has left the African-American community with a limited voice when it comes to addressing things like inner-city crime, mass incarceration and a lack of economic development opportunities in Wilmington, according to the Rev. Christopher Bullock of Canaan Baptist Church.

“Black legislators have a deeper understanding of those issues because they live in the communities affected by those problems,” he said. “We need those voices if we’re ever going to move the ball forward.”

Bullock became the first and only black president of New Castle County Council in 2012. He opted not to seek re-election to a second term.

“So many legislators come to the black community for votes but don’t come back when it comes time to invest resources,” he said. “It’s been a club for years and that needs to change.”

Black candidates are running in 12 legislative races this year — three times the number of seats currently held by African-Americans.

Four of those seats are guaranteed thanks to races where all the candidates are black while three others are likely to be won by black candidates. If that happens, the 150th session of the General Assembly would set a new record for racial diversity.

One of those guaranteed seats is currently held by Sen. Robert Marshall. The 71-year-old white incumbent has represented the heart of Wilmington for the last 40 years even though it is one of only two Senate districts in the entire state where blacks make up a majority of the population.

Marshall announced his plans to retire a day before the filing deadline this month, leaving the door wide open for Jordan Hines, a 27-year-old black man, and Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a 38-year-old woman whose father was black and whose mother is white.


“No matter the outcome, we will have a state senator who knows the issues that are being faced by most of the constituents here because they’ve lived that experience,” Hines said. “That has a huge significance for our district, which is 74 percent African-American and Hispanic.”


The state’s black community is likely to win three new House seats in districts that represent southwest Wilmington, New Castle and Bear due largely to the heavy majority of Democrats in those areas. Two of those seats have long been held by white women who have announced their retirements.

An uphill battle for women


Lagging representation

Only four Hispanic hopefuls are on the ballot, including one incumbent and three challengers.

“It’s disappointing because there are definitely some leaders in the community who could or should run,” said Rep. Joe Miro, a Cuban native, became Delaware’s first Latino state legislator in 1998.

“But to be a candidate you need more than just an interest in politics,” he said. “You need a family situation that allows you to run, a job that will give you the time and the financial security to take time away from that job. For some Latinos, that might not be possible.”

Sen. Ernie Lopez said that while he is disappointed more Latinos have not filed, the larger issue is that they not face institutional barriers that would keep them off the ballot.


Lopez, who was born in Puerto Rico, became the first Hispanic member of the state Senate six years ago. He will face his first re-election contest in November against Democrat David Baker, the former Sussex County administrator.


No Asian-American candidates are running for a seat in the Legislature this year. S.B Woo, a native of China, served a single term as lieutenant governor in the mid-1980s, but no Asian-American has ever been elected to the General Assembly.

“I often tried to encourage Asian Americans in Delaware to be active in the state committees and commissions appointed by the governor,” Woo said via email, noting that many cite the fact that Delaware’s population is only 4 percent Asian-American as a challenge.