Despite minority gains, 2023 Florida Legislature remains overrepresented by white males

Hispanics make gains, while for 3rd time in history, Senate president is a woman

By Mark Harper, The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Jan 3, 2022.

  • While Republicans make up 36% of voters in the November election, 71% of lawmakers are Republicans.
  • Two-thirds of the House are white-only, while 18.3% are Black. The Senate is 70% white, 17.5% Black.
  • New House speaker notes that 88% of Hispanic House members are Republicans.
  • The Senate is 40% women compared with 30% in 2013, while the House is 42% women compared with 23% a decade ago.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared the state “where woke goes to die,” yet the Republicans who control the Florida Legislature say they are widening their appeal, particularly among voters with Spanish-speaking ancestry.

As a result, 20 of the 23 Hispanic lawmakers are now members of the GOP. And they say — truthfully — that they’ve tripled the number of Black Republican House members after the November election.

Meanwhile, the Democratic minority say they are a more diverse group that has attracted a majority of women elected officeholders because they have supported policies that appeal to more women.

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In any analysis of diversity in politics, framing is to be expected. But numbers are numbers, and here’s how the 2023 Florida Legislature looks, relative to Florida’s diverse population:

  • Politically, the Florida House of Representatives and state Senate are vastly more Republican than the voting population. While Republicans comprised 36% of voters in the November election, 71% of lawmakers are Republicans.
  • In a statistical quirk, 71% of the Florida House is Republican, and 71% of those Republicans are men. And 71% of Democrats are women.
  • Combining the House and Senate, the majority (58%) of members are male, while 51% of the population are females.
  • Among races, two-thirds of the House are white-only, while 18.3% are Black. The Senate is 70% white, 17.5% Black. The 2020 Census reports that 52% of Floridians are non-Hispanic white.
  • Hispanics comprise nearly 27% of the state’s population, but just 18% of state representatives and 13% of senators.

New House Speaker Paul Renner touts ‘historic gains’

As Republicans have had full control of both legislative chambers for more than a quarter-century, they have had the opportunity to draw the maps that comprise their districts, which helps to explain the disparity between party registrations and legislative seats.

But the GOP has also appealed more widely to the non-partisan voters who comprise 28% of the electorate.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the party’s appeal can be attributed to “bold and commonsense leadership,” as compared with Democrats’ approach: “bigger government and fringe politics.”

“This conservative leadership resulted in historic gains in Florida and across the country among Hispanics, Blacks, and women choosing to run for office as Republicans — and winning,” Renner said. “Floridians elected the most diverse and representative group of Republicans ever to lead the Florida House, and that is reflected in the makeup of committee and subcommittee leadership that will shape the future of Florida for years to come.”

Of 10 committee chairs Renner recently named, nine are white males and one is a Hispanic male.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, gave this blunt answer when asked if the Florida Legislature’s diversity reflects that of the state: “No.”

“There’s not enough diversity among cultural or gender lines, but I would also point out that the average net worth of Florida House members is $6 million, which is nowhere near the median income for the state of Florida,” Eskamani said.

Democrats are far more diverse than Republicans overall. In addition to the disparity between the parties by gender, some 78% of the House Republicans are white, compared to just 37% of Democrats.

In a response to questions about the diversity of the Legislature, Renner said not enough focus has been put on those women and minorities who are conservative.

“While corporate media obsesses over identity politics, they have largely ignored women and minority communities that reject the liberal media and political doctrine of the Left,” Renner said. “We have recruited strong leaders who happen to be from all walks of life, not because of their race or gender.”

He noted that 88% of Hispanic House members are Republicans, while “there are more Black Republicans in the conference than at any time since Reconstruction.”

That number would be three Black Republicans, as compared with 19 Black Democrats.

Why do women lag behind men in legislative representation?

The Florida Senate is comprised of 40% women, including Senate President Kathleen Passidomo of Naples. That’s the same number of women as last term, but up from 30% in 2013.

The House has also shown signs of progress toward equality: In 2023, it will be 42% women, up from 33% two years before and 23% a decade ago.

Newly elected Rep. Vicki Lopez, R-Miami, sees hope that women are making gains.

“Of my class of 30 Republicans (first elected in 2022), half are female,” Lopez said. “If that is the growing trend, that will be wonderful.”

The message she got from the Republican Party was this: “We need both men and women. We need diverse people. We need people who represent the community”

There are now more women Senators who are Republican than Democrat, while the House has an equal number, 25, representing each party.

But because Republicans have so many more male lawmakers, 79, as compared with 34 women, Democrats such as Sen. Lori Berman of Lantana can point to reasons for their party’s appeal to women.

“I think that lot of the issues that matter to women are being addressed more by the Democrats: equal pay for equal work, paid parental leave, abortion rights,” Berman said.

Traditionally, women have lagged men for several reasons, said Olyvia Christley, an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University who teaches gender politics, political psychology and American politics. The democratic electoral system in the United States requires individual ambition, which studies have shown, is a quality more likely to be possessed by men, she said.

Also, there are misperceptions about the viability of female candidates, Christley said.

“Despite the fact there is not a ton of research backing up this idea that voters are hostile to women who run, people still believe in this idea that politics is a bad environment for women. This turns off women from wanting to run for office,” she said.

“Most people who run for political office are competitive, confident and risk accepting,” Christley said of qualities women are less likely to possess.

Research by political science professors Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless for the Brookings Institute supports this:

“Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign,” they wrote. “They are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. They are less likely than men to think they are ‘qualified’ to run for office. And they are less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.”

Christley argues women are less confident and more likely to react negatively to modern campaigning because of the way they are, as girls, socialized to think of themselves and their capacities versus boys.

“We may see this start to change with younger generations, but politics is currently still dominated by the Boomers,” Christley said.

Republican Party’s appeal to Florida Hispanics

Lopez, the South Florida Republican representative, said there is no one, simple explanation for why her party has attracted so many more Hispanic officeholders.

“Within the Hispanic population, there are many different cultures, depending on where you come from and trace your heritage,” she said. “We may speak Spanish, but we’re diverse.”

Census data culled by the Latino Policy & Politics Institute of UCLA shows that 28% of Florida’s Hispanics are Cuban, 21% are Puerto Rican, 18% are South American and 14% are Mexican. Smaller, but distinct groups from the Caribbean, Central America and Europe also complete the picture.

Adding to that diversity, Lopez said she is the first Floridian with dual citizenship with Spain elected to public office in Florida.

“With Hispanics, they are traditionally pro-family, pro-God, pro-country. For many of them, they have left countries where communism was what drove them out of those communities,” Lopez said.

In knocking on doors during her campaign, Lopez said she found most of the 39% of no-party affiliation voters in District 113, part of Miami-Dade, were “really Republicans” in their values. And the GOP did a better job of appealing to them with its focus on the economy and freedoms in Florida, helping turn the traditionally Democratic-leaning county red, she said.

Number of Black House Republicans triple (to 3)

Last term, Webster Barnaby, R-Deltona, stood out as the only Black Republican lawmaker. This year he was joined by two more representatives, Berny Jacques of Seminole and Kiyan Michael of Jacksonville, plus Sen. Corey Simon, who represents a large portion of North Florida including Tallahassee.

Barnaby said he does not see a dichotomy between Republicans’ embrace of diverse candidates and their war on wokeness.

“I’ve embraced diversity. I understand we have a diverse society in America,” Barnaby said. “Wokeness is more of a cultural clash with our constitutional rights as Americans.”

Republicans’ Stop WOKE Act from the last Legislative Session curbs the teaching both in schools and workplaces of white privilege, the notion that white people have had advantages over racial minorities simply because of the color of their skin. It also makes illegal teaching about race, ethnicity, national origin and sex which might cause a person to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Eskamani, who was born and raised in the United States by parents who were from Iran, pointed to discovery in the Andrew Warren legal battle where a top DeSantis aide described wokeness as the belief that there is systemic racism in American society that needs to be addressed.

“DeSantis does not believe racial disparities exist,” she said. “He is intentionally living in bliss of these realities, and meanwhile real people are impacted. … I don’t want to dismiss the diversity improvements we see.

“What concerns me is the lack of desire to address the disparities,” Eskamani said.

Given the majority party’s stance on wokeness, Berman said she is not planning to refile a bill she’s pursued in past sessions establishing an office of diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as a chief diversity officer whose objective would be to “advance equity, racial justice, and civil rights … and to identify and work to redress racial inequities in agency policies and programs which serve as barriers to equal opportunity.”

The bill was inspired by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

“It has been an uphill battle. I probably won’t refile it this year, considering all of this anti-woke dogma coming from the governor’s office, which is diametrically opposed to the concepts in my bill,” Berman said. “Almost every business has (a diversity program). Businesses understand that you want your people to feel they’re being treated in a respectable manner and you’re giving a level playing field to everyone. Unfortunately, our state does not agree with that assessment.”

 Image Credits: Diane Rado