Stop the Party: Red Flag Statistics for California Democrats

By Kate Karpilow

Democrats converge this weekend in Sacramento at their annual state convention, in part to celebrate their successes in the 2012 elections.

I don’t want to spoil the party, but Democratic leaders need to do more to elect women to public office, starting in 2014.

Here are some red flag statistics that warrant immediate attention.

State Legislature

Since 2003, the number of women in the 80-member State Assembly decreased from 25 to 21.  Democratic women decreased from 20 to 14, while Republican women increased from 5 to 7.

In the 40-member State Senate, the number of Democratic women decreased by 3 – from 11 of 11 women members a decade ago to 8 of 10 in 2013.

The percentage of women of color decreased from 44% of women legislators in 2003 to 32% in 2013.  During this period:

  • African American women increased from 0 to 3 in the Assembly, but continue to have no representation in the State Senate.
  • Latinas decreased from 6 to 5 in the State Assembly, and lost all representation in the State Senate, going from 6 members to 0 (yes, 0).
  • Asian-Pacific Islander (API) women decreased from 4 to 1 in the State Assembly and increased from 0 to 1 in the upper house.


There are currently 18 women in our 53-member delegation to the House of Representatives, all Democrats. Ten years ago, 18 women also served; 17 were Democrats.

Progress to parity is also achingly slow at the national level.  Women serving in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives increased from 60 in 2003 (39 Democrats and 21 Republicans) to 77 women (58 Democrats and 19 Republicans) in 2013.

Locally Elected Offices

While local offices are not partisan, they are typically seen as the farm team that prepares officeholders to run for higher office.

Currently, 17 of California’s 58 counties do not have a single woman serving on their Boards of Supervisors, and another 21 have only 1 (all counties in California have 5-member Boards, except San Francisco, which has 11 members).

Is the paucity of locally elected women in these 38 counties due solely to a lack of support for women candidates or Democrats?  No – in 19 of these counties at least 50% of the voters supported U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein in the 2012 General Election, and a majority of voters in 17 counties supported President Barack Obama.

Overall, 54 of California’s 58 counties have male majorities on their Boards of Supervisors – which makes the political farm team in California look a lot like professional baseball.

Why bother electing more women to office?

Not only do more women in public office tip the scales of representation toward parity, women in public office often take the lead on legislation affecting women and children.  Here in California, women legislators have championed child care, pay equity, paid family leave and sick days, poverty prevention programs for single parents, women in the military, and women’s health.

There needs to be more discussion about why the rate of electing women seems to have stalled out in California.

Experts point to many reasons, including a culture of partisanship in Sacramento that turns women off to politics; more women in the workforce who have less time to build a political resumé; and term limits, which have created a revolving door that helps some women move up to higher office but forces others to simply move on.

Some studies show that redistricting can limit opportunities for women to run for public office.

Questions might also be raised about the Party’s priorities.  While Democratic leaders over the past 10 years have had many political challenges – electing a governor, dealing with budget deficits, and battling anti-union initiatives – let’s hope a commitment to parity has not been permanently sidelined.

And while it may be a political third-rail to state this publicly, some women’s organizations need to hit the “refresh button,” and step up targeting and support for women candidates, as well as coordination with other organizations.

Finally, there’s what we can now call the lean-in factor.  Women can’t win if they don’t run.  And women can’t run unless they step up and take the risk – personally, professionally, and politically.

But let’s be very clear:  Getting more women elected will take more than beefed-up feminine willpower.

It will take the resources, commitment and strategic know-how of many leaders – and Democrats this weekend have the opportunity to assess these red flag statistics and begin working to elect more women in 2014.


Author:  Kate Karpilow

Note: Statistics in this article were compiled from many sources, including the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (, California Women Lead (, and the Office of the California Secretary of State (



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