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Politics & Government

Delaware General Assembly to see new level of diversity in 2019

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House Democratic Caucus
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House new members. Back row: Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown; Rep. Bill Bush; Rep. Kendra Johnson; Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha; Rep. Krista Griffith; Rep. Franklin Cooke. Front: Rep. Ray Seigfried, Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker

November’s election results produced a Delaware legislature that now more closely reflects the First State’s population.

When the General Assembly convenes in January, it will have more people of color and women than ever before.

House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst expects that to have an impact.

"It reflects the state of Delaware more than ever has," she said. "So, I think it's going to be good for policy, I think it's going to be good for the General Assembly."

Retirements spurred a turnover that’s bringing in 12 new members of the legislature next year, four Democrats in the state Senate and eight in the state House. Four Republicans were elected in the House and one in the Senate.

People of color gained seats, despite State Rep. J.J. Johnson’s retirement and State Rep. Charles Potter’s primary loss.

Before the 2018 midterms, Margaret Rose Henry, only the second black state senator, was the lone African-American in the Senate. She was joined by three others in the House. The election doubled that to two in the Senate and six in the House -- all Democrats.

Henry’s seat now belongs to another African-American, Darius Brown. But Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman’s addition to the Senate marks a significant shift.

Lockman is a 39-year-old African-American woman. She replaces a 72-year-old white male, Sen. Robert Marshall, who retired after serving 40 years in the legislature. Lockman says she’s a seamless fit for Senate District 3 in Wilmington.

“We have a lot of women, we have a lot of single mothers in my district, which I also am, so I think that I sort of naturally bring an awareness of some of the nuances of that experience and I think that’s good,” she said.

The district is diverse, covering the business friendly Riverfront area, and some economically struggling African American neighborhoods. Lockman aims to represent all of her constituents, just as Marshall strived to do.

“We each have our different frames of reference, we each have our different blind spots and so mine will just be a little bit different," she said. "I won’t have some blind spots that maybe some other legislators would have and I think I can add that balance.”

In the House, Potter lost his Wilmington area seat to Nnamdi Chukwuocha in September’s Democratic primary election. Both men are African American, but Chukwuocha - a former Wilmington city councilman - said Potter’s vote against marriage equality in 2013 motivated him to run.

“It’s those types of issues that I think that having greater diversity will be able to move us forward in having our decision making process as a body to be one that’s more inclusive and one that will hopefully take more positions into the process of our decision making and deliberation,” he said.

The midterms also added two more women to the legislature bringing the total to 15 with 10 in the House.

Democrat Laura Sturgeon defeated Republican State Sen. Greg Lavelle, while fellow Democrat Melissa Minor Brown, an African-American woman, succeeds retired State Rep. Mike Mulrooney.

Women also ran and won races for attorney general, state treasurer and state auditor. Minor Brown said the rising number of women running matches their resolve to make their voices heard - and she’s excited how their victories may change the dynamic.

“I mean this is a historic moment with women stepping up and we have to keep it going," she said.

The gains made by women and minorities this cycle were limited to Democratic candidates. On the Republican side of the aisle, the midterms left the GOP with one woman in the Senate and one in the House. GOP State Sen. Ernie Lopez became the first Latino elected to the Senate 2012.

State Rep. Ruth Briggs King said Republican women and minority candidates ran in 2018, but were unsuccessful.

“So we’ve had minority candidates running as Republicans and they just don’t seem to get the same support as minority candidates running as Democrats," she said. "And that’s a $100 question, I don’t know how to answer that. What happens in the minority community that very often they don’t support other minority candidates I don’t know.”

The influx of people of color and women into the legislature doesn’t mean it now completely mirrors Delaware’s make-up. African Americans account for about 22 percent of state’s population, but hold 13 percent of the seats. Women make up about 51.6 percent of Delaware’s population, but will hold just 24 percent of the seats.

But House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst still sees these numbers having the potential to change what issues lawmakers tackle and how they tackle them.

“So the diversity that you see is not only based on your color or your gender, but it’s also based on the type of person that has come into the General Assembly," she said. "So not only have we gotten diversity, but we’ve gotten diversity on their background and what they offer to the table.”

How much difference that makes in practice will be seen a month from now when lawmakers return to work January 8th.

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