Sunday, August 26, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Meet Your Legislator: White, Male, 52, Educated, Well-Off

A hundred years ago, framers of the state Constitution hoped to keep their ``citizen Legislature'' out of the hands of professional politicians by offering low pay and short hours.

It didn't work.

Instead of reflecting a broad cross-section of the public, the Legislature has become a wealthy, well-educated, middle-aged elite, with nearly a quarter of its members in business for themselves and another quarter who have no job other than being a lawmaker.

Today, a typical lawmaker is a 52-year-old white man who owns his own business, has a master's degree and earns at least $50,000 a year. He and his wife also own at least one house and have another $50,000 or more in the bank.

There are some who work for a paycheck. But they're not retail clerks or assembly-line laborers. The most common occupation in the Legislature, after business owner and consultant, is lawyer.

Although women have made impressive inroads, it's still a male-dominated institution; 70 percent of state legislators are men.

For people of racial or ethnic minorities, the odds of having a senator or representative who is truly representative is even more remote.

Of the 146 current legislators (there is a vacant seat in the Senate), only eight - a paltry 5.5 percent - are of minority groups. By comparison, minorities make up 11 percent of the population statewide.

It might seem voters have a chance to alter the demographics of the Legislature in the Sept. 18 primary and the November general election. But don't count on it.

For a variety of reasons - the traditional advantage of incumbency, a lack of organization by minority groups, poor voter turnout and the Legislature's lengthening work schedule - the existing power structure has a huge head start this fall.

In fact, minority groups and the disenfranchised may find their representation dwindling. Two of the eight minority members are retiring - Sen. George Fleming, D-Seattle, who is black, and Sen. Frank Warnke, D-Auburn, a Native American.

Another black member, Sen. Bill Smitherman, D-Gig Harbor, faces a tough Republican challenger, and Democratic Rep. Cal Anderson of Seattle, the only openly gay legislator, is in a four-way re-election campaign.

Nor is this year's crop of challengers strikingly different from the incumbents. In all, there are 168 challengers and contenders for open seats. But fewer than 10 are minorities, and only a fifth are women.

Camille Monzon, a Tlinget Indian activist from Seattle, would like to see another Native American elected to the Legislature. But she says the shortage of minority candidates may be explained partly by past failures.

The statewide base of 11 percent minority population is spread around the state; it isn't concentrated in any one legislative district. To get elected, Fleming, Warnke, Smitherman and the other minority lawmakers have had to broaden their appeal.

Each won in a district where no one minority group is dominant. Most other minority contenders aren't as fortunate.

There are other problems. Unlike the Women's Political Caucus, which is always seeking qualified women to run for office, minority groups have done a poor job of recruiting candidates.

James Kelly, director of Gov. Booth Gardner's commission on African-American affairs, says he's not particularly troubled by the small number of black lawmakers.

``What all of us are looking for in a legislative body is not necessarily equity in the number of black officials, but to make sure that when policy is created through statute it's sensitive to people of color as well as women,'' he says.

The experience of women in the Legislature suggests such views may be overly magnanimous.

Women have grown as a group from 9 percent in 1974 to 18 percent in 1984 to more than 30 percent today.That figure ranks Washington among the top five legislatures in the country in the percentage of women legislators. And while sympathetic men are nice to have around, says Rep. Lorraine Hine, D-Des Moines, there's no substitute for women in the House and Senate.

An illustration of the importance of being there came just this year. The men who had drafted a medical-insurance bill didn't include mammograms as a covered expense. When they learned of the omission, women from both parties formed an impromptu rump caucus, marched as a group to Gardner's office and got mammograms added to the legislation.

Perhaps the greatest gaps between the Legislature and the general public are in education, occupation and wealth.

Wealth of the lawmakers is hard to measure. They aren't required to report their exact income and assets - only broad ranges - to the Public Disclosure Commission.

A legislator's annual salary, including ``per-diem'' payments for meals and expenses, is between $20,000 and $30,000. That in itself is greater than the state's 1988 per-capita income of $16,642.

And most lawmakers make far more. Legislators' financial reports disclose income ranges, rather than precise income. Based on those imprecise reports, more than half the Senate earned at least $50,000 last year, and 12 appeared to make more than $100,000. House income figures were similar.

Almost all the lawmakers own property. Three-fourths of the members reported liquid assets, such as savings accounts and stock holdings, of at least $20,000. More than a third had liquid assets of more than $100,000.

Chuck Sauvage, director of Common Cause of Washington State, is troubled by those figures.

``How many are making a living someplace else? Not that many,'' he says. ``There are a lot of retirees, a lot of self-employed consultants and a lot of people close to retirement. They're not out there grappling with everyday concerns.''

One reason there aren't more ``ordinary citizens'' is the time commitment required in Olympia. The ``part-time Legislature'' set out in the state constitution has become a myth. Legislators meet for two months in even-numbered years and 105 days in odd years. They also deal with special sessions, off-session meetings and constituent problems.

Hine, who has no other job, says she is a full-time legislator. Most people, unless they own a business or are retired, can't keep a regular job and serve in the Legislature too, she says.

Would the Legislature return to the people if it really were full-time, with larger salaries and a longer schedule? Most observers don't think so. In the part-time Legislature, at least the members go home to their districts when they're out of session.

And other states, though their schedules and salaries for legislators differ, have similar problems. Nationwide, lawyers make up the largest share of state legislatures, 16 percent. They are followed by full-time legislators (11 percent), business owners (14 percent) and retired people (7 percent).

Sauvage is among those who believe the best hope for re-inventing a citizen legislature lies in reforming the financing of election campaigns.

As the cost of getting elected has grown and legislators have depended on larger and larger contributions from political-action committees, incumbents' power has become entrenched.

Sauvage says there won't be a significant changing of the guard in the Legislature until campaign-finance reform gives outsiders a fighting chance.

``I find these issues are combined,'' Sauvage says. ``It costs a lot of money to challenge an incumbent now, or a lot of time, or both. I think that's the biggest bar to who can run.''

One legislator who agrees is Rep. Greg Fisher, D-Des Moines, who is bidding for his second term.

Fisher, who has no outside job, says the system forces lawmakers to spend too much of their time courting campaign contributions.

``I don't think it's a citizen Legislature,'' says Fisher. ``It's not a system that attracts the modest, working-class person into politics.

``In fact, I don't see how anyone with a promising career or a family would want to spend time here. It's not appealing on a long-term basis, no matter how much you care about democracy.''


Demographic profile of the Legislature

Politics Senate # House Total

Democrats 23 63 86

Republicans 25 35 60

# Senate has one open seat

Average age 56.2 50.6 52.4


Men 38 (79.2%) 64 (65.3%) 103 (69.9%)

Women 10 (20.8%) 34 (34.7%) 44 (30.1%)

Race, ethnic group

White 44 (91.6%) 94 (95.9%) 138 (94.5%)

Black 2 (4.2%) 1 (1.0%) 3 (2.1%)

Asian 0 (0.0%) 2 (2.0%) 2 (1.4%)

Hispanic 1 (2.1%) 1 (1.0%) 2 (1.4%)

Native Amer. 1 (2.1%) 0 (0.0%) 1 (0.7%)


Dropout 1 (2.1%) 0 (0.0%) 1 (0.7%)

High school 6 (12.5%) 2 (2.0%) 8 (5.5%)

Some college 10 (20.8%) 20 (20.4%) 30 (20.5%)

Bach. degree 15 (31.3%) 31 (31.6%) 46 (31.5%)

Adv. degree 12 (25.0%) 42 (42.9%) 54 (37.0%)

Unavailable 4 3 7


Business, consulting 11 (22.9%) 24 (24.5%) 35 (24.0%)

Legislator 4 ( 8.3%) 16 (16.3%) 20 (13.7%)

Retired 8 (16.7%) 11 (11.2%) 19 (13.0%)

Lawyer 4 ( 8.3%) 13 (13.3%) 17 (11.6%)

Agriculture 6 (12.5%) 8 (8.2%) 14 (9.6%)

Education 1 ( 2.1%) 8 (8.2%) 9 (6.2%)

Admininstrator 2 ( 4.2%) 5 (5.1%) 7 (4.8%)

Medicine 1 ( 2.1%) 5 (5.1%) 6 (4.1%)

Trade labor 2 ( 4.2%) 3 (3.1%) 5 (3.4%)

Accounting 1 ( 2.1%) 2 (2.0%) 3 (2.1%)

Engineering 3 ( 6.3%) 0 (0.0%) 3 (2.1%)

Government 2 ( 4.2%) 1 (1.0%) 3 (2.1%)

Union official 2 ( 4.2%) 0 (0.0%) 2 (1.4%)

Architect 1 ( 2.1%) 0 (0.0%) 1 (0.7%)

Adm. Secy. 0 ( 0.0%) 1 (1.0%) 1 (0.7%)

Journalism 0 ( 0.0%) 1 (1.0%) 1 (0.7%)

Demographic profile of the state

Average age: 32.9 Women 51% Men 49%

Education Race/ethnic

(25 or older as of 1980) White 89.0%

Less than high school 22.4% # Hispanic 3.7%

High school 37.4% Asian 3.5%

Some college 21.3% Black 2.8%

College degree 19.0% Indian 1.5%

Other 2.9%

# Hispanics, or people of Spanish descent, may also be counted as part of another racial or ethnic group.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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