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Essay: A More Diverse Workforce Needs More Diverse Candidates

It’s voting day in Alabama. But you knew that.

Rather than focus on the oddities of this one contest, it seems more emotionally productive to pull back the lens and look at how the demographics of both political candidates and the working voter base are changing.

Despite notable differences in their resumes and reputations, Alabama’s Doug Jones and Roy Moore are both white men close in age, who, with similar cultural histories are demographically more alike than they are different. But familiar, “old guard” candidates across the country — I’m referring more to their traditional profiles, not necessarily their ages — are facing challenges from an increasingly diverse crop of first-time politicians who are entering local races fired and up and ready to go.

A good example is councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López, from Detroit’s 6th district, who was just re-elected to a four-year term last month.

Castañeda-López grew up poor, in the district she represents. One of her bigger wins to date is the creation a city-based identification card called Detroit ID, which gives citizens fourteen and older an officially recognized ID regardless of immigration or housing status, gender identification or criminal record. It helps residents get access to city services, get a library card, visit cultural institutions, open a bank account, and even offers shopping and dining discounts from supportive local businesses. Castañeda-López was the first Detroiter to get one. “This is really about the government removing barriers to make sure that we truly are serving the most marginalized community and people in the city of Detroit. It really is about seeing each other as human beings and honoring our dignity as human beings,” she told The Detroit News.

This optimistic piece from Curbed describes the ascendance of people like Castañeda-López, part of a cohort that is diverse, skeptical of traditional power, and by virtue of their outsider status, more naturally oriented to providing solutions for their communities than accruing political capital. And yes, many of them are younger:

The shift in governing styles by a more diverse, digitally native generation, comfortable crowdfunding municipal projects or holding a press conference on Facebook Live, has already begun. Millennial mayors across the country—Erin Stewart in New Britain, Connecticut; Pete Buttigieg in South Bend, Indiana; Michael Tubbs in Stockton, California; and Svante Myrick in Ithaca, New York—have been elected (and re-elected), becoming political up-and-comers viewed as the future of their parties.

But to be truly different, all new entrants to local government will need to do the work that actually needs to be done.

Here’s an update from Danica Roem, the newly elected Delegate from Virginia’s Prince Williams’ County. The openly transgender candidate ran on infrastructure reform. Turns out, she was serious. She let her pancakes get cold over a breakfast meeting to discuss her plans when she takes office. “They’re telling me at 6 o’clock in the morning, they’re sitting in bumper to bumper on 66, coming up to the 495 spur,” Roem told a reporter from WTOP. “If you have to be on 66 at 5 in the morning (to avoid paying a toll) that becomes a quality of life issue.” She’s about to fight for $300 million to improve roads and provide more transportation options. She didn’t mention her sex life – or yours – once.

If you’re willing to tackle stuff this dull with this kind of energy, then you’re probably in it for the right reasons.

But if politicians are changing, it’s also worth noting that a huge swath of voters already have.

A new research brief from the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress shows that the symbol of working-class pride, the male, white factory worker, is no longer an accurate representation of either the workforce or their economic needs. (Actually, he never was.)

The working class is increasingly racially diverse, almost half female, and more than three-quarters work in service jobs, not manufacturing.

According to the latest data, non-Hispanic white people make up 64 percent of the overall adult population but just 59 percent of the working class, whereas 75 years ago, those percentages were nearly equal. African American workers make up 14 percent of today’s working class, and Hispanic workers make up 21 percent.

People of color are on track to become the majority of working class workers by 2032.

The new working class typically have less desirable jobs than in previous generations, and many struggle to achieve full-time employment. And low-wage women are particularly vulnerable to harassment and worse. As this analysis from CityLab points out, the decline of unions hasn’t helped. “A janitor working at a large multinational company today has much lower wages, career growth, and job security than a similarly situated janitor did when unions were stronger. That’s because companies have shifted how they view—and compensate—such labor, as unions have been weakened. Service jobs in domestic work—child care that women workers typically do—are particularly devalued and even more precarious.”

And yet, these workers are currently 43% of adults in the U.S., many of whom I assume would enthusiastically vote if they could be assured of valid ID, locate a convenient polling station or best of all, find a candidate who cared about their quality of life issues in all their dull complexity.

Let’s hope the new guard is prepared to do just that.