Who’s at the table when decisions are made?

Too often they do not reflect the communities affected

First of two parts 

Mayor Melvin Carter III, keynote speaker at Sayles Belton Policy Symposium (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Elected representatives at all levels of government in this country — from mayors on up — do not reflect the country’s population. A recent symposium examined what this means for those whose voices are not being heard.

In 2014, the Women Donors Network (WDN) created the Reflective Democracy Campaign to show “who holds power and who is excluded at every level of government,” according to a fact sheet provided by the organization. WDN also devised a National Representation Index to measure political power by race and gender, comparing the demographics of states’ populations and their elected officials.

WDN used a percentage breakdown to illustrate the nation’s population: 30 percent White men, 32 percent White women, 19 percent women of color and 19 percent men of color. A comparable breakdown of elected officials shows that 65 percent are White men, 25 percent White women, seven percent men of color and four percent women of color.

Minnesota’s population is 41 percent White males, 41 percent White women, nine percent men of color and nine percent women of color. Our state elected officials, however, are 76 percent White men, 21 percent White women, two percent men of color and one percent women of color.

The need to increase people of color in elected offices was among several topics discussed at the Sharon Sayles Belton Policy Symposium on February 23, the event was hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Sayles Belton, who was Minneapolis’ first Black mayor from 1994 to 2001, also spoke at the event.

Dianne Pinderhughes, chair of Africana Studies department at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, told the MSR, “I think it is important” to have a person of color in elected office with strong ties to the community and its interest at heart. Pinderhughes co-authored Race, Gender, and the Changing Face of Political Leadership in 21st Century America.

St. Paul’s Mayor Melvin Carter III, the symposium’s keynote speaker, told the participants, “I am a product of this community.” The fourth generation St. Paul resident was elected last November as the city’s first Black mayor. “I’ve seen both the promise and the challenges in St. Paul,” he reflected. “I grew up in a community of people, surrounded by adults…who were determined to see me succeed, whether I wanted to or not.”

Dianne Pinderhughes (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Carter recalled as a young man, freshly graduated from college, that he had the same thought as his fellow grads at the time that they were uniquely prepared to tackle the world’s big problems. “Somebody [else] should focus on trash collection, plowing the snow, [and] we should save our minds for the big stuff,” he admitted regarding his then-naiveté about local government.

Later, while Carter was working in North Minneapolis on voter registration, a 19-year-old resident told him that he wasn’t interested in voting “because nobody cares about me.” That person admitted to experiencing “a feeling of helplessness” when during election day in Florida in 2000 he saw long lines of mostly Black folk waiting to vote but not getting the chance to do so. It left a lasting impression on him, Carter pointed out.

“I want to build an St. Paul that works for all of us,” continued the mayor as he challenged the symposium audience, which included a group of high school and college students, to get involved. “I think we are in a moment now that demands action,” he stressed, adding that adults will one day have to give the future generation “an accountability of our time.”

Mayor Melvin Carter at podium (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Carter said he’s proud of being the first Black mayor “of a major city, a [majority-populated] city.” He briefly talked about meeting present and former Black mayors at the U.S. Council of Mayor’s conference. “We shared a meal with some of the newly elected mayors last year from all over the country,” including new city leaders from Atlanta and Baltimore, he recalled. “These mayors are so passionate.

“I think it’s critical that all of our neighborhoods have their voice heard,” Carter afterward told the MSR about the importance of elected officials of color. “Absolutely, we need people who come from our communities to reflect all walks of life and similar life experience to be in those rooms” where policy decisions are made.

“It really does make a difference on who’s sitting at the table,” Sayles Belton told the MSR. “It does make a difference in the leadership position. It does make a difference [in] the knowledge and relationship they have with the communities they serve.

“I do think it makes a difference for African Americans, Latinos, Asians or Native Americans to have the opportunity to be able to be in elected office, to speak authentically on issues that their communities uniquely experienced,” Sayles Belton continued. She and the late Jean Harris, who was mayor of Eden Prairie 1995-2001, were the state’s only Black mayors at the time.

“I knew Jean well,” Sayles Belton said of Harris, who died in 2001. “She and I talked a lot. A Black woman mayor elected in the suburbs, Jean was an invaluable leader and a good colleague.”

“She [Sayles Belton] has been a mentor to me,” Carter said.


In part two: Two women of color and first-time elected officials share their experiences.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com



Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Dianne Pinderhughes was the chair of Political Science department at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.  The error has been corrected.