The most diverse Congress ever doesn't erase our divisions

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum gives concession speech

Andrew Gillum’s and Ben Jealous’ election losses proved major blows to voters pushing to shake up the traditional political establishment by adding representatives to better reflect the racial makeup of the country.

Mr. Jealous always faced an uphill battle for Maryland governor, so his defeat didn’t come as a shock. It was a different story for Mr. Gillum in his quest to become Florida’s first African American governor. Donors from around the country poured money into his campaign, and former President Barack Obama stumped for him in hopes that the charismatic Tallahassee mayor could turn the ultimate swing state blue. His loss was particularly heart-wrenching to those who had hoped his victory would prove a sign for racial progress.


Among the winners were the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and several who broke racial or other barriers.

Even so, Tuesday’s elections brought reasons to celebrate in the name of diversity and historic firsts as candidates of various religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds won races around the country.

Fueled by a growing racist sentiment in the country, many of the candidates ran on campaigns pushing the need to give minority and other under-represented populations a voice and change the old way of governing.


In Maryland, Democratic County Councilman Calvin Ball won a clear victory over incumbent Allan Kittleman to become the first African American county executive of Howard County.

Joining the ranks of the next Congress will be the first women of Muslim faith. Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib will represent Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, a former Somali refugee in Kenya who wears a hijab, will serve Minnesota. Both women won by overwhelmingly majorities in their races.

Jahana Hayes will become the first black women to represent Connecticut in Congress. The former teacher of the year, who easily won a House seat, often talked during the campaign about the system not reflecting people that looked like her. Her personal story of being raised by her grandmother in a bad neighborhood and becoming pregnant at age 17 drew compassion from voters.

Ayanna Pressley will join her New England colleague and make history as she becomes the first black women in Massachusetts elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She ran unopposed in a minority-majority district and has said it is hard to believe a person of color has never represented the delegation.

Democratic House candidate from Kansas Sharice Davids celebrates after winning her race at her election night watch party in Olathe, Kansas.
Democratic House candidate from Kansas Sharice Davids celebrates after winning her race at her election night watch party in Olathe, Kansas.(JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX)

Native Americans will also represent their constituents in the halls of Congress for the first time as Democrats Sharice Davids of Kansas and Deb Haaland of New Mexico were swept to victory in their races. Ms. Davids is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and Ms. Haaland the Pueblo of Laguna. Ms. Davids, who is a lesbian, is also the first openly LGBT congressional representative from Kansas.

When they take office in January, these women of color will also be contributing to a historic wave in Congress as a record number of women will be sworn in. At least 118 women will serve in the 116th Congress, an increase from 107 now. New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stunned people with her primary win over a longtime incumbent early this year, also won the general election race easily Tuesday and will become the youngest woman ever in Congress.

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama — the last three presidents each believed they had the key to unlock the nation's stubborn partisan gridlock and create a permanent governing majority. Each failed. Tuesday night, Donald Trump joined them. Expect more political trench warfare as a result.

While these political victories are to be applauded, no one is saying the work is done. Our elected leaders as a whole are still far from representative of the nation in terms of gender, race and ethnicity. A country that just a few years ago elected its first black president is still one that is racially polarized in many ways. It’s not just the losses of well qualified African-American candidates like Messrs. Gillum and Jealous (and possibly Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, though she may still force a run-off in the governor's race as absentee and provisional ballots are counted). It’s the many examples in this election of campaign tactics that subtly or overtly played on racial fears, including the dark imagery in some of the outside attack ads against Mr. Jealous, a robocall in Florida purportedly from Mr. Gillum that used exaggerated minstrel dialect and jungle noises and reports of widespread voter suppression tactics in Ms. Abrams’ race. At the center of that darkness was President Donald Trump, whose dog-whistle politics and racist and sexist vitriol was a staple at GOP campaign rallies. He hit a new low with an immigration-focused campaign ad that was so racist that multiple television networks (including Fox News) refused to air it.

But willing as President Trump may be to exploit racial and gender divisions, he didn’t create them. For all its supposed progressiveness, Maryland will send no women to this historic Congress. That’s not Donald Trump’s fault, Marylanders. It’s ours.

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