It’s been nearly 20 years since a woman has represented Sacramento in the California Legislature. Now, there are two: Sen. Angelique Ashby and Asm. Stephanie Nguyen, both Democrats.
Ashby said she was surprised to realize it had been so long since the last woman to represent the area, Deborah Ortiz, termed out of the Senate in 2006.
“It’s a really long time to not have a woman in any of those seats,” Ashby said in an interview with CapRadio. “So, I'm proud of Stephanie, proud of myself.”
Nguyen, who most recently served on the Elk Grove City Council, will be the first Asian American woman to represent Sacramento in the Legislature, for which she said she is “beyond thankful and humbled.”
The two are part of a legislative class that includes a record number of women and LGBTQ lawmakers serving in the state Capitol, gains in representation celebrated by advocates.
After she was sworn in, Ashby learned she is one of just 63 women ever elected to California’s state Senate. She said she was proud to have her nine-year-old daughter with her on Monday when she took the oath of office.
“Having her on my lap and sitting on that floor and knowing how rare that area is for women — or has been over the years — was really at the front of my mind,” she said.
The former Sacramento City Councilmember believes having people with different backgrounds and experiences “is critical to really representing this incredible state.”
“There’s a lot of things I'm not,” she said. “There are a lot of women out there that have a very different experience than me. So having more women that have different experiences, that are in different places in their life really changes the dynamic and the dialogue.”
Forty-one percent of lawmakers are women and 10% identify as out-LGBTQ, which means California will become the first state to achieve proportional representation for LGBTQ residents, according to Equality California.
“Representation is power,” said Tony Hoang, the group’s executive director. “LGBTQ+ people belong in every room and deserve a seat at every table where decisions impacting our community and our lives are being made.”
The shifts are not just symbolic, said Susannah Delano, executive director of Close the Gap, a group that works to recruit and train female candidates.
While California hasn’t reached gender parity in the Legislature, more women in the Capitol “has the potential to change the climate of the legislature in terms of bipartisanship, cooperation, actual productivity,” she said, pointing to research showing female lawmakers co-sponsor more bills and bring more money into their districts than their male counterparts.
Women are also more likely to author and support legislation that directly affects their lives, including bills on childcare and other forms of caregiving, reproductive health and more.
“Look at the groundbreaking package that the Women's Caucus prioritized last year,” Delano said. “[It] has really become the nation's gold standard on reproductive health care and made it possible for California to be a sanctuary state.”
Despite that, women are underrecruited to run for office and often face barriers like harassment and difficulty fundraising.
More women in the halls of power can also have an effect on the building’s culture, Delano said.
Female staff who work for the Legislature have pointed to persistent problems with the process for reporting workplace harassment.
“I think culture shift is what's needed there,” Delano said, “and that doesn't happen at the blink of an eye. It doesn't happen with a couple new members coming in. It really takes a big wave like this.”
Historically underrepresented groups see record wins
Caroline Menjivar, a newly sworn-in Senator from Southern California, will be the first LGBTQ lawmaker to represent Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
As an out lesbian, veteran and daughter of El Salvadoran immigrants who grew up with financial insecurities, “I’ve had to really fight for what I've been able to obtain my whole life,” she said in an interview.
Menjivar has served in male-dominated fields including the Marine Corps, as an EMT and a fire explorer. She said her underrepresented race, gender and sexual orientation have at times contributed to feelings of imposter syndrome, but right now, she’s celebrating her victory in a race where she was seen as an underdog.
“In this moment it's very much, hell yeah, I deserved this. I'm meant to be here. I was always a qualified candidate,” she said.
Menjivar’s intersectional identity will influence the policies she plans to pursue: housing, mental health for Black and Brown youth, environmental justice and a potentially long and difficult battle for state-funded child care.
“I refuse to leave Sacramento in 12 years without universal childcare. That's all I'll say,” she said, referring to the length of California's legislative term limits.
Other incoming lawmakers breaking barriers:
- Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward) became the first Afghan-American lawmaker, as well as the first Muslim in the Senate and only former foster child in the chamber, according to her campaign.
- Asm. Corey Jackson (D-Riverside County) is the first out LGBTQ Black lawmaker.
- Asm. and physician Dr. Jasmeet Bains (D-Bakersfield) is the first South Asian woman to serve in the Legislature.
- Asm. Bill Essayli (R-Corona) is the son of Lebanese-American immigrants and the first Muslim to join the Assembly.
A growing Renters’ Caucus
By unofficial counts, this year’s legislature will also include a record number of renters.
A fledgling renters’ caucus was created earlier this year to advocate for the interests of the state’s nearly 17 million residents who do not own their homes.
While the group — which started with three members in the Assembly — has not yet met since the election, it could include at least two new members in the Senate, said chair Matt Haney (D-San Francisco).
“Renters are a group of Californians who have a lot of policy issues that are impacting them, whether that’s eviction protections, building more housing or the cost of rent,” Haney said.
“I think it’s important that we increase representation of renters and that renters work together,” he said.
Haney said he plans to introduce legislation during the upcoming session regarding security deposits, which often require two or three months’ worth of rent upon signing a new lease on an apartment.
“For many Californians, that’s $10,000. Most Californians don’t have that much money lying around, and that increases homelessness and housing instability,” he said.
Correction: This article has been updated to note that Aisha Wahab is the first Muslim lawmaker elected to the Senate, while Bill Essayli is the first Muslim elected to the Assembly.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Asm. Stephanie Nguyen's name. It has been corrected.
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