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Women and diversity win big in historic state and local elections

Women and diversity win big in historic state and local elections
Democratic New York Atty. Gen.-elect Letitia James celebrates her victory in Brooklyn on Tuesday night. (Andres Kudacki / Associated Press)

Much has been made of the historic firsts the election brought for Congress, with Muslims, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans winning key races along with more than 100 women.

But an even bigger number of candidates could add to the diversity of state and local offices, with landmark wins in the 6,066 state legislative races held Tuesday as well as local contests. In addition, several candidates made history in gubernatorial races, including Coloradans voting in the first openly gay man to be a U.S. governor and Maine and South Dakota voters electing their first women governors.

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“There’s not as much attention to the state and local races, but those are the ones that could really make a difference,” said Sayu Bhojwani, the founder of New American Leaders, an organization that trains immigrants and their descendants to run as progressive candidates for state offices. “If we want a Congress that looks more diverse in 10 or 15 years, much of it begins with people who are first elected at the state level.”

Results are still being counted for dozens of state and local elections, although experts agree the final count will probably produce the most diverse state legislatures and local politicians in history. Most non-white and women candidates were Democrats or aligned themselves with other liberal political parties, but Republicans also made made their mark on election day.

“We saw a record level of nominations for women in state legislative races,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Her group is still tallying results among the 3,389 women — 2,387 Democrats and 981 Republicans — who ran for state legislatures. But “we expect we will see increases in state legislatures nationwide, just as we have seen in Congress,” Dittmar said.

Here is a sampling of notable wins:

Kristi Noem celebrates her win in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Kristi Noem celebrates her win in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Briana Sanchez / Associated Press)

Women governors

Women won gubernatorial races in nine states. They include incumbents in Oregon, Iowa, Rhode Island and Alabama and newcomers in Michigan, New Mexico and Kansas. In Maine, Democrat Janet Mills will become the state’s first woman governor, and in South Dakota, Republican Kristi Noem will be the first women to lead the state. In Georgia, the race for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams — who is vying to be the first black woman governor in the U.S. — and Republican Brian Kemp remains too close to call.

In Guam, Democrat Lourdes Leon Guerrero’s win means she will be the U.S. territory's first woman governor.

And for the first time, women will make up the majority of the state Assembly in Nevada. Depending on final outcomes, the full state Legislature could become majority-women, a first for any state in the country.

African Americans

In New York, Democrat Letitia James broke several barriers in her win to become state attorney general. She will become the first woman elected to the office as well as the first black person in the position. She will also become the first black woman to hold a statewide office in New York.

In Portland, Ore., former Democratic state legislator Jo Ann Hardesty became the first black woman elected to the City Council. Hardesty is the current president the Portland National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

In Alabama’s most populous county, African Americans were elected for the first time to major law enforcement jobs. Democrat Mark Pettway will become Jefferson County’s sheriff, and Democrat Danny Carr will become district attorney in the county that is home to Birmingham. Both ran on platforms that emphasized criminal justice reform.

Asians and Latinos

In Minnesota, five Hmong Americans won races for the state Legislature. The suburban city of Richfield, outside Minneapolis, elected Maria Regan Gonzalez as the state’s first Latina mayor.

In New York, Democrat Kevin Thomas will become the first Indian American to join the state Legislature.

In Irvine, Farrah Khan won her election to be the first non-white woman on the City Council. Khan was born in Pakistan.

Democrat Jared Polis celebrates his governor's race win with running mate Dianne Primavera in Denver.
Democrat Jared Polis celebrates his governor's race win with running mate Dianne Primavera in Denver. (Rick T. Wilking / Getty Images)

LGBTQ candidates

The Victory Institute, a group that recruits and supports LGBTQ candidates, had counted more than 400 who ran for election. Many of those races are still to be determined. But a handful of winners have achieved historic firsts.

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In Colorado, Democrat Jared Polis was elected as the first openly gay man to be a governor. In his victory speech, he thanked “the LGBTQ pioneers for equality in the generations before me, who endured so much hardship and hurt to make it possible for so many of us — myself included — to live and to love openly and proudly.”

Polis is not the first openly LGBTQ person elected governor. That would be Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is bisexual. She won her election in 2016 and was reelected Tuesday.

In New Hampshire, Democrats Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker became the second and third openly transgender women to be elected to U.S. state legislatures. The first was Danica Roem, who won election to the Virginia House of Delegates last year.

Key West, Fla., a city known for its large LGBTQ population, elected Teri Johnston as the first openly lesbian mayor in the state.

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