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Suddenly a Congress More Like America : More women and minorities are voted into halls of power

The big news in this week’s election was change, and voters don’t have to look to the White House to find it. Capitol Hill is taking on quite a few profound changes itself--and the Senate and the House will never again be the same.

The Senate, long America’s most powerful, homogeneous and exclusive club, is getting several new members--women and minorities--who will help the upper legislative chamber look a bit more like the people it represents.

California made history this week by electing not one but two women, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to the Senate. Washington state also elected a woman as senator, Patty Murray. And in Illinois, Carol Moseley Braun made it into the books by being voted the nation’s first black woman senator and the first African-American senator in more than 13 years.

The election of these women will mean more than just a new look for the Senate chambers. It will mean that they are bringing both their political beliefs and life experiences into the Senate.

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Many times, their votes will not stand out as different from those of their male colleagues. But sometimes the fact that they are women will indeed make a key difference in how they see an issue--and how they vote on it. Greater numbers of women can only bring the Senate closer to the concerns of that half of the population that too often has been given only a token voice.

These newly elected women, along with the three current women senators, still represent only a small percentage of the Senate’s 100 members. But the progress is undeniable and an exciting development for the republic. Why? Because it makes a difference when Americans see political representatives who look like them and speak like them as well as speak for them. Then more Americans feel included. Then more Americans feel as if they have a stake in the system. Then more people find ways to constructively participate--as voters did in droves this week. That’s the healthiest thing that can happen in a democracy.

That’s why the election results this week were exciting for people of color, too.

In addition to Braun, there is Rep. Ben Night-horse Campbell of Colorado, who will be the first American Indian in the Senate.

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The numbers of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans grew in Congress: Blacks were expected to hold nearly 40 seats; Latinos--including the first woman to follow her father into Congress, Los Angeles’ Lucille Roybal Allard--about 15, and Asian-Americans seven. Jay C. Kim, who won a House seat in the 41st District in Los Angeles and Orange counties, will be the first Korean-American to go to Congress.

There are some who bemoan the trend toward identifying Americans by gender, race, ethnicity--the hyphenated American. There’s something to the concern that Americans are looking too closely at their differences and too little at their commonalities. But as more women and minorities move into the halls of power, we can look forward to the day when the elections of women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and American Indians are so common that they no longer merit comment.


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