Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is Legislature Biased Against Working Class?

Just two of 132 members come from working class backgrounds, report finds.

By - Apr 4th, 2024 11:39 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Mike Sheridan started working at the General Motors Janesville assembly plant right after high school graduation. He became active in United Auto Workers Union and in his thirties went back to college to get his degree. Meanwhile he had been rising within the ranks of the union, becoming Local 95 president in 2002. Two years later he ran for and won a position as a state representative.

“My first day in the Legislature I looked around and thought, ‘oh my God, how did I get here?’ It’s all these men in suits and here I am, this working class guy.”

If Sheridan felt like an odd man out, he had reason to be. In Wisconsin and nationally, there are few state lawmakers who previously held working class jobs, according to a new study by Nicholas Carnes and Eric Hansen, political scientists at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago, respectively. They found that just 116 of the nearly 7,400 state legislators in the United States come from working-class backgrounds.

They defined legislators as working class if they currently or last worked in manual labor, service industry, clerical or labor union jobs. Nationally just 1.6% of state lawmakers met that definition, they found, compared with 50% of U.S. workers. Only about 2% of Democrats and 1% of Republicans serving as state lawmakers qualified as working class.

Wisconsin had exactly the same percentage: just 1% of Republican legislators and 2% of Democratic legislators are from working class occupations. Still that was better than in 10 states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia — that have no working-class state lawmakers, according to the study.

“In principle, anyone can run for office, but in practice, the people who are running and serving are overwhelmingly drawn from America’s professional classes.” Carnes noted. ”If you have an entire economic class of people that are not in the room when policy decisions are being made, that’s going to tilt the kind of problems politicians pay attention to.”

Sheridan recalls his first speech in the Wisconsin Assembly in 2005, urging an increase in the minimum wage. “When I got done, Republican Dean Kaufert got up and said ‘we’re in control of the House and it doesn’t matter what you say, we’re going to do what we want.’”

Ultimately Sheridan and Democrats passed an increase in the minimum wage in 2006, but there has been no state action since and the minimum is still just $7.25, set by the federal government in 2009.

Sheridan lost office in 2010. State Sen. Robert Wirch (D-Kenosha), another former factory worker and union activist who went to serve in the Legislature (since 1993), also points to the stagnant minimum wage as an example of how the working class lacks clout in the Legislature.

But the worst legislation was the Right to Work law passed in 2015, he contends. The law prohibits bargaining agreements between employers and unions which require employees who are not union members to contribute to the costs of union representation. “It was the greatest attack on labor unions in the history of Wisconsin,” Wirch says.

Union activists were never numerous in the Wisconsin Legislature, but are even rarer today. “There are not as many union people as when I started,” Wirch says. And unions have less clout today with the Legislature — even with the Democratic Party, he adds.

But the recent study on occupations is not just about union members or blue-collar workers, but considers a wide range of occupations that are unrepresented in state houses where college educated professionals and business people dominate.

Occasional surveys of legislators’ occupations have often noted the variety of jobs. Eight years ago the Center for Public Integrity analyzed 2015 disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers and listed lawmakers with such current or past jobs as horror movie producer, alligator hunter, hula dancer, reindeer herder, Uber driver and pro boxing and MMA fighting judge, “all occupations they say make them better legislators,” the report noted.

And in Wisconsin the Legislative Reference Bureau does a report on each new class of lawmakers. Among current senators, “three list themselves as practicing attorneys, three list themselves as realtors, and one lists himself as a farmer. Most others are small-business owners in a variety of fields, ranging from insurance to farm supplies.” As for the much larger state Assembly, 32 “list themselves as full-time legislators” and 36 as business owners, with seven attorneys, nine farmers and a scattering of other current occupations: “nonprofit leader or director, nurse, realtor, teacher, firefighter, onion broker, and veterinarian.”

But for every onion broker or alligator hunter there are tons of white collar professionals who dominate in every state house. The last survey of the composition of the nation’s 50 state legislatures by Stateline and the National Conference of State Legislatures, done in 2015, found that the percentage of farmers had fallen from 9.7% in 1976 to just 4.6%.

“The survey found 29.5 percent of legislators are business owners, or are in accounting, insurance, real estate or other business fields. In all, 55 percent of state legislators nationwide work in business, are lawyers, or say lawmaking is their main profession.”

This means certain kinds of workers get more consideration for legislation. The Center for Public Integrity’s review of disclosure reports “found numerous examples of state lawmakers around the country who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances.”

One key occupation seemingly overlooked in these reports was noted by Gordon Hintz, former Democratic representative and Assembly Minority Leader who stepped down in 2022. “One of the most common types of legislators is the former legislative staffer,” he told Urban Milwaukee. Or they may been a staffer for some other politician. (Hintz was an aide to former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl.) These, too, are white collar workers and basically professional politicians.

But it’s not easy to recruit working class people for office, Hintz notes, as they may not have the time and money it takes to run for political office. The massive increase in the cost of campaigns has made that all the harder.

All of which contributes to exactly the problem noted by this report. “I think there is a deafness within the Legislature,” Hintz says, “with the majority out of touch with what ordinary people face economically.”

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Is Legislature Biased Against Working Class?”

  1. Jeffrey Martinka says:

    Interesting stuff….neither party has folk in the capitol that came from the “majority occupations” of the state. And so how can either legislate truly in the best interests of the majority if they come from biz, white collar or govt backgrounds?

    The abysmal WI minimum wage level is a painful case in point. Imagine living on $15,080/year!! Whew….

  2. fightingbobfan says:

    Given the amount of time spent on a campaign, once a working person finishes a 40+ hour workweek, they have little time for that,, unlike professionals who have flexible time.

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