We recently read a Washington Post article about the diversity of Congress, and that got us wondering: What are the demographics of Tennessee’s 109th General Assembly?
In honor of the legislature starting its 2015 session, we analyzed lawmakers’ official profiles and campaign websites, and here’s what we found: 83 percent of them are men, 86 percent are white and 96 percent self-identified as Christian.
Tennessee as a state is overwhelmingly white and Christian, so the lack of diversity in those areas doesn’t surprise Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer. What’s more disparate, he says, is the lack of female lawmakers. After all, women make up half the state’s population.
“There’s very little indication that, today, once they run for office, women have any real disadvantage,” says Oppenheimer, whose work has studied the diversity of national lawmakers. “They seem to be doing fairly well. Where they have trouble is getting nominations in the first place.”
Oppenheimer says that would require more political groups in Tennessee finding and funding female candidates. Because when voters get their ballot now, he says, voters might think: “Yes, I’d like to have more women or I’d like to have more racial minorities in the state legislature, but as far as my own district, this is the person who I think is going to do the best job.”
The demographic majority in a population tends to be over-represented in government, Oppenheimer says, though Tennessee still has representation of African Americans in the legislature. However, the Democratic Party has a monopoly on black legislators in Tennessee. The single non-white Republican is Indian American.
Update, Jan. 27: There are also two other Republican lawmakers who identify as ethnic minorities — State Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) is Mexican American and State Rep. Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro) is a member of the Native American Choctaw Nation.
Four lawmakers didn’t list their religion or place of worship on either their legislative profiles or their campaign websites. One lawmaker, John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) said he has a “Christian and Jewish family.” Everyone else was some denomination of Christian, with Baptist taking the lead.
Religion isn’t tallied in the U.S. Census, but according to a 2008 Pew Research survey, Christians make up about 86 percent of the state, while 12 percent of the state is unaffiliated.
Fair warning: This calculation was an unscientific process. Many lawmakers listed their colleges and degrees, but some listed a college without specifying a degree — we counted those as “some college” unless there was evidence otherwise. Others didn’t list any high school or college. When in doubt, we consulted VoteSmart.org, which sometimes had more specific information.
Even with the ambiguity, the difference is drastic. Eighty percent of the General Assembly has a higher degree, compared to 25 percent of the state.
State legislators are much more likely to be married than the average Tennessean, although it’s not a completely equal comparison. The U.S. Census reports the marital status of people 15 and older, while state lawmakers are, by definition, older: You have to be 21 to run for the House and 30 to run for the Senate.