Why won't they run?

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Mike Heine
Friday, January 25, 2008

Ella Pious is one of the few.

She is one of the few people in Walworth County to serve her government for more than 30 years.

She also is one of the few people in Walworth County to serve her government as a minority.

The county's minority population is growing, no question about that.

But there is a question on Pious' mind. Why aren't more minorities serving—on county boards, city councils, school boards, service committees, etc.?

"I don't know if it's lack of interest or ignorance. I really can't say," said Pious, a 90-year-old retired social worker from the African-American community of Lake Ivanhoe. She has served on the county's health and human services board since the early 1970s.

"When I talk with the few (minorities) I think would be interested, they just aren't interested. What accounts for that? I really can't say. Maybe because they haven't been exposed to government enough or are suspicious or mistrustful."

There are nearly 150 elected officials in Walworth County's 16 towns, seven villages, four cities and the county government itself, plus several dozen school board members in 15 county school districts.

And there are few, if any, minority elected officials.

Yet the county's minority population increased from about 5,000 in 2000 to more than 11,000 in 2006. That's nearly 10 percent of the current population, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Minorities represented about 5 percent of the population in 2000, according to bureau estimates.

Unsolved mysteries

So why aren't more minorities participating in government?

The reasoning could be broad, said Charles Franklin, a professor of political science at UW-Madison.

The minority population in Walworth County, as indicated by the census data, is relatively new and is still small when compared to urban areas of the state.

"It's not unusual for new and growing populations to lag behind in running candidates for office," Franklin said. "That's neither good nor bad. It's simply the way the political and social process works. The exception might be where you have unusually fast growth and some self-conscious community that has developed."

They are, "new people that are beginning to learn the way of American life," said Margarita Garfias de Christianson, a bi-lingual specialist at Comprehensive Family Services in Beloit. "People are not prepared to lead themselves because they are continuing to learn how the system is run. It's hard to maneuver in it."

A second issue is the nature of the recent arrivals' community.

Latinos, for instance, are busy finding housing, stable jobs, transportation, enrolling children in school and earning citizenship.

"A lot of Hispanics, (especially) relatively recent arrival Hispanic populations, are more involved in (their own) economic success and economic striving, whether that means working hard or starting a business," Franklin said. "I'm just saying that tension is focused more on economics than it is politics and communal behavior."

Sometimes there might not be a polarizing force for a community to rally behind. Without one, there often are few candidates for office, Caucasian or minority, Franklin said.

"I think one of the mobilizing factors of people running for office is a perception that the community is not getting the services it deserves," he said. "If a community is consciously aware that it is not getting those services, that provides an opportunity for one of these people to step forward. That gives them a base to capitalize on—unsatisfied constituents—and it gives them a reason to run."

There hasn't been much noticeable outcry by minority populations in Walworth County.

The biggest "mobilizing factor" occurred in Whitewater's Hispanic community after an Aug. 8, 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at Star Packaging.

Authorities arrested 25 suspected illegal immigrant workers and the company's owner.

Many Whitewater Latinos were outraged and spoke out against the raids. A public relations campaign by the city to reach out to Hispanics has apparently promoted understanding. The situation has since quieted in the college community.

If there is unrest in the county's minority communities, elected officials might not know about it, Pious said. Unless the elected go out looking, they won't find problems.

"If a need isn't expressed, then they're left in ignorance themselves," Pious said. "So they just go on doing what the board has done. Maybe the adage applies that they don't fix it, but they don't know it might be broken."

Language is another barrier. If minority populations can't speak the language of government, they might never get their messages across, Garfias de Christianson said.

"Most (Latinos) come here with monolingual skills, speaking only one language, and that's Spanish," she said. "They cannot express themselves in a way that they could make any complaints ... If they don't understand it, then they cannot very well criticize or voice their opinion."

Outreach important

Delavan, a city that is more than 20 percent Latino, is seeing minorities use the services offered, city Administrator Joe Salitros said.

The library and city swim pond are popular destinations for Hispanic kids, and there is significant minority participation in recreation programs, Salitros said.

What he's not seeing are complaints by minority groups.

"It's almost like it's a silent but growing sector of the population," Salitros said.

That's not to mean they should be ignored.

Politicians should be proactive in addressing the needs of minorities in their jurisdiction. Many might try to be, but they often toe the line as to not upset a predominantly white voting public, Franklin said.

"There's the old line and new immigrant populations," Franklin said. "It's a struggle between city officials protecting the old-line interest and the newcomers. If the conflict is too great between constituencies, then there is opportunity for leadership to accommodate the interests of the newcomers."

It takes minority groups time to adjust to their community, and it will take governments time to adjust to the growing minority presence, said Susan Johnson, UW-Whitewater Political Science Department chairwoman.

"As a community, if you're trying to develop good community relations, there should be an outreach to all different groups in your community," Johnson said.

"If there's a certain point when that (minority) constituency gets to a critical mass, from a political standpoint, I suppose it should have a good relationship with what is called the outside group. It's a communitarian idea, reaching out to new people in the community to get them involved."


Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision that Americans of every kind could live in harmony remains at the top of the nation's agenda nearly 40 years after his assassination. The Janesville Gazette is examining local aspects of that vision as it marks Martin Luther King Day 2008.

Monday—Lots of schools and businesses take a day off to mark Martin Luther King Day, but not the Janesville School District. Reporter Frank Schultz tells what the local district does instead.

Tuesday—Rock County has done so well in addressing the imbalance of minorities in juvenile detention that it's earned a grant to expand a Beloit-based program to Janesville. Reporter Ann Marie Ames talks to two Beloit boys about how their lives have changed.

Wednesday—Eric Beck remembers when his family was one of three black families in Janesville. Reporter Stacy Vogel tells the story of Eric and his daughter, Amy, and asks them about Janesville's growing diversity.

Thursday—Which Wisconsin school district with the highest concentration of native Spanish speakers? Delavan-Darien. Reporter Kayla Bunge asks how the district has adapted.

Today—Walworth County is becoming more diverse, but does local government reflect that trend? Reporter Mike Heine takes a look.

Last updated: 12:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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