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Record number of state lawmakers are women, African-American

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By Ran Coble

The General Assembly just ending reflects an institution that is changing.

The numbers of members who are women and African Americans hit record highs in 2005.

Rates of turnover among legislators remain high, averaging close to a fourth of the House and a fifth of the Senate every two years since 1984.

The first woman to serve in General Assembly, Lillian Exum Clement of Buncombe County, took office in 1921, right after the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote in 1920.

Women were a rarity in the legislature until 1973, when nine were elected.

Since then, their numbers have increased at a relatively steady pace, reaching a record-high 39, or 23 percent, of all 170 legislators this year.

This is nearly double the 12 percent of seats women held 20 years ago and now equals the average percentage of state legislative seats held by women across all 50 states.

North Carolina also leads the South in the number of female legislators.

With more women in the General Assembly, issues such as curbing domestic violence, providing affordable child care, and achieving pay equity among state employees have a better chance to be heard and acted upon.

Women now hold the majority of chairs heading the most powerful committee, Appropriations, which puts together the state budget.

Two of three Appropriations Committee co-chairs in the Senate are women, as are six of thrree Appropriations Committee co-chairs in the House.

Women also now chair or co-chair two of the six most powerful committees in the Senate and four of the six most powerful committees in the House — the Appropriations and Education/Higher Education committees in the Senate, and the Appropriations, Finance, Education, and Transportation committees in the House.

Significant Milestones in the Rise of African Americans in N.C. Politics

  • 1968: Henry Frye became the first African American elected to the General Assembly since the 19th Century.
  • 1991: Dan Blue (D-Wake) became the first African American to serve as Speaker of the state House of Representatives.
  • 1992: Ralph Campbell elected as State Auditor, the first African American elected statewide to the Council of State.
  • 1999: Henry Frye became the first African American to be named Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.

The 2005 General Assembly also had a record number of African-American members, with 26, or 15 percent of 170 legislators.

The longest-serving African American in the 2005 General Assembly is Representative H.M. “Mickey” Michaux (D-Durham), who has served 14 terms, beginning in 1973.

African Americans chair or co-chair one of the six most powerful committees in the Senate and three of the six most powerful committees in the House.

North Carolina also has high turnover among legislators.

Since the 1984 elections, turnover has averaged 22.9 percent in the state House every election, and 20.4 percent in the Senate.

The 2005 General Assembly has 12 Senators and 21 Representatives who are new since the 2003 session, with three more who were appointed to seats in 2004 and are serving their first full terms in their chambers.


Ran Coble is executive director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research in Raleigh For a copy of the center’s guide to the 2005-2006 legislature, call 919.832.2839 or order online from tbromley@nccppr.org.

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