Times are changing, albeit ever so slowly, according to new data quantifying racial and ethnic diversity among the Bay Area’s local elected officials.   

Over the past few election cycles, people of color have generally continued to make modest gains in the halls of power across the region but are still proportionally underrepresented compared to their share of the population, according to numbers compiled by the Bay Area Equity Atlas.    

The percentage of non-white elected officials — mayors, city council members, county supervisors and district attorneys — increased across the nine-county region from 29 percent in 2019 to 34 percent in 2021 to 37 percent in 2023. 

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

That would be great news for people who believe that a representative democracy works best when it’s racially and ethnically diverse — except for the fact that people of color account for 62 percent of the Bay Area population.  

“I think the story for all five years of data collection is that there’s huge underrepresentation of people of color in the halls of power,” said Michelle Huang, who spearheads the Equity Atlas data collection and research on the topic.   

“White electeds seem to be more disproportionately overrepresented compared to their share of the population, and this is both at the regional level as well as if you dig down into cities and counties,” Huang said.   

The current numbers show no change from 2021 to 2023 in the share of Latino elected officials, who make up 13 percent of the Bay Area’s local electeds and 25 percent of the region’s population.   

Asian Americans account for 27 percent of the population and now hold just 12 percent of local elected offices — up from 11 percent two years ago — and while people from the Pacific Islander community account for 1 percent of the Bay Area’s population, only one person from that population currently holds a local elected office.  

At the same time, the share of Black elected officials increased from 8 percent to 9 percent. And while 6 percent of the Bay Area’s population is African American, most cities still don’t have a single Black elected official and roughly 25 percent don’t have any council person of color, according to the Equity Atlas.   

Huang said the numbers are intended to help people better understand the distribution of power in the Bay Area.  

“We really needed hard, quantifiable data to make a stronger case for why we care about representation in the halls of power,” she said. “We’re not saying that as long as we have representation, we’ll solve all issues of racism and structural inequities in government.”  

That’s a sentiment echoed by Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe, only the second African American mayor in the 150-year-old city, which has a history of being a “sundown town” where people of color weren’t welcome and where Chinese residents were violently persecuted.  

Thorpe, who identifies as Afro-Latino, said that while people of color have been elected to city leadership positions in the past, it wasn’t until recently that the concepts of “diversity, equity and inclusion” have substantively influenced policy decisions.  

“Just because you’re diverse doesn’t mean you’re going to pursue a policy or agenda that’s inclusive,” he said.   

Nowhere is this more evident than in Thorpe’s efforts to reform the city’s beleaguered police department, which has been beset with a racist text messaging scandal and criminal investigations by the FBI and the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office into alleged abuses of power and excessive force.   

“A white mayor would be less horrified,” Thorpe said of the accusations that involve dozens of officers.   

“When I was not the mayor, in 2020, everything happened around George Floyd and police reform,” he said. “The mayor showed up and said, ‘I’m here to listen.’ A black mayor would have shown up and said let’s make a difference.”  

Thorpe is one of three African Americans on the five-member City Council in a city where people of color now account for 73 percent of the total population and Black people account for 20 percent of the population.   

He said the trio has been able to pass progressive policies like renter protections, funding for transitional housing and a community crisis team, which responds to mental health calls that in the past have been handled by police.   

“Where Black representation mattered has been in building a city centered on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Thorpe said. “For us, DEI isn’t some program on the side, it’s the nexus of how we operate.”  

Rohnert Park Mayor Samantha Rodriguez was 32 when she became that city’s youngest ever City Council member after being appointed to replace a member who left office early for personal reasons.   

Soon after being sworn in, she was appointed mayor by the council, which serves a city that’s 59 percent white but where white people account for 73 percent of city and county elected officials.  

“I’m the first and only Latina to sit on the City Council for Rohnert Park, and my understanding is that there’s only been two Latinos in the 62-year history of the city,” Rodriguez said.  

Like Thorpe, Rodriguez said her lived experience as a person of color has informed her policy positions.  

As an example, she cites her efforts to ensure that a new anti-sideshow ordinance wasn’t violating innocent bystanders’ civil rights.  

“As a woman of color, how do I know that I’m not subject to arrest based on what can be viewed as a blanket ordinance,” Rodriguez said. “If you haven’t had those lived those experiences, you might not have asked those questions.”  

To help encourage other people of color to run for local office, Rodriguez testified in favor of recently passed legislation by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, that allows city councils to raise their maximum pay to keep pace with inflation.  

“I told the Assembly that in my lifetime this hasn’t been looked at, this hasn’t been changed since 1984,” Rodriguez said. “I’m a good example — I came into office because my predecessor needed to step down because of family, and having a full-time job, not being retired, not everybody has access to generational wealth or passive income.”   

Rodriguez, who grew up in the district she represents, subsequently ran a successful re-election campaign and believes her life-long connection to the area and her Spanish language skills where a big plus.  

“I’m sure being Latina played into it and also I know where I grew up, I’ve been here 30 years, my neighbors know me, my community knows me,” she said. “My district is the most densely populated and tends to have a higher percentage of lower income, multi-generational homes and diversity, so seeing somebody who looks like you is helpful.”    

Not only is it helpful, but according to a July poll by the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, it’s what most people want.   

In the online poll of 6,164 registered California voters, 55 percent said it was “very important” for local elected officials to represent the diversity of their community, while 25 percent said it was “somewhat important.”   

Also, 47 percent of respondents said it was a “major concern” that the state’s elected leaders don’t reflect California’s diversity. Another 28 percent said it was a “minor concern.”   

“The poll does show that a broad range of voters believe it’s important for their local elected officials to be representing the diversity of their own communities,” said IGS polling director Mark DiCamillo.  

That attitude is shared by a majority of Democrats and Republicans, people of all ages, genders and racial groups, DiCamillo said.   

One long-standing possible hurdle to achieving a more diverse body politic is the fact that 71 percent of regular voters are white, while intermittent and non-voters are more likely to be younger, people of color, less apt to have college degrees and more likely to be renters, he said.   

“The broadest turnout is usually in a presidential election year, that’s when those intermittent voters are more likely to vote, but you really need to get their participation in off-year elections, state elections and primary elections,” DiCamillo said. “That’s where the challenge is.”   

And while both Thorpe and Rodriguez said the Bay Area Equity Atlas data seems to slightly miscount the number of elected officials of color for their cities, Huang said she welcomes any feedback or corrections.   

“Even though there might be minor edits and corrections, for the most part we see that the share of electeds in the region is overwhelmingly white and overrepresented compared to their share of the population,” Huang said. 

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.