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Oklahoma Legislature has five black lawmakers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)_ Roll call doesn't take long at meetings of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus. There are five black lawmakers in the 149-member Legislature. Two are senators and three are House members.

While blacks make up 8 percent of Oklahoma's population, they comprise just over 3 percent of the state legislature.

``Until a paradigm shift occurs, folks won't look for minorities to be in the Legislature,'' said state Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre, D-Tulsa, one of the five. ``Everybody can bring something to the table. But it's not a priority of others to make sure it happens.''

Lack of representation means that issues that heavily affect minority communities such as health care, unemployment and education often take longer to get addressed, she said.

In Oklahoma, more than 20 percent of the state's 3.5 million residents don't have health insurance. A lopsided majority of those people are minorities, said Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, a caucus member who is on the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Minority groups also make up a disproportionate share of the state's unemployed or underemployed.

``There are a lot people out there that actually believe that you work for $7 an hour because that's the job you want,'' Shelton said. ``Everybody would want to make $15 to $20 an hour if they could.''

The challenge of electing more black lawmakers begins with finances. Many are unable to get the same financial backing as white candidates, McIntyre said.

``I think there is a lack of interest in minority politicians,'' she said. ``The power structures that be don't get behind them, and they get maneuvered out of the way.''

It shouldn't be assumed that all white candidates have it easy, but access to the business world seems to elude minorities, said Sen. Angela Monson, D-Oklahoma City, a veteran caucus member and the first black woman and only Oklahoman to be elected president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

``The real deal is that African-Americans and many other minorities do not have access to corporations with major resources like our white counterparts,'' she said. ``You can call it racism, you can call it vestiges of discrimination or lack of exposure. You can call it whatever you want, but it is a political reality that we just don't have the same access.''

Rep. Opio Toure, D-Oklahoma City, the chairman of the black caucus, said many white people simply won't support black candidates.

Caucus members, all Democrats, come from urban districts with high populations of black voters.

``With the exception of J.C. Watts, and this is an exception to the rule, the majority white population has not shown an inclination to vote for African-American candidates,'' Toure said. ``In terms of what's needed for the change, the change has to come in the attitude of white people in our state.''

Watts was the fourth-ranking Republican in the U.S. House before retiring in 2002.

A popular former star football player at the University of Oklahoma, he was first elected corporation commissioner before running for Congress.

Meanwhile, the five ``have the daunting task of being representative of the entire state,'' said Rep. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, also a caucus member.

``Whether we hail from their district or not, we have black mayors from black towns that look to us to represent their issues, in addition to our own districts,'' he said. ``You kind of take on the role of a statewide elected official.''

Toure doubts more blacks can be elected until there ``is some soul-searching throughout the state,'' but says ``this is a struggle that has to be waged.''

He said he would like to see the day when blacks can represent places like Bartlesville, which has a black population of only 3.2 percent, and whites can be elected from districts with predominantly black populations.
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