Arizona legislature faces risk of no African-American state lawmaker for 1st time in over 60 years

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Arizona has currently only one African-American representative in its legislature and with Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor’s expected departure in January 2015, the state could become one of few without a leading black lawmaker.

This possible lack of representation has been a pressing concern for Sen. Taylor (D-Phoenix) who has served 15 years in Arizona’s legislature and is now the state’s lone African-American representative. On Tuesday, she took her seat for her last term as a member of the senate — a position she has held for the last seven years after serving eight years in the House of Representatives.

With Sen. Taylor’s departure, which comes due to term limits, there is a chance that Arizona could join a handful of other states with no current black lawmakers including Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont and Utah.

The state’s African-American constituents fear their voice may be stifled in the Republican-dominated state.

“This is something that is more than unnerving,” Sen. Taylor told theGrio Wednesday. “I think in our state of Arizona, and of course across the nation, it’s crucial to have diversity and representation in the state.”

According to the census bureau, Arizona’s African-American population makes up 4.5 percent of the state’s total population of 6.6 million.

However, while the percentage may be small, it reflects a segment of the state’s residents who have racially identified with at least one member of the state’s electoral body for the last 64 years.

If that void is not filled following Sen. Taylor’s departure, it will be the first time the legislature will be lacking a black state lawmaker for the first time since 1950 when Arizona elected its first black members to the House – Hazyel Burton Daniels and Carl Sims Sr.

“Without having an African-American in the legislature, the issues of African-Americans will go by the wayside,” said Sen. Taylor, who is championed for her efforts on foster care, adoption and child protective issues – which are all areas, she says, that predominately affect African-Americans in the state.

Among the other big issues blacks in Arizona face are dwindling education rates, challenging Medicaid distribution and unhealthy environmental spaces.

Sen. Taylor has contributed to a campaign pushing to teach all students how to read by the third grade. Yet she says many of the areas in her district that are struggling with this mission are those populated by African-Americans.

These are the same communities that live in highly polluted areas of the state that lead to large number of cases of black children contracting asthma.

Since she became a member of the legislature in 1998, Sen. Taylor has used her voice as a megaphone for Arizona’s black community and has tackled some of the aforementioned issues firsthand.

“Sen. Taylor has always been a strong and influential voice in the African-American community but also to the community as a whole,” Frank Camacho, the communications director at the Arizona Democratic Party, told theGrio. “Her absence or leaving is sure to leave a void.”

Despite the lack of black representation in the Arizona legislature, Camacho emphasized that the state does have a handful of elected African-American leaders on city levels including council members Corey Woods, Coral Evans, Marvin Brown and Vallarie Woolridge.

However, for the first time in more than four decades, there is also not a single African-American on the Phoenix City Council, reports AZCentral.com.

“The goal would be to have a state legislature that would be reflective of the diversity and that’s one we hope we can address,” Camacaho said.

“It’s important that everyone’s voice is heard on every issue and that every point of view is considered.”

Sen. Taylor says she is pushing hard to make sure the void she leaves is filled. It is a seat she will leave vacant as she plans to campaign for secretary of state following her last term in the senate.

“My plan is to really work hard to make sure it’s going to occur, I want  to build a bond and work hard to recruit good candidates who are interested in running and will run good campaigns,” she said.

As a veteran in Arizona’s political arena, Sen. Taylor is fully aware of the obstacles potential black candidates may face in their election campaigns such as a small voting population and rising competition.

In addition, the racially charged climate in some areas of the state may prove to make things even more difficult. This is reflected in a state that previously resisted the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday and more recently, drew negative attention after students at Arizona State University threw an “offensive” MLK party where they were pictured wearing basketball jerseys, throwing up gang signs and drinking out of watermelons — an incident Sen. Taylor called “disturbing, disheartening and saddening.”

But in order for any future black candidates to claim victory in what is expected to be a challenging campaign, she urges them to “get their messages out there” and “be pragmatic.”

“I don’t see why it’s impossible to be able to gain multiple seats,” she said. “What I do see is working with alliances and making people understand to the importance of diversity, it’s extremely critical.”

Camacho also remains optimistic for future candidates and points to President Barack Obama’s election as an example of success:

“America elected President Obama not once, but twice and if you look at the reasons why it was the idea, the vision and the hope he provided and candidates in Arizona can learn from that.”

Follow Lilly Workneh on Twitter @Lilly_Works