Susannah Delano: Turnover for what? Women.

Susannah Delano, Executive Director of Close the Gap CA
Close the Gap CA’s Executive Director Susannah Delano will be the featured speaker at this AAUW event.

Capitol Weekly, by Susannah Delano, March 4, 2024

OPINION – By December, 73 out of 120 state legislators will have left the building in just two years.

As term limit reform kicks in, some critics have grumbled that this turnover is damaging, because we’re losing established leaders and decades of accumulated experience.

What’s being overlooked is the leadership and experience we’re gaining.

As an organization devoted to recruiting accomplished women to run, we worked for years with 20 of the new women members elected since 2016. As women, they are doing far more than closing the gender gap– each brings fresh, intersectional perspectives that are transforming policy and power in real time.

And the experience they bring to the legislative table is vital.

In 2022 California gained the labor and economics expertise of Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (Co-Founder of the lauded Los Angeles Black Worker Center), and the elections and democracy expertise of Assemblywoman Gail Pellerin (Santa Cruz County Registrar of Voters for 27 years).

We gained Senator Caroline Menjivar, a first-generation immigrant and LGBTQi+ Marine Corps veteran, whose advanced degree in mental health and experience as a social worker are clearly informing her first years of policymaking.

We gained Senator Aisha Wahab, the rare legislator who rents her home – rare, even though 17 million Californians also rent. She’s now a member of the upstart Renter’s Caucus, and as of February, chairs the powerful Senate Public Safety Committee as a former foster child and California’s first Muslim and Afghan-American Senator.

As term limit reform kicks in, some critics have grumbled that this turnover is damaging, because we’re losing established leaders and decades of accumulated experience. What’s being overlooked is the leadership and experience we’re gaining.

As for leadership? Before we encouraged any of the 20 Close the Gap women members serving today to run for a legislative seat, each had already racked up years leading on the front lines at the local level – mayors, city council members, school board members and more in nonprofit and business roles.

It’s clear: open seats are opening doors for new voices. Not just any voices – but precisely the ones that have been missing in the Capitol for far too long.

We expect the doors will open so wide this year that nine months from now, California will set a new record of at least 55 women in the Legislature.

Less than a decade ago, only 26 women members served in the Legislature.

Progress this dramatic doesn’t happen by accident. For women to win in high numbers, women have to run in high numbers.

It’s no coincidence that Close the Gap was founded 10 years ago, just after voters enacted term limit reform. We knew this decade would deliver a windfall of open seats, and we’ve been propelling talented women towards them ever since.

It’s working: the March 2024 primary ballot features a record breaking 135 women running for the Legislature. More than half (74) are running in open seats. Of 35 open seats, all but three feature at least one woman running. This is a sea change from what we saw just a decade ago, when all-male candidate fields were common.

And it’s one of the most diverse groups we’ve seen, with more than 50 women of color running for open seats (including eight AAPI and MENA women, 17 Black women, and more than two dozen Latinas) in every part of the state.

We coached 25 of the women leading up to their 2024 campaigns. The new wave looksand lives a whole lot more like the majority of Californians than any state government we’ve ever had.

For far too long, California left more than half the talent on the sidelines. In 2024, talent is storming the gates.

If we expect our leaders to reflect us as Californians, the current moment offers our best shot in a generation. Once an open seat is filled, most are off the table for the next 12 years due to the power of incumbency.

The time to make progress is now.

In 2022, open seats opened doors. In 2024, all signs are that those doors are going to swing open even wider. And a cohort of outstanding women are ready to walk right in and get to work.

We’re already recruiting for 2026. If you know a standout woman who should run, we’d love to hear from you.

Susannah Delano is the Executive Director of Close the Gap California, a statewide campaign to recruit and prepare progressive women candidates and close the gender gap in the California Legislature by 2028.