How Diverse Are Wisconsin’s Elected Officials?

A new report says: not very.

While Wisconsin ranks above average in a recently released report on racial and gender diversity among elected officials, don’t get too excited. The findings showed that no state’s makeup of elected officials matched the racial and gender makeup of its general population.

The Women Donors Network recently released data as a part of its “Who Leads Us?” project on racial and gender diversity among the 41,372 elected officials nationwide. Wisconsin ranks 17th out of the 50 states plus Washington D.C. Sixty-eight percent of our elected officials are white men (compared to the general population in which white men only make up 41 percent); 22 percent of our elected officials are white women (compared to 42 percent of the population); 7 percent are men of color (compared to 9 percent of the population); and just 3 percent are women of color (compared to 9 percent of the population). The study also created a power score, which “indicates how much representation white men have compared to the rest of the population.” Wisconsin’s power score is 3.2X.

As for our Midwestern neighbors, Minnesota ranked fifth, Illinois ranked eighth, Michigan ranked 14th and Iowa ranked 22nd.

The racial and gender gaps are especially wide for our 55 district attorneys, who are elected every four years. While 20 percent of Wisconsin DAs are female, there is only one non-white district attorney, Dane County’s Ismael Ozanne. In 2010, when then-Governor Jim Doyle appointed Ozanne, he became the first African-American district attorney in Wisconsin’s history.

On the opposite end of the power spectrum, the New Yorker recently examined the role of prosecuting attorneys and the racial imbalances of the justice system. Milwaukee County’s DA John Chisholm was the subject of much of it, including his efforts to reverse the trend of abnormally high incarceration rates for African-Americans. From Jeffrey Toobin’s story:

“In 2007, when [Chisholm] took office, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group based in New York City, had just begun studying the racial implications of the work of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. Over several years, Chisholm allowed the researchers to question his staff members and look at their files. The conclusions were disturbing. According to the Vera study, prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute forty-one per cent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with twenty-seven per cent of blacks; in cases involving prostitution, black female defendants were likelier to be charged than white defendants; in cases that involved resisting or obstructing an officer, most of the defendants charged were black (seventy-seven per cent), male (seventy-nine per cent), and already in custody (eighty per cent of blacks versus sixty-six per cent of whites).”

As part of Chisholm’s initiative to address this, according to the story, he’s stationing his prosecutors in various neighborhoods around the county to better examine why and who they’re charging, and with what crimes.

“Even findings in the Vera report that seemed encouraging turned out to have a troubling subtext. In addition to the city, Milwaukee County includes more than a dozen suburbs, most of which are predominantly white. ‘When I first saw the data, I thought, Here is some good news,’ Chisholm told me. ‘It said that we charge white offenders for property crimes at a higher rate than we do black offenders for those kinds of cases. So I thought, Good, here is a disparity the other way. That must balance things out. But a deputy of mine pointed out that what the data really meant was that we devalue property crimes in the center city. We don’t charge a car theft, because we think it’s just some junker car that’s broken down anyway. It meant that we were devaluing our African-American victims of property crimes—so that was another thing to address.'”

Nationally, 65 percent of all elected officials are white men, and 90 percent of all elected officials are white.

The largest gender discrepancies are at the federal level, where 81 percent of elected officials are men and only 19 percent are women. The gender gap narrows slightly in statewide offices and state legislatures and is narrowest at the local level, where 30 percent of elected officials are women and 70 percent are men.

The racial gap is widest at the state level, where 93 percent of elected office-holders are white and just seven percent are non-white.

Georgia had the least amount of diversity relative to the general population – 79 percent of its elected officials are white, despite 45 percent of its general population is made of up people of color. The state with the most diversity among its elected office-holders is New Hampshire.

Who Leads Us?

Diversity among leadership in the private sector isn’t much better, despite its measurable benefits. Only one of Wisconsin’s 23 Fortune 1000 companies has a female CEO, and nationwide, just 11.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Consulting firm McKinsey has been studying diversity at 366 of the world’s largest companies since 2007 and has repeatedly found that the companies with more diversity – including gender, racial, ethnicity and sexual orientation – perform better than their peers.




Claire Hanan worked at the magazine as an editor from 2012-2017. She edited the Culture section and wrote stories about all sorts of topics, including the arts, fashion, politics and more. In 2016, she was a finalist for best profile writing at the City and Regional Magazine Awards for her story "In A Flash." In 2014, she won the the Milwaukee Press gold award for best public service story for editing "Handle With Care," a service package about aging in Milwaukee. Before all this, she attended the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and New York University's Summer Publishing Institute.