Fewer Than 2% of US State Lawmakers Belong to the Working Class, Leaving Business Owners to Shape Public Policy

Running and serving in the state legislature is expensive, and working class candidates face barriers of time and money.

Johnboy Palmer billboard
Johnboy Palmer is the rare working class candidate running for the state house.
Courtesy Johnboy Palmer

This article is part of Unequal Representation, a project by the Observer and Quartz. Click here to see other articles in the package.


On weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., JohnBoy Palmer works as a serviceman for Hope Gas in Monongah, West Virginia. He spends his days turning on home heating gas for new residents, and responding when customers suspect a leak.

When he gets off work, Palmer, 36, begins campaigning for the vacant seat in West Virginia’s House of Delegates 74th District. He knocks on doors, hands out leaflets and tries to raise money in his first run for the state house.

Palmer—a Democrat who got his nickname as a Little League baseball player to distinguish him from his father, the coach—is running against Mike DeVault, a Republican business owner from a neighboring town. Palmer doesn’t have a lot of time to campaign, and has scrambled to raise money.

“It’s been challenging,” Palmer said early in his campaign. “I didn’t realize how much a race like this cost to run.”

Among his fundraising events was a meatball-and-rigatoni dinner at Monangah’s Town Hall Sept. 25. The suggested donation was $15 per dinner. “The hardest thing is asking for money,” he said. “You feel like a beggar.”

Johnboy Palmer
Johnboy Palmer Photo: Jennifer Sanders

 

While Palmer is running against DeVault, his biggest obstacle might be his occupation.

Winning a state legislative office as a working class candidate would make him one of the U.S.’s rarest species. Out of the nearly 7,300 lawmakers in 50 state legislatures, only 81, or 1.1%, held working class jobs or had one before their election, according to the first comprehensive breakdown of legislator professions, compiled by Nicholas Carnes, a political science professor at Duke, and Eric Hansen, an assistant professor at Loyola Chicago. 

By contrast, about 51 percent of all employed Americans are in working class jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The professors’ definition of working class occupations includes manual labor, service jobs and clerical work, but excludes business owners and employers.

As a group, working class Americans are less represented in state houses than women (31 percent), Latinos (13 percent) Blacks (10 percent) and Asian Americans (2 percent).

“Almost no one in elected office comes from the kinds of jobs that most people go to every day,” Carnes said.

While state legislatures receive far less media coverage than the U.S. Congress, they play a huge role in shaping the laws that affect Americans. From healthcare expansion to abortion access to gun legislation to election security, state legislatures are taking the lead on issues where the U.S. Congress can’t or won’t act. Consequently, understanding who serves in them is of vital public interest.

State legislatures come in many shapes and sizes, from New Hampshire, which has 424 lawmakers, to Alaska, which has only 60. Some, like Massachusetts, are in session year round, while others meet infrequently, such as in Montana, which is scheduled to meet just 90 days every other year. Pay also ranges vastly, from California, where lawmakers are expected to serve full time and make $119,700 annually, plus a $210 per diem, to New Mexico, where they serve for free, albeit with a per diem that ranges from $165 to $194 per day.

Yet for all their diversity, they are uniform in excluding representatives from the jobs performed by most of their constituents. Maine is the only state where more than 5 percent of lawmakers are working class, and it’s just 5.4 percent. New Hampshire (3.8 percent) and Alaska (3.3 percent) follow. Many states, including the two largest, California and Texas, have none.

The absence of working class legislators is due in part to rigid legislative calendars, which make it virtually impossible for hourly employees to serve. It’s also because candidates are often recruited and supported by party leaders who are more likely to identify people like themselves. But the primary reason is financial: It costs money to run and to serve, and public office is often too financially risky for lower-income candidates.

As a result, state legislatures are dominated by professionals and business people. Business owners make up 37 percent of all state legislators, while lawyers and judges are almost 14 percent.

Understanding the professions of legislators isn’t just about ensuring all classes are equally represented in state houses. According to research by Carnes, the occupations of lawmakers are more predictive of their votes on economic issues than their race or gender, and trails only their party affiliation as a marker of their preferences.

As a group, working class legislators—even those who are Republicans—are more likely to favor policies like raising the minimum wage, expand unemployment insurance or regulate corporations than their counterparts from professional backgrounds. When state governments don’t represent working people, their policy preferences are often discounted.

“Rich politicians who care about the poor are the exceptions,” Carnes said. “Working class people, when they get in office, tend to have different priorities, and those priorities are protecting the most vulnerable, and that’s true of Republicans or Democrats.”

Those policy preferences only show in economic issues, Carnes said. When it comes to social policy—votes on gun laws or abortion, for example—working class legislators tend to mirror their party.

Carnes has documented those differences in economic policy in other legislative bodies like city councils and parliaments overseas. And even in states with a small percentage of working class legislators, there is a perceptible difference in the state’s social welfare spending compared to the state’s with none, he said.

“We don’t have lots of examples where there are 20 percent or 30 percent or 40 percent of state legislators who are working class, so we don’t really know,” he said. “The best we can do is extrapolate from what we do see, and even conservative estimates are big. Billions of dollars more would be spent on protection for workers if state legislators looked like the country as a whole.”

State legislatures started with a bias toward the affluent

State legislatures predate the United States. The 13 colonies all had some form of representative body, although they were subject to the veto of a governor appointed by the King of England, according to Nancy Martorano Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton in Ohio. After the Revolutionary War, they morphed into state legislatures, and served as the model for the U.S. Congress.

Eligibility to serve in state legislatures was generally the same as voting: It was restricted to white men who owned property. Early lawmakers were often farmers, and legislative calendars, which usually started in January and ran into the spring, were based on the agricultural cycle and endure to today, Martorano Miller said.

There wasn’t much concern about the occupations of legislators, but there was a strong preference for affluence, which was thought to be a bulwark against corruption. “The biggest concern was that they were people of wealth and of independent will, because if you are a person of wealth, you’re a person that couldn’t be bought,” she said.

The restrictions on land owning persisted until the Jacksonian period, around the 1830s, and while women began serving in the 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1960s and the passage of the Civil Rights Act that the gates really opened to more equal representation, said Martorano Miller. That’s when lawsuits were filed to rectify extreme imbalances in districting that overweighted rural areas at the expense of cities and their diverse populations.

In the 1970s, states also began adopting laws to professionalize their legislatures, with some becoming full time, in an effort to recognize the work required and to broaden the pool of eligible candidates. By making legislating a fulltime job, it was theorized, less wealthy citizens could afford to serve. But it didn’t work out that way. Now 10 states have effectively full-time legislatures, but it has little bearing on working-class representation, and in some of those states, there are no working class law makers at all.

Football and mining shape rural West Virginia

Monongah, population 972, is in northern West Virginia, about two hours south of Pittsburgh. As is typical for this part of Appalachia, football and mining play a prominent part in the town’s history and culture. Nick Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama, played at Monangah High School in the 1960s, and the 1907 explosion at the Fairmont Coal Company’s mine that killed 362 is believed to be the worst mining disaster in U.S. history.

Palmer grew up in Monongah, and played guard on his high school football team before he began working as a gas serviceman. Like his mother and grandfather before him, he serves as the town’s mayor. The town’s median household income is $48,750, and 20 percent of the town lives in poverty, a slightly higher rate than the state as a whole.

Running for the state house, he said, was born out of a motivation to do more for his community. The three biggest issues he’s identified would be familiar to almost any rural politician: better roads, access to healthcare and high-speed internet service.

“I see all these other little towns and communities growing and I wonder, why can’t we?” he said. “I’m not a big politician, I’m just trying to make Marion County the best it can be.”

Palmer’s opponent typifies the small business owners that dominate state houses nationwide. DeVault, also a first-time candidate, has interests in a family-owned tire store and a fencing company he co-founded in 2000. He counts flying private planes among his hobbies.

Despite their differences in class and occupation, Palmer has actually out-raised DeVault, $37,852 to $17,775, according to campaign records filed Oct. 28. Among his biggest donors are West Virginia union’s political action committees, while his rigatoni fundraiser pulled in $3,590. Palmer attributes his success to overcoming his anxiety about asking for money. “I put my pride aside and simply made a post on Facebook asking for donations,” he said.

If DeVault is elected, he’ll be in good company: 43 percent of West Virginia’s lawmakers are business owners or executives. By contrast, just 3 percent—a total of four legislators—are working class in a state that is 58 percent working class.

Despite West Virginia’s long history of mining and union activity, the state house is overwhelmingly Republican, with Democrats holding just 33 out of 134 seats. The state house’s conservative tilt has led to bills and policies that favor businesses, in some cases at the expense of lower-income West Virginians, according to Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a non-partisan research organization.

For example, the legislature approved a bill that placed on the November ballot a referendum to modify how the state levies property tax. If approved, it would amend the state constitution to give the state legislature the ability to exempt business property from local property taxes. It would be a big win for companies that do business in West Virginia, many of whom are headquartered out of state, but could devastate the education budgets for counties and towns which rely on the tax revenue, according to the Center on Budget and Policy.

While Republican leaders say the tax cut will lead to new investment from out of state, DiStefano says that sort thinking has been endemic among the wealthy interests that lead West Virginia’s state government.

“For years, there’s been a fascination with the idea that the solution to West Virginia’s problems is ‘we have to get big employers who aren’t from West Virginia to come and save us’,” he said, noting the state legislature rushed through a bill this year that gave steel company Nucor $1.7 billion in cash and tax credits to build a plant.

 “If working class people were in charge you would see an about-face and re-prioritization,” he said.

Legislators from working class backgrounds say their presence can make a significant difference in drafting, debating and passing laws.

California was able to pass a 2016 law that paid farm workers overtime in part because of the family history of many lawmakers, said Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, the bill’s author who served eight years in the California assembly representing a predominantly Latino section of San Diego.

While the lawmakers themselves were not working class, the parents of many were migrant laborers, she said. “Latinos tend to be one generation out of the working class,” she said. “My father came here and picked strawberries.”

In Maine, Scott Cuddy, an electrician elected to the state House of Representatives in 2018, said even among Democrats, the concerns of low-income constituents can be overlooked until they’re raised by working-class representatives.

“When we caucus as a party, as the house Democrats, and a bill is brought forth from committee, that’s the time when we rise up and say to the caucus, ‘you guys aren’t thinking about this and this and how it impacts working people,’” Cuddy said.  

While his colleagues are well-intentioned, their own backgrounds can color their perspective, Cuddy said. “If you’re a college professor, your definition of work and my definition of work are really different.”

Cuddy points to a bill he introduced this year that requires large solar installation projects to pay the prevailing wage when state money is involved. His concern is that as high-paying fossil fuel jobs are phased out of the economy, they’re being replaced with low-wage green jobs.

“This was a collaboration between myself and the Maine AFL-CIO, and renewable energy,” he said. “Someone else could have introduced this bill, but here was a union electrician who has worked on these projects. My level of connection to this was very helpful.”

The obstacles facing working class representatives

The obstacles facing working class Americans interested in serving in public office are myriad, but most come down to money. It takes money to run, it takes money to serve and it takes money to endure the loss of job security and advancement that can come with public service.

After two terms in office, Cuddy isn’t running for reelection because he said he can no longer afford it. Maine’s legislators are paid an average of $13,208 for sessions that can last as long as six month. That was effectively a 50 percent pay cut, Cuddy said.

His first term he could afford it in part because of his wife’s income. But he has since divorced “and I simply can’t afford to do it without someone else making the money,” he said.

While the research shows paying legislators as full-time employees doesn’t increase working-class participation, Cuddy said even a modest raise in pay would have tipped him toward running again.

“If it’s a six-month session, and you took the state median income, which is $54,000, and cut that in half, that would be $27,000 for six months,” he said. “That would make it possible.”

Maine provided Cuddy with $5,475 of optional public financing, a sum he said was sufficient for the small state, where compact districts permit door-to-door campaigning and buying advertising isn’t prohibitively expensive.

But in populous states, the cost of running can be staggering. In California, candidates for state senate can raise more than $2 million to contest a seat. While even wealthy candidates seldom fund their own campaigns, raising large sums is easier when they work and socialize with rich potential donors.

In some states, the demands of running for office can be all-consuming. And while candidates can raise money for campaign expenses, not all states allow them to pay themselves a salary out of contributions. Only recently have some states allowed candidates to use campaign funds to pay for childcare.

Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher
Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher Photo by Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

“It’s a very classist approach,” said Gonzalez-Fletcher, the former legislator in California, where it’s illegal for candidates to draw a salary from contributions. “You can’t even take a gift from people. After $50, you have to disclose it, then it’s capped.”

For legislators who can’t afford to quit their jobs, they often have to juggle work and public service, and sometimes earning a living takes precedence.

Laura Supica was first elected to the Bangor, Maine, city council in 2017 while she was working as a bartender at Nocturnem Draft Haus, a popular downtown bar where she got to know her future constituents. “I do believe that is why I got elected,” she said.

In 2020, she ran for and won a seat in the state House of Representatives, and now works as a waitress at an upscale restaurant in Stockton Springs. Specializing in farm-to-table cuisine, she said the restaurant is closed when the legislature is in session, save for a few months in the spring. Then, Supica has to rush from the state capital of Augusta in the evening to get to work in time for the dinner rush. Sometimes that means missing key votes, she said.

 “My predecessor (in the House) was retired,” he said. “He was very proud that he never missed a vote, but I couldn’t say that.”

Supica says having understanding employers allows her to serve. “I don’t know how I would be able to do this if I had a boss where they think they own you.”

Like other working class legislators, Supica said her lived experience gave her insights into the needs of men and women in her state. In her first term, she said she was proud to have sponsored bills that expanded affordable housing and access to dental care.

“I know what it is like to not have dental insurance for the majority of my lifetime,” she said. “I didn’t have dental insurance until I won an election.”

Supica said she was able to run in part because Maine provides public financing for state house candidates, one of just five states that do.

Candidates in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut are eligible for public funding once they raise a certain number of small donations to prove their viability (in Maine, House candidates need at least 60 donations of $5). Once they enter the public financing program, they cannot raise additional funds. In Hawaii and Minnesota, candidates can receive matching funds provided they agree to a set spending limit.

While public financing hasn’t increased the number of low-income legislators, supporters say it is one of the steps, along with adequate legislative pay, that could help diversify state houses.

How does it change?

Supica was drawn into politics when Bangor city councilors at her bar heard Supica complaining that the debate over raising the minimum wage didn’t include the voices of working people. They encouraged her to enroll in Emerge, a program that prepares Democratic women to run for office.

“It doesn’t teach us policy, it just teaches us what it is to run a successful campaign,” she said. “It was a game changer.”

Founded in 2002 with a focus on California candidates, Emerge became a nationwide effort in 2005 and has trained more than 5,000 candidates, according to its website. More than 1,000 office holders have taken its training.

Other organizations focus on recruiting and training different underrepresented groups: The Victory Institute, for example, trains LGBTQ candidates; the Collective PAC works with Black candidates and New American Leaders supports new citizens and their children who are running for office. Justice Democrats recruits and funds candidates that pledge to support a platform that benefits the working class, but the candidates it supports often have professional backgrounds.

While there is no nationwide organization that focuses solely on working class candidates, at the state level, the closest might be the New Jersey AFL-CIO’s Labor Candidates School.

Launched in 1997, the program has since elected more than 1,100 union candidates across a range of New Jersey offices, including U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, a former electrician and state legislator.

The program is rigorous, structured and specific, said Charles Wowkanech, president of the state AFL-CIO and founder of the school. Candidates must be union members and have the support of their local officer. Only candidates who go through the training course will receive labor support in their campaigns, and only then if the labor council thinks they have a good chance of winning.

“We’re not going to run someone in a district we can’t win,” Wowkanech said. “It’s a waste of money, a waste of time.”

Candidates start running for local offices like city council and school boards, then advance to higher offices, he said, comparing it to baseball’s farm system. The program is non-partisan, and 33 percent of their office holders are Republicans. “If we’re in a Republican area, we run them as Republicans,” he said.

Wowkanech credits the program with some significant progressive victories in New Jersey, such as passing one of the nation’s first paid family leave acts, which required New Jersey’s employers to pay workers on maternity leave, something the federal government still doesn’t do. The program was expanded in 2019, again with support from union legislators.

Officials from other states have met with Wowkanech and discussed implementing similar programs, and although none have taken off, he’s optimistic others will follow New Jersey’s example. Given the imbalance in power in this country, getting working class men and women into office is the only way to ensure they are heard, he said.

“The corporate people have done a much better job of pursuing an agenda to benefit their corporations,” he said. “We need a seat at the table, we need a voice.”

  Fewer Than 2% of US State Lawmakers Belong to the Working Class, Leaving Business Owners to Shape Public Policy