On International Women’s Day, PPIC president and CEO Tani Cantil-Sakauye moderated a discussion with four influential women in the California State Legislature: Tina McKinnor, representing Assembly District 61; Janet Nguyen, representing Senate District 36; Liz Ortega, representing Assembly District 36; and Nancy Skinner, representing Senate District 9. These four leaders talked about their own experiences, their legislative priorities, and the importance of diverse voices in the policymaking process.
Nancy Skinner, who chairs the Legislative Women’s Caucus, noted that the share of women in the legislature has increased from 22% to 42% over the past decade—indeed, this year’s legislative class includes the largest number of women (50) in the state’s history. She explained that the caucus has been focused on increasing the number of women for the past eight years. “We put a very concerted effort towards that,” she said. “We’re very proud of that success.”
How does increased diversity affect the policymaking process? Each leader emphasized the connection between her personal experience and her legislative priorities—from investing in education, to addressing the fentanyl crisis, to making housing more affordable.
“It’s hard to talk about what we will be doing without talking a little bit about where we all came from,” said Liz Ortega. “My mother crossed the border as an undocumented woman . . . with me as a three-year-old and my six-month-old brother,” she explained. “My mom brought me here for that American Dream and it’s my job to make sure it’s attainable for all of us.”
For Janet Nguyen, diversity means that more voices can be heard. “My family escaped communism and came to the US,” she said. “I didn’t speak English and my family was on welfare and food stamps. I’m able to bring that perspective to the legislature.”
All of these leaders are committed to continuing the effort to increase diversity. Skinner noted that the Legislative Women’s Caucus will keep pushing to get more women elected: “We intend to get to parity—and above,” she said. “Let’s get to the point where you might be worried because there are no men!”
Tina McKinnor underlined the historic underrepresentation of Black women in the legislature: “I’m only the 20th black woman to serve in the California state legislature. So we still have a lot of work to do on that.” McKinnor’s path to the state assembly began in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating. Partly out of concern for her two young sons, she deepened her community involvement. Last year, when her district’s assembly seat opened up, she decided to run: “I knew I would serve my people well and put people before power.”
The goal of serving constituents well was shared by all. “If you think about it,” said Nguyen, “the food you’re eating, the clothes you’re wearing, the air you’re breathing — whether you like it or not, it’s all governed by government. What I realized is that I want to be at the table and not on the menu. I want to be there when laws are created for or against someone like me.”
But these leaders also understand the importance of working with those whose perspectives differ from their own. “We’re not always going to agree,” said Ortega. “At the end of the day, we’re all here to serve the state of California.”
PPIC’s Speaker Series on California’s Future invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The purpose is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Any opinions expressed by event participants are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Public Policy Institute of California.