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Little diversity on Hill — still

Legislature nearly all white, GOP and LDS

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Incoming Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Salt Lake, is ready for today's start of the 2005 legislative session. The freshman says he's approaching the session with his "eyes and mind open."

But Wheatley and another freshman Latino lawmaker, Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, say they'd rather the session didn't start on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a federal and state holiday.

"I think that should be changed," Wheatley said of a state constitutional requirement that the session start on the third Monday in January.

Still, Wheatley said he's looking forward to commemorating King's peaceful activism toward a dream of a colorblind society today, along with fellow lawmakers at a brief ceremony.

"The 'I Have a Dream' speech still brings shivers to your soul when you hear it," he said. "It is so inspirational."

Romero said Utah needs to embrace its increasing diversity. The composition of Utah's Legislature traditionally isn't reflective of that diversity.

Still, even with the loss of one black lawmaker — Republican Sen. James Evans — the number of minorities in the Legislature doubled to four of the 104 lawmakers on Election Day.

Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, who is black, was re-elected. And freshman Republican Curt Oda of Clearfield adds a Japanese American voice to the House. Oda is also the only minority GOP lawmaker.

Utah doesn't rank high on non-racial diversity, either. There are only 15 women in the 75-member House; five in the 29-member Senate. And around 80 percent of Utah legislators are members of the LDS Church.

There are, however, three incumbent lawmakers who aren't racial minorities but who represent Utah's diversity — Salt Lake Democratic Reps. David Litvack, who is Jewish, and Jackie Biskupski, who is lesbian; and Sen. Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, who also is Jewish.

While the Legislature's diversity (3.8 percent minority) still doesn't reflect the nearly 16 percent minority population statewide, according to census estimates, some in the minority community are encouraged that more people of color will be serving.

"As Hispanics we feel more represented," said Luz Robles, co-chairwoman of the Utah Hispanic Legislative Task Force. In fact, this is apparently the first time Hispanics have been elected since civil rights activist Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake, was re-elected in 2000. (He served in the House for years before being elected senator.) Suazo died in 2001 and his widow served out his term.

Litvack said diversity at the Capitol is a welcome way to bring "different life experiences into the debate. I look forward to Ross and Mark to bringing a new perspective."

Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch NAACP, said she hopes the new lawmakers will make a difference, from an equality point of view. Her ideal: a style such as Suazo's.

"That would be looking at all the issues coming out, and saying with full force, 'This is one of the bills I'm going to support and these are the reasons why. . . ,' " Williams said. "We need to have people in who are their own individual thinkers."

Some issues of concern: continuing the Center for Multicultural Health, preventing predatory lending, and education.

Romero, 34, an attorney at the Salt Lake law firm Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough; and Wheatley, 49, director of the prison education program at Salt Lake Community College, both said minority issues are important. They say their key issues, such as education and health care, will benefit minorities while encompassing the population in general.

Oda, 51, an insurance agent, said some in the minority community might be disappointed with him, since he's not convinced that civil rights legislation such as a hate crimes law is needed.

His key concern is economic development statewide and keeping Hill Air Force Base off the military chopping block.

"We've got people with good work ethics; we just need to show we are a good value," he said of the base.

As freshmen Democrats, both Romero and Wheatley acknowledged they'll have to work with Republicans if they want to make a difference.

Romero said he'd like to work toward passage of the "Jones-Mascaro bill" that would raise funds for schools, in part by cutting tax deductions for dependents. That bill has failed two years in a row.

Wheatley said making sure seniors have adequate housing is an important issue in his district. Education is also a key issue he hopes to make a difference in. He noted high minority drop out rates as a key concern.

"Education in general is such a challenge," he said. "We can do better ensuring that children receive the same education, access to materials, resources and quality teachers."

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com