Representing Outside the Box

Representing Outside the Box: Identity-Based Constituencies and Surrogate Representation in U.S. State Legislators

Under contract with NYU Press

Whom do representatives seek to represent and how do they do it? Specifically, I seek to understand how marginalized state legislators define the concept of “constituency” and the implications for their legislative behavior. As I started this project, I wanted to see how theories of representation operate empirically. In 2003, Jenny Mansbridge wrote about various theoretical approaches to representation in her piece, “Rethinking Representation” (2003). Among others, she discussed “surrogate representation,” which she described as “representation by a representative with whom one has no electoral relationship” (p. 522). She went on to say that even “without any formal accountability, surrogate representatives sometimes feel responsible to their surrogate constituents in other districts” and that “the sense of surrogate responsibility becomes stronger when the surrogate representative shares experiences with surrogate constituents in a way that a majority of the legislature does not.” (p. 522). As I considered the dearth of women of color in state legislatures and the literature on political representation, I was intrigued by two lines of questioning, first, what is the impact of marginalization on legislators’ behavior, and second, how are our traditional approaches to understanding legislative behavior, and state legislative behavior in particular, impacted by taking a more gendered and racialized lens?

I argue that marginalized legislators, through their identity and/or their group proportion in the legislature, affect legislators’ policy priorities, their perceptions of their constituency, and ultimately their legislative behavior in achieving representation. While they may share some goals with their white male counterparts, they also have additional legislative goals and approaches to reach those goals that are specific to their marginalized identity, and those goals and approaches may also be mediated by the institutional context they are surrounded by. Furthermore, they will seek to represent this salient identity constituency through legislative behavior because of a moral obligation to group members. Such a perception of the constituency has implications for their hill and home style legislative behavior and affects their legislative preferences as well as their constituency activities at “home.” I argue that their conceptualization of “home” extends beyond traditional definitions that tend to be restricted to the geographical boundaries of the district, to include women and people of color–the salient identity constituency– more broadly.

Methodologically, I employ a multi-methods approach using three different data sources to both build and assess the theory. The data comes from face-to-face interviews with state legislators, an original survey of state legislators, and an aggregate data set of state legislators’ committee assignments from 14 states for three time points. The results show that when legislators are marginalized in their institution, their awareness of identity and identity-based issue needs are prioritized, and they will come to define group members as a salient identity constituency. I also show that representing both their district and a salient identity constituency may result in some additive pressures and compounded workload on their legislative activities. I examine the implications of the salient identity constituency theory through their legislative activities with constituents, their workload, and their committee memberships.