Democratic Legislators to Watch

By consulting with a network of national and state sources, we've come up with a list of up-and-coming state legislators. Here's a look at the Democratic field.
by | June 1, 2011

Last week, we offered more than a dozen Republicans to watch in the nation's state legislatures. This week we turn to the Democrats. We assembled this list by seeking nominations from our network of sources in the states, as well as national experts on state legislatures.

In seeking nominations, we assumed that ambition was a given. We wanted to feature politicians with a long future, particularly with the possibility of winning higher office at the state or federal level.

We looked for leadership qualities, demonstrated either through formal leadership posts or service in junior positions where a legislator showed unusual initiative. The ability to strike alliances across party lines was a plus, as was a record of leading his or her party to noteworthy gains. We gave special weight to those who have a compelling personal story to tell.

If you don't see your favorite worthy legislator here, leave a comment below or e-mail me at loujaco@gmail.com.

Here's the list of Democratic legislators to watch, in alphabetical order:

Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams

Abrams, who is the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly, earned degrees from Spelman College, Yale Law School and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. She's a tax attorney and a former deputy city attorney for Atlanta. Despite being in the minority in the Legislature, observers credit her with winning concessions from freshman Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on a revamp of a scholarship program and for putting up a strong fight against a GOP tax plan. Under the pen name Selena Montgomery, Abrams has published seven romantic suspense novels.

Maine state Rep. Emily Ann Cain

Cain was born in Kentucky and grew up in Illinois and New Jersey before studying vocal music education at the University of Maine. At just 24, she was elected to the state House in 2004, and only six years later is the House Democratic Leader for the current legislative session. In the midst of a difficult economic period for the state, she served as House Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs in 2009 and 2010.

Washington state Rep. Reuven Carlyle

Carlyle had a turbulent childhood as the son of a single mother in 1960s San Francisco, spending part of his time being raised by friends in the community.* Eventually the family relocated to Bellingham, Wash., where he applied for and was chosen as a congressional page, working for such Democratic giants as Sen. Warren Magnuson, Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson and House Speaker Tip O'Neill. Carlyle eventually earned degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. After a career in the cell phone and software industries, Carlyle won an open seat in 2008 representing a trendy area of Seattle and has at times taken on figures in his own party. "I believe the people of our district elected me in 2008 to vigorously seek intellectual and moral independence from old-fashioned orthodoxies," he wrote. "We live in a 21st Century global community and stereotypical positions -- liberal, conservative, Democrat and Republican -- have little bearing on our children's future."

*This brief has been clarified to address Carlyle's upbringing.

California state Sen. Ted Lieu

Lieu's family emigrated from Taiwan to the United States when he was three years old. They started with little but eventually opened a gift shop, which became a small chain. Lieu attended Stanford, earned a law degree from Georgetown and clerked on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He also joined the Air Force, serving as a JAG prosecutor, including four years on active duty. Now in the reserves, he has attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. Before election to the Senate, Lieu chaired the Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee and Rules Committee, where he was a key mover of legislation on such topics as foreclosure prevention, child sex offenders, domestic violence, cyber-bullying, sewage spills and health insurance. Lieu ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for state Attorney General in 2010.

California House Speaker Pro Tempore Fiona Ma

Ma, who plans on running for state Senate, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Ma started her political career as an aide to former influential state Sen. John Burton, a Democrat. She won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before winning an Assembly seat in 2006 and quickly ascending the leadership ladder. Her legislative agenda has included restrictions on chemicals in toys, tools to fight domestic violence, expansion of high-speed rail and awareness of hepatitis B -- a problem disproportionate among Asian and Pacific Islanders, including Ma herself, who learned at age 22 that she had been infected at birth.

Utah state Sen. Ben McAdams

In a state with few prominent Democrats, McAdams has won praise for his success in bridging the gap between the parties. A moderate-to-liberal Mormon Democrat from Salt Lake City, McAdams won notice for his role -- while working as an aide to the city's Democratic Mayor Ralph Becker -- in assembling support for a city non-discrimination ordinance.

New Mexico state Sen. Cynthia Nava

Nava, who has held her seat since 1993, chairs the Senate Education Committee while also serving as superintendent of the Gadsden Independent School District, a largely poor district that has exceeded expectations. As a legislator, she is praised for her effectiveness in passing large numbers of often complicated bills, particularly on education. Recent bills sponsored by Nava that were enacted include an expansion of pre-kindergarten providers and a requirement that school districts establish free breakfast programs.

Indiana state Rep. Scott Pelath

Pelath, first elected in 1998, is assistant minority leader and a leader of the "Hoosier 39," who boycotted the Legislature for almost five weeks in a bid to deny Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels a quorum on right-to-work legislation. The Republicans decided to ultimately not pursue the legislation. An Army reservist, Pelath previously worked as an aide to former Democratic-U.S. Rep Tim Roemer.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Judy Schwank

Following the death of the Democratic incumbent in the Reading-area district, Schwank successfully won the seat despite a strong GOP push in a March special election. Schwank studied agricultural economics at Penn State and has previously won election to the Berks County Commission. She doesn't have much of a record yet, given her brief service, but one political observer in Pennsylvania noted that she "sits in the minority, with both chambers and the Governor's Mansion under Republican control. It should provide her with lots of opportunity to make speeches without having to take many tough votes."

South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers

Though still in his twenties, Sellers is serving his third term in the state House and has already completed a term as state Democratic vice chairman. He interned for U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin before going on to earn a law degree from the University of South Carolina. He's the son of Cleveland Sellers, a former national field director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who was jailed and later pardoned for his role in a 1968 protest in which state troopers killed three students and injured a dozen at South Carolina State University. Bakari Sellers was named to lists of up-and-coming leaders assembled by Time Magazine, Ebony Magazine and by TheGrio.com, a website focusing on African Americans.

South Carolina state Sen. Vincent Sheheen

Sheheen exceeded all expectations in his 2010 race for governor. Running in a strongly Republican state and a strongly Republican year, he lost to Nikki Haley -- who attracted considerable national media attention - by just four points. An effective legislator, he had sponsored 18 bills that became state law prior to his gubernatorial campaign. Sheheen, who's father was a state education commissioner, served as a city prosecutor and a state representative before winning election to the Senate. He's widely expected to run again for higher office.

Arkansas state Rep. Darrin Williams

Williams was adopted and grew up in Little Rock. He's a second-termer in a state with a three-term limit for state representatives, so he's positioned to become a strong contender for speaker -- which would make him the first African American to hold the position. He has already chaired the House Judiciary Committee, where he won a measure of bipartisan support for legislation. A financial-industry lawyer with law degrees from Vanderbilt and Georgetown, Williams worked as an intern for former U.S. Sen. David Pryor and later as chief deputy attorney general for Pryor's son Mark, then-Arkansas Attorney General and now a U.S. Senator. Williams has been discussed as a possible candidate for attorney general down the road.

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