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‘I serve everybody, proudly’: a Q&A with Minnesota’s first Latina mayor

Richfield Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez
MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak
Richfield Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez: "Let’s help non-traditional leaders of all different backgrounds feel like they can be a leader, too. That’s what I care about the most."

On Jan. 8, Maria Regan Gonzalez was sworn in as the mayor of  Richfield, making her the first Latina mayor in Minnesota history. The two-year City Council member ran unopposed for the position when incumbent Pat Elliott decided not to seek re-election. Regan Gonzalez (one last name: It’s Irish-Mexican) spoke with MinnPost about the rewards and challenges of running a fast-growing suburb, as well as her plans for a unique State of the City address next month.

MinnPost: Congratulations on your new job.

Maria Regan Gonzalez: Thank you! It’s been completely exciting and a little overwhelming. But more than anything, I can’t believe how good it feels and how humbled I am. I was so clearly reminded at the swearing-in that there’s a community behind me. It’s not about me. It’s about doing work in an inclusive way for Richfield.

MP: I want to talk about your plans, but first, you’ve gotten some attention for being the first Latina mayor in state history. How do you feel about that?

MRG: It’s bittersweet. I feel very honored to be a first, but in many ways it’s really sad that it’s taken until 2019. One of my favorite things is to spend time with the kids in our community because — one — they are inspiring and — two — again it’s bittersweet to see how impressed and excited they are to see a mayor who looks like them and who speaks to them in Spanish. It’s sad that it’s an anomaly.

My goal is to say, “OK, we’ve hit that check box, now let’s move on to really important things.” Let’s help non-traditional leaders of all different backgrounds feel like they can be a leader, too. That’s what I care about the most.

I don’t want the press I’m getting to make people feel like they won’t be represented. I am a proud biracial Latina, but that doesn’t mean I only represent the Latina community. It means that now the leader of the city has cultural identity of so many other residents. I also have that identity of a Midwestern white family because that is part of who I am too. I serve everybody, proudly. It doesn’t mean I only represent one community.

MP: You talk of visiting school kids to help them imagine themselves as leaders. Did you always want to run for office?

MRG: No, running for office was never an aspiration of mine. Growing up, I never saw anyone that I connected with serving in those positions.

MP: What changed?

MRG: A couple of things. In 2012, I started my first job in local government, working for the city of Richfield in the area of public health. That’s when I met Richfield and fell in love. My husband and I moved here. We said, what a beautiful, quiet gem of a town with a history of working families. Richfield is the second largest Tibetan community in the state; it has a strong Latino community, and many immigrant and refugee families. You can see that diversity when you walk the streets. The student body is 72 percent students of color. It’s walkable. It’s bikeable.

So, through that local government job, I fell in love with the community and realized that my passion and my strongest talent is bridging people from different backgrounds to make change. In local government, you can literally call up the city manager and say, I’m experiencing this issue — and it can get addressed. How do we do that so everyone can feel that way?

MP: What are your plans for your first month or so in office?

MRG: To start, I want to focus on building relationships with city staff and connecting with residents from across Richfield. I walk to listen to folks about their needs and concerns. From there, we can focus on some good policy priorities.

MP: You’ve talked about what you love about Richfield. What are some of the challenges that you face?

MRG: Our biggest challenge is our biggest opportunity. Richfield is going through a period of growth and renewal. There’s been so much development and lots of new families coming. Last year Richfield was voted the Best Suburb in Minnesota by City Pages, and two years in a row it’s been voted the hottest housing market. This is great! But, it puts a lot of pressure on our property taxes. The values of our homes have increased 10 percent the last 2 years each year. Richfield is only a 7-square-mile city, and it was already fully developed in the 1960s. Our neighborhoods are right up against our commercial districts. The only way we can develop is up. Some residents welcome that change; others don’t. In the local government, we want to be as proactive as possible to determine what that change looks like and to make sure that it benefits our residents. Given that a lot of growth has to do with market. A lot of it is out of control of local government.

MP: It sounds like you have a unique plan for your State of the City address next month.

MRG: I’m going to hold the State of the City address out in the community instead of in City Hall. Instead of me speaking, we’re going to do it in a collaborative way. We’ll have representatives from nonprofits, schools, and the community speak. It will be open to families. We’ll have entertainment. The goal is to say, “We are open, we are welcoming.”

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