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At times disappointed, House’s two-member ‘black caucus’ says overdue change is going to come — soon

Reps. Bobby Joe Champion, left and Jeff Hayden, DFL first-termers from Minneapolis, confer during the last week of the legislative session.

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Reps. Bobby Joe Champion, left and Jeff Hayden, DFL first-termers from Minneapolis, confer during the last week of the legislative session.

A conversation with Jeff Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion often sounds like an echo from the past.

Hayden and Champion, the only two black members of the Minnesota House, talk with urgency about the need for state government, the unions and the DFL to understand the issues of people of color in the inner cities: jobs, education, a level playing field, opportunity, acknowledgement of “historic injustices.”

All of those subjects come quickly to the forefront as the two Minneapolis DFLers talk about their first-term experiences in the Minnesota house.

Those issues sound familiar, don’t they?

Forfeiture debate offers a microcosm
An issue in this session that underscored so many of their concerns was an effort to rewrite forfeiture laws in Minnesota inspired by a Rochester DFLer, Rep. Tina Liebling.

Under current Minnesota law, there’s an administrative forfeiture law that allows police to confiscate personal property even if no charge ever is filed. The only way for an uncharged person to get the property back is to go to court, within 60 days of the property being seized, and prove that it should not have been taken. The poor in particular are targeted for forfeiture.

The infamous Metro Gang Task Force showed how easy it is to abuse that law, yet legislators could not summon up the strength to require conviction before seizure. Liebling sought to change the law so that conviction is required, before forfeiture. That effort was soundly defeated.

In fact, Champion didn’t vote for Liebling’s amendment because he saw it as failing to address many of the fundamental problems with forfeiture.

Champion is a man who believes in legislative process. He said he addressed his concerns on several occasions with Liebling. When she didn’t respond to those concerns, he simply voted “no” rather than make any impassioned floor speech, which might have shown up a colleague.

But it was the undercurrent surrounding forfeiture that pointed to the fact that so many state legislators do not understand the difficulties Minnesotans of color have in dealing with law enforcement.

“People [legislators] said it wasn’t the law that was the problem, it was the people applying the law,” said Champion.

“But the people on that Task Force didn’t come from just one department,” said Hayden. “This wasn’t just one renegade cop, or one renegade department. The Task Force had representatives from police forces from several departments. But ‘Oh no,’ we were told. ‘Just a couple of bad cops, not the law.’ “

(Police departments and the offices of county attorneys profit from this forfeiture procedure. After 60 days, police can sell the “forfeited” property and keep 70 percent of the proceeds for their departments. The county attorneys keep 20 percent. The state gets the remaining 10 percent. Not surprisingly, cops and county attorneys lobbied hard to keep the law in its current form.)

That’s just one example of the lack of understanding in the Legislature, the two said.

Whenever there was jobs legislation, efforts to add minority hiring language was opposed by unions, as well as the majority of legislators.

DFL Reps. Jeff Hayden, left, and Bobby Joe Champion, shown on the House floor, have strong feelings about their first legislative session.

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
DFL Reps. Jeff Hayden, left, and Bobby Joe Champion, shown on the House floor, have strong feelings about their first legislative session.

“The unions would tell us, ‘We’ve got people on the bench [in layoff status],’ ” Champion said. “These are hard times. We’ve got to get them back to work first. Well, we understand hard times. But the only bench our people are on is the park bench.”

Said Hayden, “We’re proud to be labor-endorsed. I was an AFSCME union steward, and I’m proud of that. But in the unions, there has to be 21st Century leadership that understands the changes all around us.”

Despite setbacks, they remain positive, optimistic
Disappointed as Champion and Hayden are in the current understanding in the Legislature, they are positive, optimistic people who are credited by their peers with taking the time to learn the legislative system, not use the legislature as a soapbox.

“We are trying to create the understanding that we’re all in this together,” said Champion.

The two sing the praises of now-former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher for giving all members — even first-termers — responsibility in the Legislature. They both call her a 21st Century leader and support her bid for governor.

In their terms, a 21st Century leader is one who acknowledges the breadth of diversity and understands the negative impact of such things as the academic achievement gap on all Minnesotans.

“We’re not looking for handouts,” said Hayden, “but we are looking for someone who will acknowledge the historic injustices, the biases that still exist, and will make the playing field level.”

“In real time, not just in speeches,” added Champion.

“Look around here (the Legislature),” said Hayden. “Look at the staff. The pages, the people who work in the offices. There are a lot of really good people. But all white.”

Where Hayden and Champion seem to differ from the handful of African-Americans who came before them in the Legislature is a confidence that things will change.

At the moment, they both acknowledge, such things as social programs for the poor are under attack, especially from conservative Republicans, whose message heading to November is to cut the size of government.

“President Obama’s mama once was on food stamps,” Hayden said. “If we’d have done to her what some people want to do now, we’d have thrown him away before he ever got a chance. You look at Bobby. [Hayden nodded to Champion.] You know his story. He was the fifth of six kids and the first in his family to go to college. He could have been thrown away. But he’s an attorney now and a legislator.”

In the short term, those who would cut deeply into what both Hayden and Champion see as fundamentally important social programs, may prevail. But …

“Change is coming faster than people recognize,” Hayden said.

The face — and color — of Minnesota is changing. They believe the ability of President Obama to inspire African-Americans to once again go to the polls after so many years of disappointment, shows there is huge power among black voters.

“Sometimes, there seems to be amnesia about why there was so much excitement around the Democratic Party,” Hayden said. “It was because people came out to vote, believing there would be change, expecting change.”

Those who forget what created that excitement, Hayden suggested, may be in for a rude awakening in November.

But November is short-term thinking.

“Change is coming,” Hayden said, “and when it does come, it will be good for everybody.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 05/20/2010 - 02:08 pm.

    Hayden and Champion seem pretty optimistic. I can only hope they are right.
    I think we should add to elected officials’ requirements (such as being of age, a citizen, and a basic education in government–this latter isn’t required but should be) two more: that each elected person, before taking office, must spend a week each in any institution in which they propose cutting funding–schools, healthcare, and existing on welfare, for beginners, and a short course in white privilege.

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