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The unopposed: Meet Minnesota’s newest House member

Peggy Flanagan’s election speaks to the district’s leanings — no Republican has won there since 2000, and none challenged her this time — but also to her reputation.

Peggy Flanagan: “You always run like you are 10 points behind.”

All weekend, Peggy Flanagan’s home in St. Louis Park was the nerve center of her state House campaign, filled every moment with friends, family and volunteers. Monday night she worked the phones, and on Tuesday — election day — she knocked on doors across the district. 

These are the things Flanagan, 35, was hard-wired to do. She did them as a University of Minnesota student working on Paul Wellstone’s 2002 U.S. Senate campaign; as a Minneapolis School Board member; and as a staffer at Wellstone Action, the organization named after the late DFL senator, where Flanagan spent eight years training candidates how to run successful campaigns.

So earlier this year, when DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler suddenly retired from his House District 46A seat and triggered a special election, Flanagan went back to doing the things she knows so well — this time as the candidate.

But in her case, all the activity felt “a little odd,” she said. That’s because not a single person filed to run against Flanagan, a rarity when an open seat for the state Legislature is in play.

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When the polls closed Tuesday and the results rolled in, Flanagan won the race for the House seat that includes St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Plymouth and Medicine Lake, squeaking by with a little more than 96 percent of the vote. Even so, Flanagan raised more than $31,000 and spent $21,402, according to her pre-election campaign finance report.

“Because I came from Wellstone Action, I was like, ‘Well, we are still going to run like we have an opponent,’” Flanagan said. “You always run like you are 10 points behind.”

Flanagan’s breezy path to election speaks to the district’s political leanings — no Republican has won there since 2000, and none stepped up to challenge her — but also to her reputation: She’s well-known (and liked) by Democrats, whom she’s campaigned on behalf of for more than a decade. Winkler, who stepped down to move to Belgium with his family, swiftly backed Flanagan’s campaign once she decided to run, and she ended up being endorsed by a who’s-who list of Democrats and progressive organizations.

And while several other Democrats considered running, in the end they all decided to support Flanagan instead. “I think Peggy’s a star,” Winkler said. “Among Democrats, people recognized that she is a really strong candidate and just really well liked. There just wasn’t anyone else quite motivated enough to run against her.” 

Candidate trainer to candidate

Flanagan credits her mother with setting her on her current path. When Flanagan was just a baby, her single mom picked up and moved the family to St. Louis Park. “We didn’t have a whole lot, we were fairly low income, but she knew if we moved to St. Louis Park we would have access to good schools and a good community,” she said.

Flanagan literally stumbled into her first political job in 2002, when she decided to walk into the Wellstone Senate Campaign office near the U of M campus, where she was a student. Soon she was doing odd jobs around the office just to be involved. That meant cleaning the kitchen one day, directing traffic another. Eventually, Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, got the job of organizing the urban Native American community. The experience “changed the trajectory of my life,” she said. 

Her first job out of college was at the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches’ Division of Indian Work, where she did a lot of outreach between families and the Minneapolis school system. She was eventually recruited to run for the Minneapolis School Board, and she won, serving in that role for several years.

In 2008, Flanagan ran for the Legislature in House District 58A, against incumbent Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis. She blocked him from winning the party’s endorsement and promised to vigorously challenge Mullery in the primary. But her mother had kidney failure and spent two weeks in intensive care, so Flanagan dropped out of the race to care for her.

Flanagan did a handful of jobs after that, all in the world of politics and organizing, before joining Wellstone Action, where she trained activists, organizers and candidates how to run. She then translated that experience into her current job as executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, a nonprofit child advocacy group. In that role, Flanagan was at the forefront of a 2014 push to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 per hour and index it to inflation. The bill passed the DFL-controlled Legislature and was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

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It was during this time she got to know Winkler, who authored the bill in the House. “What I liked about working with her on the minimum-wage coalition was that she was good at organizing ordinary people and talking to Minnesotans about their values and common goals,” Winkler said. “We need that in the Legislature.” He told her she should think about running for his seat one day.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll think about it, and that’s a long ways away.’ Then suddenly he stepped down and I was like, ‘Oh, well, yeah, you mean now.’ I had a tight timeline to have conversations with my family and my employer,” Flanagan said. “It was certainly not part of my plan.” 

‘An 18-month campaign’

Flanagan has one legislative session before heading back on the campaign trail next fall, and she has a clear idea of where she wants to start.

She plans to push for the working families agenda, which includes earned sick and safe time, fair scheduling and paid family leave. With her background in education, she will also advocate for more funding for early learning and college affordability. She currently co-chairs Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ “Cradle to K Cabinet.” 

And she’d like Republicans and Democrats to come together next session and pass a transportation funding bill. “That is something I hear at the doors almost constantly,” Flanagan said. “People seem frustrated with the lack of action. In this district we are really supportive of light rail and we just want to get it done. There’s just a frustration for folks that people on both sides of the aisle can’t seem to work together.”

As she transitions into the Legislature, she will slip into a new role at the Children’s Defense Fund, moving from state director to an organizing role with the national chapter in Washington, D.C. (working from home, of course).

Flanagan said campaigning hard this time around, even without an opponent, will help her when she has to run again in a year. Plus, she just likes campaigning.

“This is basically an 18 month campaign,” she said. “And I like to hear what people think.”