Sixteen years ago, when Rena Moran decided to escape the gang violence on the south side of Chicago with six of her children, she ended up in a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis.
Several months later, Moran transitioned to a four-bedroom rental apartment in St. Paul and took a custodian job at the Mall of America, and then worked at Camp Snoopy to make ends meet. When she wasn’t working, Moran participated in neighborhood meetings and worked with community organizations promoting social justice.
The experience led Moran to eventually seek a job that may have once seemed far-fetched: a seat in the state Legislature. But she got the job in 2010, when Moran was elected to represent Minnesota House District 65A, becoming the first black woman to represent St. Paul at the Capitol.
Moran’s success belies the stark reality of Minnesota’s political class, however. At a time when the state is become increasingly diverse, Minnesota’s Legislature remains overwhelmingly white. Eleven seats, or about 5 percent of Minnesota’s 201-member Legislature, are currently held by lawmakers who self-identify as minorities, according to a list kept by the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. And despite some high-profile primary wins that are expected increase those numbers in 2017, the Legislature is still a long way from reflecting the diversity of the state, whose population is 19 percent minority, according to Census figures.
“Here we’re in 2016 in the state of Minnesota, and we have one black legislator,” in the House, Moran said during an interview at the Capitol. “It’s pretty sad — and could be lonely.”
Numbers likely to go up … a bit
Among the 11 seats now held by minority lawmakers, nine are members of the DFL, while two are Republicans. In the general election to be decided in November, at least 22 minorities are running for seats in Minnesota’s statehouse, a number that includes all 11 incumbents.
On the DFL side, there are nine running for the House and nine running for Senate. For the Republicans, four candidates who self-identify as minorities are running for House seats. (Republican officials did not respond to requests asking for the number of minority Republican candidates running for the Senate.)
And though the minority legislators currently serving are in strong positions to be re-elected, it seems unlikely the Legislature will pick up more than a few newcomers from communities of color. Some, like Ilhan Omar, in House District 60B, and Fue Lee, in House District 59A, are thought to be shoo-ins, but many others face uphill battles.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin admits that the party needs to do more to groom people of color for legislative positions, but he is also quick to point to the historic wins of Omar, a Somali-American, who defeated incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn in the August primary; and Lee, a Hmong-American who triumphed over DFL Rep. Joe Mullery.
“That again is a sign of not only the fact that our party has been very intentional about making sure that we’re grooming both party leaders and elected leaders from underrepresented communities,” Martin said, “but also that those communities generally tend to support DFL and support our policies because our values are their values.”
Republican Party Chair Keith Downey did not respond to an interview request for this story, while House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader David Hann were unavailable for comment, according to staffers.
In April, however, Downey told the Star Tribune he didn’t feel that minorities were necessarily underrepresented at the Capitol since minorities are not distributed evenly across the state. “I would disagree with the notion that somehow percentage of population would be a perfect proxy for estimating how many representatives you should have,” he told the Star Tribune. “Republicans are far more interested in the person and what they stand for and their experiences.”
GOP Rep. Eric Lucero, a Hispanic-American who represents the Twin Cities' far northwest suburbs, likewise said the focus on the numbers of minority legislators is misplaced. He believes that what voters truly care about is electing legislators who bring a diversity of ideas to the table to solve problems. “I believe the most important diversity we should be focusing on at the state is not the level of pigmentation in people's skin, but the ideas that they bring to the table, regardless of their ethnicity,” he said.
But the diversity of ideas is exactly why Moran believes the lack of minority lawmakers at the Capitol is so critical. It isn’t just bad for communities of color, it’s bad for Minnesota: “The more diverse people you have at the table, the more diverse solutions will happen around that table,” she says.
‘Inside’ and ‘outside’ barriers
The paucity of lawmakers from communities of color is not a new situation, of course. Throughout the state’s history, there have been just 36 known minority legislators — including six Native American lawmakers who served in the state’s territorial days, according to the Legislative Reference Library.
That lack of diversity isn’t unique to Minnesota. Nationwide, just 14 percent of state legislative seats are held by people who identify as African, Asian, Latino, and Native Americans, according to a report from the New American Leaders Project. But Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of the organization — which recruits and trains immigrant candidates for public office — said minorities and immigrants across the country face barriers other candidates don’t.
For example, Bhojwani added, low legislative salaries — $31,140 per year in Minnesota — make it hard for many people to serve in the statehouse. The cost of running a legislative campaign is also prohibitive for many political newcomers, she said.
“The people who tend to get approached by parties … tend to be people who are not first-generation political participants,” she said. “I’m not sure I’d say the parties are opposed to diversity … but like any other institution, they continue to cultivate their own.”
Moran agrees there are obstacles preventing people of color from seeking a seat at the Minnesota Legislature. She categorized those as “inside and outside” barriers. “Inside” barriers include the fact that many residents of color believe that government systems aren’t on their side. “So, we don’t trust government,” she said. “We constantly think that we can’t be part of the government.”
The “outside” barriers include the fact that many potential candidates from communities of color don’t have the connections and access to political figures who can help new politicians get new elected.
In fact, Moran said that prominent DFLers who often play influential roles in state elections could sometimes be obstacles to the success of nontraditional candidates. “We saw that in different races this years,” she said, referring to Lee and Omar, who didn’t get the endorsement of some of the DFL’s most prominent leaders.
“That’s part of the challenge within the party,” Martin added. “In this year, we’ve seen qualified, exceptional candidates of color who did not win the party endorsement, and that’s frustrating to me because, on one hand, everything I’m doing here as a state party chair is to open our party up.”