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Very few Minnesotans living with disabilities run for office. That may be changing

Nikki Villavicencio’s bid for a seat on the five-member Maplewood City Council makes her part of a very exclusive club in the U.S.: people living with disabilities who seek elected office. 

Nikki Villavicencio kicked off her city council campaign at the Caribou Coffee in Maplewood Mall on a recent Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

There were no giant banners, no megaphones, no swarm of supporters on hand for Nikki Villavicencio’s campaign kickoff. Instead, Villavicencio and a small group of supporters pushed a few tables together at the Caribou Coffee in Maplewood Mall on a recent Tuesday and talked about why she wants to run for the local city council.

“It’s just like getting coffee with some friends,” Villavicencio said as she sat next to her husband, Darrell Paulsen, sipping iced coffee.

It wasn’t a typical campaign kickoff, but Villavicencio isn’t exactly a typical candidate. She has arthrogryposis, a condition that immobilizes major joints and makes it challenging to use her hands. And her bid for a seat on the five-member Maplewood City Council makes her part of a very exclusive club in the U.S.: people living with disabilities who seek elected office. 

It’s a big step, and Villavicencio knows the barriers well. Having a physical or mental disability has typically carried with it a degree of social stigma; to many, to live with a disability means being dependent on others, not being someone who, as an officeholder, looks to take care of others. Villavicencio, a DFLer and longtime activist who is deeply involved in her community, wants to shatter that perception — by becoming part of a growing group of Minnesotans living with disabilities who get involved in local politics.

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It’s not easy. Even as an increasing number of groups seek out people of color, millennials and LGBTQ men and women to run for office —most recently, the #MeToo movement has sparked groups like She Should Run to recruit more women candidates — there are no major national organizations dedicated to recruit and help candidates living with disabilities run for office. 

It’s a gap that defies recent findings from the Pew Research Center, which showed that Americans who identify as living with a disability are more politically engaged than those who don’t. They more closely monitor political debates on local and national social safety net programs and health care, and they care about policies that would allow more citizens to live autonomously and out in their communities, as opposed to institutions and nursing homes.

“We make great leaders because we depend on services in our everyday life,” Villavicencio said. “Who better to make decisions about our local, state and federal programs than the people who really understand how they work?” 

Number of candidates with disabilities increasing, slowly

In Minnesota, nearly 600,000 people report having one or more disabilities — physical, mental or communicative — or roughly 11 percent of the state’s population, according to the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. And while there have always been politicians with disabilities in government, many over the course of history minimized or hid that fact to avoid the stigma of having a disability.

There’s been a cultural shift in the debate in recent years, in part because of work by disability rights groups, and the number of political candidates and officeholders with disabilities is increasing, albeit slowly. The voting bloc of people living with disabilities was a major discussion in the last election, when then-candidate Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter at a rally. Hillary Clinton put an unprecedented amount of resources and time in her campaign to appeal to people living with disabilities.

Some candidates are now highlighting their disability as they run for office. For Villavicencio, the nation reached a major milestone when Tammy Duckworth was elected to the U.S. House in 2012. An Iraq War veteran who served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, Duckworth lost both of her legs and suffered damage to her right arm from combat wounds. Her election marked the first time in the nation’s history that a woman living with a disability was elected to Congress. Now as a newly elected U.S. senator, Duckworth has been a strong proponent of disability rights.

In Minnesota, there are no statewide politicians who self identify as living with a disability. Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, became the first legally blind person to serve in the Minnesota Legislature when he was elected in 1996. Villavicencio didn’t see anyone in state and local politics who had the same life experiences as her: a young mother living with a disability. “It’s really shown me the gap in the leaders we have currently elected,” she said.

Challenges to campaigning 

Villavicencio already has a strong résumé for a candidate. She’s spent years working at the Capitol as an advocate for disability rights, building relationships with local lawmakers and learning about the political process. She’s currently chair of the Maplewood Parks and Recreation Commission and a member of the city’s Parks Task Force, where she was part of the push for a new 20-year master plan for the suburb. And she’s a young mother in a community that with a significant population of young women and mothers.

But campaigns are complicated for everyone, especially for people living with disabilities. When Westrom first ran for the state House in the mid-1990s, for example, the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board had never ruled on whether someone with vision impairments could use campaign funds to hire a driver, or if that would be counted as a personal expense. “They had never been asked before,” Westrom said. 

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The board eventually ruled in his favor, but Westrom still has challenges campaigning today. “It’s so key to a campaign to get out to community meetings and to knock on doors, and every time I go out it takes a lot of planning,” he said. “I have to coordinate with my staff and find someone to take me, and I have to pay them. It’s such a basic part of campaigning, but for me it’s not as simple as grabbing my keys and jumping in the car.”

Minnesotans with disabilities are also more than two times as likely to live in poverty: About 19 percent of those with disabilities in the state live below the federal poverty line, which makes it tricky to finance a campaign. There are no national or major state programs helping disabled citizens explore and fundraise for a run at political office, and while the DFL Party has a Disabilities Caucus that endorses and encourages people living with disabilities to seek office, their resources are limited.

Villavicencio is hoping her announcement will give her a visibility boost ahead of the Feb. 6 precinct caucuses, and she has fundraisers scheduled this month to give her run a financial boost. 

The main goal in running, Villavicencio says, is to serve in her Maplewood community. But she also has a larger goal: to show the community that people living with disabilities want to be high-level participants in democracy. 

“When I run successfully, I’m hoping to encourage other people to do the same,” Villavicencio said. “Having women with disabilities elected breaks an even thicker glass.”