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2018 could be a wave election — for Minnesota women

Minnesota House photo by Paul Battaglia
House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, center right, is running the campaign to pick up the 11 seats Democrats need to take control of the chamber.

Jean Wagenius has represented her urban House district in the Minnesota Legislature since 1987, and even before that, she lobbied legislators on behalf of Democratic feminist groups. Her advocacy was instrumental in the appointment of Minnesota’s first-ever female Supreme Court Justice, Rosalie Wahl.

Jean Sinzdak

Jean Sinzdak

Despite that record, Wagenius is being challenged for the endorsement in her seat, which covers south Minneapolis and Richfield, by four other candidates — all of them women.

“I think it’s terrific,” Wagenius said this week. “I’m glad to see more women interested in public office. This is what democracy is all about.”

That race is just one of many in districts across the state, from the state House and the governor to Congress, where women are stepping up in a big way to run for office. There are three women still in the race for Minnesota’s next governor, and seven women are running to represent one of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts. Minnesota’s two incumbent U.S. senators are women, and next fall, it looks likely that one race will be a matchup between two women: DFL U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Republican state Sen. Karin Housley.

“This mirrors the national trend,” said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women in Politics. “We are seeing record numbers of women launching campaigns, particularly in congressional and statewide races.”

It’s not exactly surprising: Women have been growing in the ranks of state and national government for years, but there are still barriers. In Minnesota, women still only hold 66 seats in the 201-seat Legislature, or roughly one-third, and there is currently only one woman representing Minnesota in the state’s Congressional delegation. And then there’s the highest glass ceiling: The governor’s office has never been held by a woman in Minnesota.

This cycle, more women candidates in both parties are doing something they’d been hesitant to do before: challenge incumbents, even if it means they might have to try more than once.

Jennifer DeJournett

Jennifer DeJournett

“What is different this year is women are willing to run even if the odds are stacked against them,” Jennifer DeJournett, who leads Voices of Conservative Women, a campaign group that supports Republican women candidates. “Women are typically very cautious about jumping into a race, but I’m sensing this extra fierceness. They’re saying, if it takes me once and it takes me twice, I don’t care, I’m going to run anyway.”

Not ‘waiting forever’

The situation has been a long time coming. Studies show women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office, or even grow up thinking being in politics is a feasible career path. Women tend to spend more time researching a potential run and need to be heavily recruited — often asked more than once. Even if they are recruited, women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.

But Melissa Hortman, the DFL House Minority Leader who is running the campaign to pick up the 11 seats her party needs to take control of the chamber, said it feels like huge wave of women are stepping up to run this year, many of them for the first time. There are currently 50 DFL women running in House seats across the state, she said, from competitive primaries in urban districts to women taking on incumbents in deep red seats in rural Minnesota.

“We’ve got these young women running against these older [Republican] men in rural Minnesota, these men who could be described as out-of-touch and out-of-date,” Hortman said. “[These women candidates] are savvy and have great social media presence and they are raising money.”

Mindy Kimmel

Mindy Kimmel

On the DFL side, some of those women first got involved through the Women’s March in January of 2017. Since the march, Hortman said a number of things have kept women engaged, whether it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “nevertheless, she persisted” comments about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or the growing #TimesUP or #MeToo movements, urging women to talk about their experiences with sexual harassment. “It kept what was there after the Trump election fresh,” Hortman said.

Mindy Kimmel is one of the women who attended the Women’s March and is now seeking a state House seat that includes her hometown of New Ulm, Minnesota. She’d never thought about running for office before joining the march, but over the months that followed, she felt like she had to do more. “I thought, I’m done trusting other people to do this for me,” she said. “I really need to step up.”

She’s running against five-term incumbent Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson, who chairs the  transportation finance committee and represents a deeply red district. “It really is an area where people are proud to support Trump and his policies and Republicans up and down the ticket,” Kimmel said. “I know running as a Democrat puts me at a disadvantage, but I dont think it’s impossible. I wouldn’t run if I didn’t believe I could win it.”

Leili Fatehi

Leili Fatehi

Leili Fatehi’s challenge is different: She is running against Wagenius, an incumbent lawmaker and a woman in her own party. But after years of working as an advocate at the Capitol on environmental sustainability and other social issues, Fatehi felt just having a dependable DFL vote in the district wasn’t enough.

“We need someone who is more than a vote. At the local level, we’ve seen when policymakers really partner with the grassroots and engage proactively in setting a policy agenda and working proactively to accomplish it, we’ve been able to get things like $15 per hour minimum wage, sick and safe time and plastic bag bans,” she said.

Fatehi is also one of three women of color running for the seat in the district, and if she were to win in November, Fatehi would be the first Iranian American woman elected to any office. “If we want to wait our turn we will be waiting forever,” Fatehi said.

Women ‘throwing their names in the ring’

It’s not just Democratic women who are challenging incumbents or other candidates they see as the status quo, DeJournett said. She notes Housley, a two-term Republican state senator, quickly got into the U.S. Senate race for the seat that Al Franken unexpectedly left late last year. While some men were debating whether they were going to jump into the mix, Housley didn’t hesitate, a move many say mostly cleared the field of Republican opponents.

In gubernatorial races, 34 women have alreay filed to run for the office in states across the country, and there are 47 other women who have publicly declared the are running for governor but haven’t filed yet, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. That’s already as many the previous record high, in 1994, when 34 women total filed to run in gubernatorial races.

Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens

Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens

This year, that number includes Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens, the only woman currently running on the Republican side of the ticket in the state’s open race for governor. Two DFL women, Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and state Auditor Rebecca Otto, are running for governor as well. Only one woman, former DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, has ever been endorsed by either of the major political parties to run for governor, but she lost in a primary election to current DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. The Republican Party of Minnesota has never endorsed a woman for governor.

Giuliani Stephens said she’s focusing her campaign on her record of executive experience as a  mayor, but delegates have mentioned to her that the party has never endorsed a woman for the office. “When women get more involved in all kinds of areas and professions, they can be that example and role model so that other women can follow,” she said.

In the 1st Congressional District, third-term Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is challenging Republican candidate Jim Hagedorn in a primary to run for the seat this fall. Hagedorn has run and lost twice to DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, but Walz is leaving the seat to run for governor. Some activists think Hagedorn should again be the party’s nominee this fall.

State Sen. Carla Nelson

State Sen. Carla Nelson

But Nelson is taking him on in a primary, arguing she has a proven track record of governing and winning elections. “Conservative women are stepping up to lead in Minnesota and across the nation,” Nelson said this week, announcing that she got the backing of Winning for Women, a conservative-aligned national group that backs congressional women candidates. “Women are problem-solvers. We get the job done.”

“There is pent up frustration among women that they feel they are qualified candidates but they just aren’t picked by the establishment,” DeJournett said. “Now they’re saying, there is never going to be a time when they are going to pick me, so I am going to pick myself to run.”

Sinzdak said it’s challenging for anyone to beat establishment candidates, particularly incumbents, as many women are trying to do this cycle. “Some are certainly cautioning against this idea of the pink wave, tempering our expectations a bit about how many women are going to win their races this year,” she said.

“But so many more women are actually filing and crossing that boundary and throwing their names in the ring. You are seeing all these women saying, I’m not going to wait any more to be asked. It’s worth acknowledging that that is happening, whatever happens in this election cycle.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/23/2018 - 11:31 am.

    Examining the evidence

    …down through the centuries, it would appear that males have managed to make a mess of things more often than not. As a group, women could hardly do worse. As an elderly male myself, and noting that females are no more likely to be perfect than males, so I’m just as likely to disagree with some of them on some issues as I would males, I’d nonetheless argue, as Ms. Fatehi does, that if women politely wait their turn to take office, they’ll be waiting forever. It will never happen.

    I don’t know the precise numbers, but it seems reasonable to suppose that women make up half the state’s population. If males, who make up the other half, currently hold 2/3 of the political offices in the state, logic suggests that women could do the same thing. Perhaps they should. My observations of women in positions of responsibility suggest to me that they’re just as likely to be capable as the males who routinely get those positions.

    In short, I’m fine with a “pink wave” this fall. I expect the female winners will prove to be more capable than many of their male predecessors at best, and at least as capable at worst.

  2. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 03/23/2018 - 11:31 am.

    Melissa Hortman for Speaker!

    The current Republican majority is demonstrating once again that they will not engage in governing-just in obstruction. No hearings on gun safety because we don’t have time but a Republican feels free to drop a bill regarding the reality show “The Bachelor”

    Time to elect DFL women to clean up the mess in the House!

  3. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 03/23/2018 - 12:35 pm.

    MN Women

    I notice you have more Republican pictures in there. Get real. If a woman is elected, it will most likely a Democratic candidate. Rep. Erin Murphy and Rebbeca Otto are well known and are more likely to be endorsed at the DFL Convention and more likely to win in a statewide election than a Republican candidate. You should have spent more time on those candidate who are more likely to get in there.

    • Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 03/23/2018 - 03:47 pm.


      Just remember, just because someone is endorsed at the DFL Convention, that does not necessarily mean that is who will be on the ballot in November. Many of us who are democrats are sick and tired of the games that are played at the DFL Convention to see to it that the person endorsed is the person whose “turn” it is, not the most qualified candidate. That is why Mark Dayton is Governor today. After attending state conventions for over 20 years, I just figured it was about time that the qualified candidate was elected, and so did many other democrats who are now former DFLers.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/23/2018 - 08:15 pm.


      If the DFL is crazy enough to nominate an urban liberal like Murphy, they will get pummeled in a statewide race. Otto is better than Murphy, but Walz is the DFL’s best bet by a mile. Even the out-of-touch caucus attendees seemed to grasp that in giving him a big win in the straw poll.

      We’ll likely (still) have two women senators, but not a governor.

  4. Submitted by Diane Hofstede on 03/23/2018 - 02:49 pm.

    Women Running for Political Office in Minnesota

    Finally! The next steps will be writing checks to the candidates, and getting engaged to win!

  5. Submitted by Richard Bonde on 03/24/2018 - 10:45 am.

    Person of Color

    Ms Fatehi is of Iranian extraction. Would she consider herself a “person of color”?

    Just curious.

    • Submitted by c carter on 04/02/2018 - 09:54 am.

      Person of Color Category

      The 2010 U.S. Census standards on race and ethnicity include White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Other. It does not include persons of Iranian descent in any non-white category and explicitly states, “the Middle East” as included in the “White” category. Therefore, it is incorrect for the author to include Ms. Leili Fatehi as a woman of color. It would be more accurate to have included Ms. Brenda Johnson or Ms. Husniyah Bradley-Dent, both of whom are African American women who competed against Ms. Fatehi for the Minnesota House District 63B DFL endorsement.

  6. Submitted by Kristina Gronquist on 03/25/2018 - 08:40 pm.

    Third Party Women

    Why do 3rd party candidates – such as the Green Party – always get ignored? The Greens are likely to be endorsing numerous women candidates – for County Commissioner, House and State races, etc. Seek out information on 3rd party websites, Facebook pages, and from 3rd party officials, etc. Please pay attention! There are more than two parties (thank goodness).

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/26/2018 - 02:26 am.


      This is a story about electing women to office. So the amount of coverage given to Green candidates – none whatsoever – was appropriate.

      If Minnpost does a story on campaigns that are a complete waste of everyone’s time and the Greens aren’t mentioned, then you have a legitimate complaint.

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 03/27/2018 - 12:27 pm.

    No pics of Af American, Am Indian, Hispanic or Asian Am women?

    Why no pics or mention of African American, American Indian, Hispanic or Asian American women who are running?

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