When the new class of state representatives is sworn into the Minnesota House in January, there will be more Xiongs than Johnsons. Or Olsons. Or Andersons.
In fact, Xiong will be tied with Carlson for the most common last name among state reps (two each). That’s definitely a first for a state known for lutefisk, lefse and having governors named Elmer: C. Elmer Anderson and Elmer Andersen.
It’s a big year of milestones when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity at the Capitol. The number of legislators of color increased from 16 in 2017 to 21, according to data self-reported by legislators and legislators-elect to the Legislative Reference Library. That represents the largest increase in members of color from one biennium to the next ever.
“My story is the continuation of the long history of Minnesota, where the Johnsons and Olsons were once new immigrants to the state,” said Jay Xiong, whose parents came to Minnesota as refugees from Laos. He was elected to the House this month to represent 67B, a district centered on St. Paul’s Eastside.
“It speaks more about America than about any individual. I’m really proud to be a part of it,” said Tou Xiong, a member of the Maplewood City Council newly elected to represent District 53A in the House.
In some ways, the Minnesota House is getting more representative, but it isn’t getting more diverse in every way: for the second election in a row, the number of women elected to serve in the legislature hasn’t risen from the year prior.
With the new members, the Minnesota Legislature will have a record number of Asian American, black and Somali-American and Hispanic or Latino legislators.
Asian American members of the Legislature include the newly-elected Kaohly Her, Samantha Vang, and the two Xiongs. They join Foung Hawj, elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2013, and Fue Lee, elected to the Minnesota House in 2017.
There are six black and Somali-American members: newcomers Hodan Hassan, Mohamud Noor and Ruth Richardson join Rena Moran in the House. Bobby Jo Champion and Jeff Hayden serve in the Senate.
Minnesota set a record for Hispanic and Latino members in the legislature, too. In addition to Jon Koznick, Eric Lucero and Carlos Mariani in the House and senators Melisa Franzen and Patricia Torres Ray, Minnesota added representatives Alice Mann and Aisha Gomez (who is of Latino, Arab and Jewish heritage, according to her website). That’s seven.
The Minnesota Legislature lost two members who identify as American Indian: Rep. Peggy Flanagan formerly represented St. Louis Park and is now the state’s lieutenant governor-elect, and longtime Minneapolis Rep. Susan Allen retired. Jamie Becker-Finn and Mary Kunesh-Podein, both elected in 2016, both serve in the Minnesota House.
While representation for many groups increased in the Legislature, it still doesn’t come near reflecting the state’s racial and ethnic diversity, with each group underrepresented in the legislature relative to the state’s population.
Making sure elected officials represent the communities they serve in the legislature is critical to having a democracy that works well, Flanagan told MinnPost.
“I think it matters tremendously that the legislature accurately reflect the communities that it seeks to represent, because if you don’t see leaders who look like you, you don’t see a path (to become a leader). That’s one of the reasons I decided to run for the Legislature in the first place,” she said.
Women are underrepresented by far relative to the overall population when it comes to the state legislature. In Minnesota, women make up about half the population and only 32 percent of legislators. That number declined from the previous Legislature, itself a decline from previous years.
In Minnesota, women were first elected to the legislature in 1922, not long after they won the right to vote. That year, there were four women, and one of them was a 28-year-old known as the “flapper legislator.”
The number of women remained fairly steady — and small — through most of the 20th century. In the 1970s, though, women began to start seeing gains, with their numbers increasing through the ‘90s and aughts. It’s only in the last few years we’ve started to see small declines.
At the national level, that number has hovered around 25 percent in years, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. This is the first year it’s really budged in a decade, increasing to at least 27 percent (that number could go up once some of the closer races around the country are called).
“It’s a tangible moving of the needle. It represents real forward progress. It’s not large enough for my taste, but it’s the first time we’ve seen any real movement (in years),” Jean Sinzdak, the associate director of the center, told MinnPost.
Arizona comes in first among U.S. states for women in the statehouse, with 40 percent, and Wyoming ranks 50th with 11 percent. Minnesota ranks 11th.
Women serving in the legislature face some of the same barriers as women in the workforce across the state, like pay, access to childcare, paid family leave, transportation, Flanagan said.
But she sees the culture of the Legislature changing.
“For me it was really positive when there were other moms, young moms who were elected to the legislature,” she said. “We brought our kids with us to work, and they would hang out on the House floor, and I think in the House, folks were fairly welcoming of that. Even in my new role now ast Lieutenant Governor-elect, Siobhan, my daughter, has been here and that is just going to be part of the way that we govern. We’re going to have our kids around.”
Loss of Republican women
The Minnesota Legislature’s new diversity is not represented equally across political parties.
Nineteen of the 21 current or soon-to-be legislators who are people of color or indigenous are Democrats. Two — Koznick and Lucero — are Republicans. Some Republican candidates of color ran and lost this year.
And while Democrats gained women, going from 28 to 35 in the Minnesota House, Republicans lost them, going from 21 to 13 in the House.
A big reason for the losses of women on the Republican side was Democrats’ victories in the suburbs, where several Republican women incumbents lost, including Sarah Anderson, Jenifer Loon and Roz Peterson.
“We had a lot of great candidates running this cycle, both women and men, and it was just unfortunate that the pendulum swung,” said party chair Jennifer Carnahan, the party’s first Asian-American leader.
Republicans have been less successful at recruiting and electing women for office, but some groups are working to fix that.
Leslie Rosedahl, the chair of the Women LEAD MN PAC, a new political committee aimed at helping fiscally conservative women win election, said the defeat of eight incumbent Republican women is is a big loss for the state.
“Women represent important viewpoints that we need in the Legislature and in policy-making. Republican women bring viewpoints of fiscal conservatism — stretching government dollars to make the right investments, just like we often stretch family budgets. And women like to get stuff done. We’re programmed to juggle a lot of projects, for our careers and in many cases, for our families too,” she wrote in an email. She attributes the loss of Republican women in the suburbs — many of whom had weathered Democratic surges in the past — to frustration with President Donald Trump causing people to turn out and vote for Democrats down-ballot, not local issues or the way candidates campaigned.
At the national level, women won’t represent anywhere near 50 percent of legislators unless there are more Republican women running and winning, Sinzdak said.
“Long-term, big-picture, we’re not going to get anywhere close to parity unless more Republican women run for office, and the Republican party makes a real effort at recruiting them,” she said.
Carnahan said when she thinks about recruiting candidates, she looks at people’s ability to serve their constituents.
“We don’t look at people as a gender or race, we look at who we think are strong candidates who can stand up for our values (and) fit their district,” she said.