After election, number of women of color lawmakers increases at Capitol

Despite a slight drop in female lawmakers overall, there are four newly-elected women of color in state governance.

by Ryan Faircloth

When the gavel first strikes in the Minnesota Legislature this January, minority groups will see a slight increase in representation.

With the addition of newly-elected legislators, there are now 16 lawmakers at the capitol who identify as minorities — roughly 8 percent of the Legislature. Though the proportion is the highest to date, the Legislature still trails the state’s overall minority population by about 11 percent.

“I think we’re still not where we need to be for equitable representation, but it’s a good start,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis. Omar is the nation’s first Somali-American legislator.

Omar and another newcomer, Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, join Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, as the only black women in the legislature. Two American Indian legislators, Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein and Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, were also elected. Despite the newly-elects, the amount of women in the legislature decreased by four seats overall.

Despite the low number of minorities and women in the state Legislature, Omar and Maye Quade said they’re up to the challenge of representing Minnesota’s more diverse communities.

“It gives us an opportunity to view legislation with a different lens of equity and representation,” Omar said.

This will allow lawmakers to have tougher conversations at the capitol on topics like criminal justice reform and decreasing economic inequities, she said.

Maye Quade agreed, and said she’d also like to see increased government accessibility and transparency.

She said she also wants to see members of the Legislature prioritize equity, not just minority lawmakers.

“We should all know these issues, we should all be outraged and indignant about racial disparities,” Maye Quade said.

She said she and Omar will be able to alleviate some of the pressure Moran faced being the only African American legislator in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

“It takes the burden off of Rena, specifically, to always have to speak on behalf of the black community and not just on behalf of the district that elected her,” Maye Quade said.

Moran said while she didn’t mind being a voice for many minority communities, she’s excited to have other lawmakers stepping in to share the representation.

“[Omar and Maye Quade] have a vision for a Minnesota that is more inclusive, that all communities are valued,” Moran said. “I think they are visionaries.”

But Moran and Maye Quade acknowledged there will be challenges in the upcoming session with Republicans now in control of the House and Senate.

Omar, however, thinks some of the first-year legislators may be able to mitigate political division.

“I think the particular women that were elected this legislative cycle are women who I consider bridge builders,” she said.

Moran said she hopes this will lend to more compromise so lawmakers won’t continue waiting until the last minute of the session to agree on legislation.

“Even in the minority, women know the value of relationships, they know the value of partnering, they know the value of working with others,” she said.

But most of all, Omar said having more minority legislators sets an important precedent for the younger generation.

“I’m hoping the visible representation of minority communities at the legislature will allow a lot of young people to see themselves as part of that process,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the nature of the increase in diversity in the Minnesota Legislature. Four new female lawmakers join the Legislature, post-election, two of which are American Indian.