When the incumbent state senator in south Minneapolis' senate district 62 decided to retire from public office, it didn't take Patricia Torres Ray long to decide to succeed him. The 42-year-old Colombia native had thought about running for office before; now, the timing was right.
In February 2006, she leapt in with both feet. "I'm from a progressive district and when I found out the incumbent senator was retiring I wanted to take the opportunity," she said. When Torres Ray cruised to an easy victory in November (she captured 81 percent of the vote), she became the first Latina elected to the Minnesota Senate.
In the staunchly DFL district, Torres Ray's toughest race was not the election, but capturing the DFL Party's endorsement for the seat. She had seven opponents, including an incumbent city council member with high name recognition. She took a leave from her job at the Minnesota Department of Human Services to campaign, and though the endorsing convention was held April 1, Torres Ray was no April fool when she swept to a stunning victory on the fourth ballot.
She won the DFL endorsement the way she'd operated her whole life: listening to others' concerns, having a clear plan, and working nonstop. Torres Ray also kept her eyes on the prize: "I think that Latina women could play a particular role in shaping policy in all different levels. There are great opportunities at the school level, legislative, administrative and executive levels. I took this opportunity to help
pave the road for other Latina women in leadership," she said.
"There were various things that motivated me to run for the open seat in my district. In recent years when I worked for the Department of Human Services there have been significant cuts to funding for Minnesota families. I was frustrated with the government and felt that I could make a bigger difference if I ran for office," Torres Ray said.
She knows what she's talking about. For the past nine years, Torres Ray served as a state program administrator for Minnesota's Department of Human Services. In her work there she developed a partnership between three major county agencies to conduct research about the disparities in child welfare. Torres Ray secured $1.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to support this research. But she's learned as much about government and people in her unpaid work.
She was a literacy volunteer in Colombia and volunteered in a variety of ways in her south Minneapolis community, including organizing Chicana and Latina women around the issue of foster care placement, and becoming the first Spanish-speaking guardian ad litem in Hennepin County. That position led to Torres Ray being named the state's ombudsperson for families. "I knew the city, I knew Hennepin County, and then I'm given this task of representing children in 87 counties, including places where they were really struggling with figuring out how to serve Latino families, including undocumented people ... the challenge for me was huge." But overcoming challenges has been a constant thread in the fabric of Torres Ray's life.
Though winning election to the Minnesota Senate was no small feat, there's evidence that even bigger challenges may be in her future. Just after she was elected, Torres Ray was tapped by the Democratic National Committee to give the National Democratic Hispanic Radio Address. For now, though, she's focusing on representing senate district 62, planning to make health care and education her top priorities.
"I am looking forward so much to working in the majority with the House and Senate. My district and I, we are all very excited to get started," said the senator-elect.