Mayor-elect Maria Regan Gonzalez of Richfield grew up in two different worlds. One was her full-time home in Janesville, Wisconsin, where she and her brother were the only children of color at their private Catholic school.
The other world was her mother’s native Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, one of the poorest parts of Mexico City, wracked with gang violence and without running water. Regan Gonzalez’s family visited frequently, and as a young girl, she volunteered her time with victims of domestic violence and their children.
“Our parents taught my brother and I that not everyone has equal access to opportunities,” Regan Gonzalez says. “The way they raised us influenced both of us to prioritize community service and justice work in our lives.”
At the same time, Regan Gonzalez recalls, her parents told her she’d have to work much harder than her peers to achieve similar outcomes because of her identity as a Latina and a woman.
When she takes office in January, Regan Gonzalez will be the first Latina mayor in Minnesota history. But when she ran for the Richfield City Council in 2016, she was advised to “leave off the Gonzalez” on campaign materials because there was already one Latina on the Richfield City Council and voters might not be looking for a second one. She also was told that it wasn’t her time to run. She was too young. She hadn’t paid her political dues.
But not everyone agreed. Her coalition of Latina daycare providers, seniors, Tibetan immigrants, and other neighbors responded to Regan Gonzalez as a leader. “It’s very humbling. People said, ‘We are excited about you because you’re authentic and passionate. You can connect with people. You aren’t from the political machine, you really care about your neighbors.’ When I get down, I remind myself of those encouraging words.
“I needed to step up and use my privilege to open more doors because things were getting worse for my community and other communities.”
Regan Gonzalez explained, “I ran because Minnesota is a state with some of the highest racial inequities in home ownership, health, income, education, and even park usage. I had never considered becoming a politician, because I didn’t see myself reflected in that kind of leadership. My passion is serving as a cultural bridge builder, bringing people together.
“I had voted, donated, and caucused, but I had never knocked on a door or worked on a campaign. I didn’t know where to start. But I was an excellent community organizer. I knew how to bridge divides and impact systems,” she recounted. Her grassroots city council campaign scored a resounding victory, garnering 56% of the vote.
In her short time on the city council, she has prioritized public health, inclusive decision making, and housing issues, including bringing her east Richfield constituents together with developers and city staff to ensure that project plans reflect citizen needs and concerns. She is passionate about housing diversity, affordability, and accessibility for both homeowners and renters.
Regan Gonzalez’s day job is with Blue Cross Blue Shield, where she works with their corporate social responsibility strategy around health interventions. She is also in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, on track to earn a Master of Public Health degree in the spring of 2019.
Regan Gonzalez has strong feelings about how public policy doesn’t always serve public health. “Under the Affordable Care Act, everyone is supposed to be insured. A lot of the safety net support and funds for mixed status families and undocumented people went away. A lot of people were disenfranchised, and the clinics that had served these families no longer had the resources they once had.”
Although she won’t rule it out, Regan Gonzalez says she has no plans to run for higher office. “Richfield is an incubator,” she says. “We can do it all here — and we can set precedents, be an example for other communities.”
Maria Regan Gonzalez advises, “It’s more important now than ever to get involved locally. You can have a real, tangible impact on your neighborhood and community. Identify where your passion lies locally, and who you can connect with.”
These organizations focus on electing women:
Women Winning (womenwinning.org)
Minnesota organization dedicated to electing pro-choice women at every level of government. Offers in-depth trainings and internships for women who want to run, as well as women who want to gain campaign management skills.
EMILY’s List (emilyslist.org)
Large national organization with a mission of electing pro-choice Democratic women at all levels. EMILY’s List recruits and trains candidates, supports their campaigns, provides research and dates, and works to get women to the polls.
She Should Run (sheshouldrun.org)
With a goal of getting at least 250,000 women to run for public office by 2030, this nonpartisan organization, which offers an online “incubator” of classes, believes that women of all political leanings, ethnicities, and backgrounds should have an equal opportunity to lead in elected office.
Sister District (sisterdistrict.com) and Sister District Action Network (sisterdistrictactionnetwork.org)
This organization focuses on state legislatures. Their organizing model pairs teams with swing districts; they espouse “the way to get the biggest bang for your buck with your volunteer dollars and hours.”