Fresh, Diverse Voices Join the Minnesota Legislature

New House voting board. Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives.
Rep. María Isa Pérez-Vega, holding her three-year-old daughter, raises her hand during the House’s swearing-in ceremony January 3, 2023. Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives. Photo by Catherine Davis.
Gov. Tim Walz serves homemade desserts to Rep. Leigh Finke during his annual opening day visit to the Minnesota House. Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives. Photo by Catherine Davis.

Some of the comments gleaned from our “Diversity in Politics” series recorded in video in Fall 2022

Rep. Alicia Kozlowski (they/them) won with 71.1% of the vote in district 8B, which is in eastern Duluth.

photo by Sarah Whiting

I am running as a native person, as a Mexican American person, as a two-spirit, nonbinary person. I grew up, in the midst of Duluth, in a lot of the struggle that so many of our communities face, and that we shouldn’t have to be facing — housing insecurity, food insecurity, poverty, addictions, mental health. Every bad thing was dropping boxes on our doorsteps. It is the aunties and the grandmas, the tías who stepped in and made sure that my existence mattered, my humanity mattered.

It is how I was able to graduate high school, first in my family to be a graduate from college, and have the audacity to become a graduate of the Master of Business Administration program. Every space I have been in has been marked by being the first for Duluth. Voters wanting to fundamentally change the face of power.

We have never been represented by somebody like me, with this voice, with the communities that I’m bringing along and bringing in. At the state capitol, there is a historic slate of LGBTQ+ candidates and Native candidates. We are not making that same ground for Latinos. But we will be at least replenishing the ones that we are losing.

I look around at our community. We have a housing crisis. In 2020, my mom died of homelessness and addictions and battling the jail system. I see the impacts of climate justice and how we need to invest in green infrastructure and climate resiliency and adaptability. We can have a green economy that helps to lift everybody up in our economy.

My mom had walked into the Duluth city council and said, “If you don’t give us a seat at the table, we are just going to tear the table down. We are gonna cut it up and make it a sweat lodge.’

I think about that a lot — we are taking our space because we actually are this space — or we are going to create it in other places. So let’s work together. We are the ones out there doing the work, seeing things that folks don’t even see for our communities, coming up with solutions. That is the power of having Black and brown and queer representation at historic rates.

What makes a powerful leader? As somebody who doesn’t identify as a woman, but as gender nonconforming two-spirit person, I jump anytime I get a chance to work within circles for women and other gender-expansive folks, but also men-identified people who also embody some of those same communication and leadership styles. I’m lucky in my life to have many folks who do lead in a very collaborative way. As two-spirit people, I think one of the big gifts that we have, in teachings that I have received, is really having that balance between male and female — in that spectrum of being able to see multiple perspectives and multiple dimensions. The nuance and complexity. Something that I value is a yes/and approach, not this binary, yes or no, black and white, one-way answer. We can hold multiple possibilities in one hand. And also the ability to own when you’ve done something that maybe is wrong, or you made a mistake, or it didn’t go as well. Just being able to say, through that learning curiosity mode, ‘I own this and you know, next time let’s fall forward together versus sort of this closed, divisive way.

Thoughts on education: I grew up not seeing anything about our people. Our stories started in 1492, if we were in anything. So I think what a really beautiful moment we are in, if we can hold off and withstand and help folks to to meet this moment with curiosity rather than fear.

Rep. Brion Curran won with 53.6% of the vote in district 36B, which includes Vadnais Heights and White Bear Lake.

Brion Curran
Brion Curran

Service is incredibly important to me. I have been in nonprofit human services for the last 20 years, serving folks with developmental disabilities. I was a police officer in Minnesota as well. I was a deputy sheriff in 2018.

We have some severe gaps in representation. When I was asked by a close friend who is running on the Senate side, ‘would you consider running for House?’ I realized I have never really seen anyone like me run for office before. Maybe I could be that person for someone else.

If we just start opening those doors and opening conversations, and really sitting down together, I think we will find we have a lot more in common than we do that is different. That is a big part of why I ran.

What makes a powerful leader? When women lead, it really is those relationships that I find myself trying to build and focus on. And of course, the transactional pieces are going to be a part of it, but we can still make those relationships strong, doing those transactional processes, talking face to face with people, especially within the district. Sharing perspectives, and really listening to understand, I think, is a key that women typically bring in leadership.

Thoughts on public safety: When the Black Lives Matter movement started, I was deep into learning about public safety, trying to become a police officer. There were a lot of things I didn’t understand. It took a while for me to truly get there. And now that I do understand, and I continue to learn more, I see so much opportunity where we can support officers, we can be protected, we can be safe. But we can also make sure that people are held accountable. There is no reason for the people sworn to protect us to murder folks in the street.

On overcoming barriers: My wife and I are members of our local American Legion, a place where you might not guess that a lesbian couple might go to hang out. But it is like a family. What has really been touching over the years is to hear folks actually look us in the face and say, ‘Thank you for coming here. You have changed minds, and you have changed opinions. And we see you and we trust you as people and we care about you.’ And before I start to get teary-eyed, that is really for me where those connections happen.

We can certainly do a lot to focus on specific issues regarding bigotry and discrimination and racism. At the same time, for me it is just showing up as your authentic self and letting people feel that genuineness from your heart. I think that is really where we start to make a difference. There is a lot of negativity out there. I try not to buy into it. It doesn’t get me down. A lot more people are supportive than are the loud voices out there. They are louder, but we are a whole lot mightier.

Susan Pha

Sen. Susan Pha, won with 64% of the vote in district 38, which includes Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.

I have been the mayor pro tem in the city of Brooklyn Park, serving a second term as a council member. I am a mom of four, [then five months pregnant]. Being on the city council for six years opened up my eyes to how big an impact our state policies are to local government and to our people in our cities.

Good policies equals good outcomes. I want to make sure we have good policies in place, so they can help people to thrive in our communities.

On overcoming barriers: When I first got elected to the City Council in Brooklyn Park, I was the first person of color ever elected to city public office, and we are the second most diverse city in Minnesota. I am the first, and that was just in 2016. I am happy to say that since I have been elected, there have been several people of color who have been elected. Now the council is a much better representation of the people that actually live here.

Yet there are definitely people who have voiced their concerns. I try to understand that — that they are coming from a space where they may fear change, they fear some kind of loss, that somehow they are going to feel the loss of representation of people who are like them.

It is not because we are unique and different in some ways that we cannot represent others. There are many people who don’t look like me who have represented me for decades. It is really about our common values or common goals. I try to convey to people, when I do sense these fears, that true diversity and representation equals better policies that work better for all people. We should embrace that diverse representation — not steer away from it, but really embrace it.

Rep. María Isa Pérez-Hedges, won with 78.6% of the vote in district 65B, in west Saint Paul.

María Isa Pérez-Hedges hugging her mother on celebration night. She directed some of her victory speech to her daughter, below right: “You are my determination. We are heading to the castle, as you call the Capitol. It is time to polish up those golden horses and those walls with the true history and reflection of what education needs to be taught, in truth to power for you and every child in the state to grow, be as strong and healthy as possible, and have the opportunities you want. I am here to fight with every breath to protect your rights by any means necessary.”

I am a Puerto Rican born in Minnesota, raised my entire life in district 65B. I am a youth worker, directing mentorship programming with the Twin Cities mobile jazz project, utilizing music, production, and recording arts as a way to strengthen literacy and communication and acceptance in a system. Our students of color are Black, African American and East African, Latinos, Indigenous, Asian students that have been here for over three generations, and students that have just arrived in refuge.

I was brought up in a nonprofit performing arts school that my mother and my aunt founded, utilizing Afro Latino and Afro Caribbean folk and traditional music as a way to build a platform and cultural competency in the state of Minnesota. I own a label called Sota Rico, proud of my dual heritage of being from Minnesota but also being born of Puerto Rican descent.

I am a type one diabetic since I was 16. I am a daughter of human rights activists that came out of the Vietnam War or the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican community and the Young Lords movement. That gave me the ambition to recognize, growing up as a young woman of color in the first barrio in the state of Minnesota — the disparities in health and education.

I grew up with all the shades of the coffee as my bloodline. It really touched my heart to see so much racism in a community where I am raising my daughter, a beautiful Black and brown three year old.

I have been a part of politics since I was out of my mother’s womb. She was the first Latina appointed by Rudy Perpich, who was governor back then, for the offices of equal opportunity. Some folks said, ‘it is your first run, why don’t you learn a little bit about how the ropes are?’ I know the ropes — it is called fighting white supremacy and fighting sexism and racism.

What makes a powerful leader? I see the transformative work, especially in this election, with a sisterhood and a band of women of color. Zaynab Mohamed, a Black Somali 25 year old— she is going to be the first and the youngest Muslim. Clare Verbeten, senator running out of St. Paul and Roseville, and the Asian sisters running in the House. Shout out to Samantha Vang and Liz Lee out of the east side. There are these conversations that we are holding. Recognizing that we are carrying our ancestors, but we also carry our daughters in our arms. We are building our communities to recognize empowerment and policy — towards recognizing that who we are and where we have came from has been stripped away, unless you have access to those elders.

Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, won with 78.5% of the vote in district 66, which includes parts of Saint Paul, Roseville, Falcon Heights, and Lauderdale.

photo by Sarah Whiting

I am running to advance racial justice and build a community that safe for all of us. I am running because I am sickened by police brutality that we have become known for. My district includes Falcon Heights, where Philando Castile was shot and killed six years ago. Of course, a worldwide reckoning on race was sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and many other many other names and lives that were taken in our state. I think that is just the tip of the iceberg.

We have the worst racial disparities in the country — in education, in income, in housing, in health care. We can do so much better. My work has really been about fighting for better systems of justice in our community. My work at the city of St. Paul, leading our racial equity framework to eliminate disparities in our city, working to elect progressive candidates across our state, volunteering with a local school district to make sure schools are fully funded and our students and families have the resources that they deserve. I really want to transform our systems. Because until we do that, we are going to continue to have these same outcomes.

Thoughts on public safety: Our safety can’t be divorced from all these other issues that we are running on, including abortion access. When you are able to start your family determines if you are able to keep your job, can you pay for child care and health care. People are safer when they have good jobs and good health care, when they have clean water and air, when their kids are in good schools. Making the investments in those areas is as important to keeping our community safe as is building that trust and holding officers accountable — looking at root causes of crime. We have to do this in coordination. That is part of how we are bringing a different perspective and a different style of leadership to the legislature. No matter what committees we sit on, these are all safety issues.

On overcoming barriers: Those of us who are marginalized in some way, whether we are women or LGBTQ, we are used to being in this space of being told no and being underestimated. There are systemic barriers that have kept us out of these positions of power, right? But for me, being a Black woman, being a queer woman, also being young — this Minnesota Senate is not the youngest place — I am used to fighting for my worth and rights.

I often talk about my mom and my ancestors and the people who brought me here to this moment when I talk about why I am running. I think it is really important to start with that grounding of where you come from and who has brought you here. My mom had to completely start over when she immigrated from Senegal to this country, learn a new language and build a new career, and raise my sister and me. My mom is going to be damned if we lose our right to abortion access. And that fight and that push to stand up for yourself and your community, and to find those people who are going to have your back, that is all I know.

I think so many of us can relate to that — really strong people in our life who have been through so much, are so resilient, and bring people along with them. I think that is the way that we all plan to lead in the legislature, really clear on our values. And we are going to assemble the team to make it happen, because it is our lives at stake. 

If we are going to have a true democracy, we need people of all walks of life to be in office. That includes different racial identities, different gender identities, different sexual orientations. Those things that make up who we are as people really do impact the way we experience the world.

Leigh Finke (in yellow dress) in celebration night hug with fellow legislator Athena Hollins

Rep. Leigh Finke won with 81.4% of the vote in district 66A, which includes Saint Paul, Falcon Heights, Roseville, and Lauderdale.

I am mom of two children. I come from advocacy, activism, journalism, filmmaking and policy. I worked in renewable energy policy for a number of years. [As the first openly trans Minnesota legislator, I entered the race because of ] the increasingly hateful and violent anti-trans movement that is taking place across the country, including here in Minnesota.

Minnesota Women’s Press was at her celebration night, where she was elated about the success of LGBTQ+ candidates. “Queer political power is starting to take hold in the state of Minnesota.”

What makes a powerful leader? I am by nature a collaborator. I start with collaboration. We always have to have consensus and you have to have understanding of your shared goals. It is important to know what your values are and making sure that you know what is not on the trading block. If we have to play this kind of political gamesmanship, what are those things that matter to me? What are my values that are not going to be open to trade? I do strongly believe that women and queer people probably have a stronger sense of what that looks like than a lot of men who are trading spaces.

On overcoming barriers: As a trans person, and as a person who has knocked on a lot of doors this year, I can tell you — not everybody wants everybody’s voice heard. I hear quite regularly, how can you expect to represent me if you are trans and you care about all these trans issues? It is a very hard thing to hear, I’ll be honest, because I have never been represented by a trans person, and yet somehow they have managed to represent me.It is necessary, not just to get representation, but to allow new representation to actualize change. So not only do we need to get the first Black women into the Senate, but then the Senate really needs to make space for what that representation means going forward. Having a trans woman arrive in the House, and then having that person affect no change for her community, doesn’t really add any true value. So not only do we need the representation, but we need the space to make the change that we are trying to bring. Otherwise, we are just there for show, and I am not going to be there for show. We are there to make change.

Rep. Liz Lee, won with 75.3% of the vote in district 67A, representing the northeastern part of St. Paul

Liz Lee

I am a Hmong woman, Southeast Asian, also a daughter of refugees. District 67A is one of the most diverse districts in the state. I am the first woman ever to represent the district, which is surprising, but also not, and really sad. I will be the first Asian rep for the district, which is also very surprising for such a diverse district, with so many Asian residents.

I worked on Capitol Hill for for almost a decade for different members of Minnesota’s federal congressional delegation. I was working for a member of Congress on January 6. There are a variety of reasons why I decided to run, including wanting to implement a lot of the COVID money that we sent to the state and also wanting to make sure that we still have a healthy democracy. It is scary that a lot of the things that I learned about in comparative politics in college are applicable now. We really are saving the soul of our nation.

I was very lucky that I got so much out of our public school system. I was a Head Start student, I was a WIC [welfare] baby, and I was really able to use all of those resources to become the person I am today. I realize that is not the case anymore.

Equitable social development, equitable socioeconomic development, is really important here — creating jobs; making sure we have ample, affordable and moderately affordable housing; and also addressing education equity.


Three of the new faces in the Minnesota legislature for 2023: Clare Oumou Verbeten, María Isa Pérez-Hedges, and Zaynab Mohamed

Zaynab Mohamed was not able to talk with us in our “Diversity in Politics” series, but we captured her voice at the “Born to Lead” event hosted by Ayada Leads and Vote.Run.Lead, that also honored her predecessor, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray. Mohamed easily won her race with 85.8 percent of the vote.

Coming in 2023: Changemakers Alliance members connect about alleviating socio-economic barriers to running for office, overcoming obstacles for diverse candidates in Greater Minnesota, and how the endorsement process has an impact.

Diversity in Politics Series

2023: A Good Year for action (postelection commentary)

Breaking Barriers in Minnesota Politics

Socioeconomic Obstacles

Transactional v Transformational Leadership

The Reproductive Justice Issue

Ethnic Studies and Other Educational Debates in Minnesota

The campaign work of Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Senator Tina Smith

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray: Transforming the Science of Politics

Stepping out for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ community

Representing people with disabilities