Priorities for Government

Rep. Rena Moran (left) and Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, at Minnesota State Capitol (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Beyond rhetoric, politics is largely about funding priorities. In recent years, the essential questions are: What is the role of the government in stabilizing communities with roads, postal service, healthcare, and food assistance, and who pays for that? Is this access a right or a privilege? Who has access and who does not? 

With so little political representation historically coming from people of color and women, what have we lost when so many decisions are made by the same demographic? 

We talked with several Minnesota women engaged directly in electoral politics this fall and asked what doors they want to see open in the coming months. With so many priorities, this year in particular, where are they hoping to focus their energy? We sent out a query to five Democrats and five Republicans, representing everything from city council and school board to the state legislature. The following reflects the voices we heard back from.

Connecting Politics to Community

Long-time Minnesota Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray seeks to bridge the disconnect that exists between policy makers at the legislature and those who work at the ground level. She says the political, economic, and racial segregation in our state separates many elected officials from truly understanding the issues communities face. She wants to make it easier for the majority male and white state legislators to authentically learn about the issues so that effective solutions can be funded. 

“We live in such bubbles that we tend to have no idea what other people are facing,” she says. “We need to bring more experiences together — not just about racial groups, but different ages and religious groups as well.

“We divide between women and men, women of color and white women, young and old. As a result, we tend to think our problems are unique to us, and deal with them in isolated ways.”

She points out that when we feel good about supporting food shelves, for example, that is not the same as supporting long-term solutions.

Transparent Reporting

Linda Garrett-Johnson is running for city council in Apple Valley. She recognizes that people in her community have questions and concerns about justice, equity, race, education, and housing “yet we don’t have a way to dialogue together to co-create solutions and develop understanding. This can lead to mistrust and uneasiness about what to do.”

Garrett-Johnson wants to see more transparent reporting by government. To prepare conversations about race and policing, for example, she would like to see her city “collect and disaggregate data by race on arrests, charging, convictions, and sentencing, to identify potential disparities, and share this information with the community.”

After a police officer in St. Anthony killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop in 2016, residents and advocates asked the police to collect and report data on the race of people pulled over in traffic stops. According to a MinnPost article, data shows that police continue to pull over Black motorists at disproportionate rates, and that number has been increasing every year. 

Garrett-Johnson wants local community leaders and members to have conversations on race, to understand issues of identity, build community, and to create solutions together.

Educational Equity

After serving in the military for 20 years, Donna Bergstrom returned to Minnesota and felt state government was disconnected from the people. Today she is running for Minnesota Senate in the Duluth area. She has two primary focal points.

“With some of the highest taxes in the nation, I think we should be doing a better job with elder care services,” Bergstrom says.

She also is looking for changes in education. “Minnesota continues to lead the nation with the highest persistent educational achievement gaps for students of color. We have seen these numbers for decades,” Bergstrom says. “Throwing more money at the problem is not the solution. Capping classroom sizes in grades K-3, where children are learning to read before they read to learn, is one solution. Offering parent-driven choices, such as an Educational Savings Account, is also worthy of discussion. 

“Our students deserve better. Our future depends on it.” 

Being Perceived as Normal

Helen Bassett has been a part of the Robbinsdale School Board for 19 years. She is co-founder of the Minnesota School Board Directors of Color, which works to get people of color on school boards and in general politics, and then learn what they have to do to be accepted in that role. She offers a yearly training for new school board directors.

When asked what door she hopes to see open, her response was about something that seems deceptively simple. She wants to see unremarkable daily routines become more acceptable in Minnesota. Bassett would like all people to be free to carry out their lives without being perceived by others as “abnormal.” For people of color, “the simple act of walking a child to the bus stop, or making a late night pizza run, or cheering your child at the chess tournament can be viewed as suspicious.” 

Living with Dignity

Before she was elected a House representative, Rena Moran moved to the Twin Cities with her kids in search of a better life, and lived in a Minneapolis shelter for several months. Now she represents several St. Paul neighborhoods, with a focus on health care coverage and removing barriers to programs that provide for safety and security. 

Several of the bills she has introduced relate to personal dignity and health disparities: prohibiting workplace discrimination based on hairstyle, making it illegal to smoke in a car with children, allowing women who are pregnant to keep their job without a minimum of 12 months of employment, and requiring trauma-informed education for policy-makers engaged in everything from healthcare to the justice system. She says there are too few people in power who recognize how trauma informs individual behavior. 

Another bill she supports is HF1050, which would put foster care licensing standards in line with adoption standards, making it easier for children in foster care to be placed with family members rather than strangers. 

Moran says she “truly believes in the power of people — being connected to neighbors, having conversation block-by-block, town-by-town, barn-by-barn.” Being civically engaged, she says, is one of the values of Minnesota. 

She also believes in the power of funding One Minnesota, initiatives designed by the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, which consists of the 21 people of color in the 201-member legislature.  The policies, Moran says, support the idea that people are “looking out for each other — that it is not about believing that if ‘you’ get something it is taking away from ‘me.’” 

Moran says there is no greater need “than the moment we are in right now for people to be aware of their vote to create the future that we want for our kids, our grandkids, our great-grandkids. It is no longer what happened in the movement of the 1960s. Now is the time for every last one of us to play a role in creating a better society.”

Deeper Reading

Priorities of the People of Color & Indigenous Caucus in the Minnesota Legislature

Where do our tax dollars go?

See related stories at womenspress.com/policy-politics 

“People ask me, ‘What is the significance of so many women and mothers being in the U.S. Congress?’ It’s great for young girls that they see this representation. But maybe it’s even more important that my four sons grow up in a world where women are fully representing them. This is the new normal for them, that women are at the policymaking table.”

— U.S. Rep. Angie Craig (MN)
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