Honoring Sen. Patricia Torres Ray

Luz María Frías (far right), the first Latina Deputy Attorney General in the state, invited Latina women to the front of the room to present the Senator with a gift that rounds out her collection of Diego Rivera’s portraits of children. (photo by Sarah Tucker)

In October, at an Ayada Leads discussion featuring BIPOC candidates, one young woman in the audience indicated she had only voted once, for Ilhan Omar, because she did not feel that politics connected to her in any way.

Partly in response, Senator Patricia Torres Ray replied, “We are working on transforming the science of politics. And when we get there, and when we do that, this world is going to be very, very different.”

One of the first times I talked with the senator was in 2018, leading up to a keynote address she and Nekima Levy Armstrong did at our “Using Your Voice and Vote” event. They talked frankly about how the state could be in better shape if progressives worked in solidarity, rather than silos, about our respective issues and identities.

Their talk was instrumental in leading to the Changemakers Alliance network Minnesota Women’s Press is forming today.

In short, Patricia Torres Ray has been the most accessible politician I have known. Her focus on smart community-based policymaking, generosity of time, and willingness to be honest has been unique in the Minnesota Senate for the past 16 years.

Last week a standing-room-only crowd filled the Women’s Club to honor Torres-Ray as she prepares to step away from elected office.

One of the guest speakers was Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who gave her an emotional send-off, noting that the room was full of people for whom she had held open the door. “Our lives were profoundly changed because you were in the Senate to represent us,” she said.

Torres Ray is largely credited with paving the way for the largest diverse group of candidates to enter elected office in 2023, including her successor, Zaynab Mohamed, who is among the first three Black women senators ever to lead in Minnesota.

Flanagan said: “It is not easy to be the only, or to be the first, as we walk into these places and spaces that were not created by us or for us, but in many ways were created to silence us, to eliminate us, to exterminate us. You rejected that. I would not be lieutenant governor if it wasn’t for you, Senator.”

U.S. representative Ilhan Omar says Senator Patricia Torres Ray was the only standing legislator brave enough to endorse her in Omar’s first run for political office. (photo by Sarah Tucker)

The same sentiment was expressed by U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar. She flew in for the event from Washington D.C. , after helping earlier that day to elect the first Black Congressional leader Hakeem Jeffries, who will take over in January as House Democratic leader from Nancy Pelosi.

Rep. Omar noted that Torres Ray was the only sitting legislator who endorsed her when she ran for Minnesota House as a first-time candidate. It was instrumental in positioning Omar as a viable candidate, because “people trust her. She believed in me.”

Omar told the story of being an immigrant to the U.S. at age 12, having lived in a refugee camp for four years, being behind in education because of it, and not knowing any English when she started school. “It took a village to prepare me and to get me ready to graduate on time.”

Torres Ray moved to Minnesota in her early 20s from Colombia. In her, Omar said, she found an immediate ally in supporting improved educational opportunities for new Minnesota families. “I did not have to explain the challenges our communities face,” Omar says. “She understood the challenges of a young mom, what our communities face, and went to bat for more diverse teachers. She was ready to put a bill forward.”

Standing room-only crowd at Senator Patricia Torres Ray ‘thank you’ celebration. (photo by Sarah Tucker)

Torres Ray noted that her journey in the legislature was not easy. “Every time I proposed something people have told me, how dare you? How dare you think that we should have more teachers of color? How dare you think we need to invest more in early childhood education and eliminate the disparities? How dare you think that we need to invest more in homeless people and really address the issues that we have in housing? How dare you think we have to elect more people of color? How dare you think that we need to do more, much more, to address climate change? Those are the policies that I have drafted over the years.”

Years ago, she “dared to say that we shouldn’t have police officers in the schools; we need more counselors.” Since then, some school districts have adopted policies to abolish police officers in schools, “but it is not state law. I hope we pass that law. I also have fought very hard to make sure that kindergartners do not get suspended.”

Torres Ray is passionate about children. She has not yet said what her next move is, but did say:

“I want to make sure that we eliminate the inequities that exist in this state. We have far too much poverty in our Indigenous communities, in our communities of color, our immigrants. We are not doing enough. The most difficult problem right now is that those who have so many resources are unwilling to share. Well … we are stronger than them. There are more of us.”

A large group of Latina leaders stood in support of the Senator’s influence in the community. (All unprofessional photos by author)

Patricia Torres Ray: “Do I have a plan?”

Senator Patricia Torres Ray will be featured in our January 2023 issue about mentorship. She talks about why she entered Minnesota politics as a candidate for the first time, and we learn about her superpower.

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Minnesota Women’s Press talked with three outgoing Minnesota women legislators in Spring 2022 — Alice Hausman, Rena Moran, and Patricia Torres Ray. Sen. Torres Ray brought up the frustrations inherent in a political system that can tend to be transactional, rather than transformational. It later led to a conversation with a group of largely BIPOC women engaged in politics.

2014 Profile

When she was 23 and a recent immigrant, she looked for work in her field and landed in legislative advocacy around foster-care issues. … Torres Ray helped women lobby for legislation that would, among other things, place these foster children in African-American or Native American households. “These women, who were mostly women of color, were powerful voices,” Torres Ray says, “They taught me so much and they are the reason I didn’t go into the private sector.”

She became curious about the difference between the Minnesota she read and heard about, with its statistics about educational achievement, and the Minnesota she was seeing. “I realized that kids who look like me weren’t getting ahead, and I kept asking myself — especially with this outsider’s perspective — why is this? How did this happen? How can we change this?” she says.