People in Politics: What Makes a Powerful Leader?

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.

Said Sen. Torres Ray, leaving the Minnesota Senate after 16 years: “Transforming the world, transforming policy, transforming what is in front of us — that is the lens through which women lead and govern. Men tend to be transactionalists — ‘What do you have? Do I have this? Can I give it to you? When is the timing to do this transaction?’ The process of transaction has dominated the legislature for as long as I have been there.”

We talked with 20 people about Minnesota politics in Fall 2022 and asked for their viewpoints on leadership styles. As a woman-focused publication, we especially were interested in how the genders might lead differently — it is always strange to us that some people do not recognize the inherent power of women as leaders. We also have great two-spirit and trans women perspectives to share.

Here is what some of them told us. Many of them are running for office. Click on their names to learn more. Features Leigh Finke, Susan Pha, Brion Curran, Susie Strom, Nadia Mohamed, HaoPay Lee, Suzann Willhite, Alicia Kozlowski, Hnu Vang, Ellie Krug, and Maria Isa Perez-Hedges.

Conversation Excerpts

De’Vonna Pittman: How do you feel about how women tend to lead and how men tend to lead?

Susan Pha: I’ve seen that women lead with relationship building and common goals, we tend to want to build relationships with people find common ground and common goals and work towards that. I have found that there are certain people, and like you said, some men who are more transactional. And that’s fine, too. If that is their way of working with people, I can adapt myself to do that. Sometimes we kind of have to, because that is just how it is, especially in politics, but really making it known that it’s for this common goal.

Brion Curran: 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.

Susie Strom: Particularly in the military, where it is male dominated, it is a struggle to balance your personal leadership values with the push to be a certain way as a leader. Starting a movement, it is important to start small — small groups, your squad, your small office, and then building it out and supporting other women leaders in the endeavor.

Leigh Finke: 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.

Nadia Mohamed: A lot of these networking events we would go to, which was predominantly men, it would be, ‘Oh, what do you do? Okay, well, this is coming up for our project. And so it would be like a quid pro quo — You scratch my back, and I scratch yours.’ It didn’t feel very authentic to me. It felt like you are as useful as the things that you could provide. Whereas, when I’m in the company of women, we build each other up. I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by women in politics, whose main priority is building each other up. It’s not to get reelected. We are empathetic towards each other. If BIPOC women in Hopkins need some support, and they just need me to show up at a council meeting, you show up, right?

I know that both Minnetonka and Hopkins women of color who have been elected in those positions have showed up to a city council meeting in St. Louis Park. Right. That to me is power. That is how you build coalitions. Women focus more on building coalitions and long-lasting genuine relationships, that continuously open doors for each other. I 101 percent stand behind Senator Torres Ray on that.

HaoPay Lee: I do think that women naturally function more as a collective. And there’s power in numbers. And I think that when it’s transactional, people who want to succeed think that dividing and conquering is how you do it. That’s actually a colonized way of leading. And for women, we decolonize. Because we know that when more of us are working on the same issue together, we look at it from different angles, and we look at it in a more wholesome way. That’s a power that women really do have ‚ not saying that men don’t have that. But as women who care about similar issues, we do tend to put differences aside, and are less personal about things, working towards a common goal.

Suzann Willhite: When I do testimony in the legislature, there are plenty of women that I don’t necessarily support. They have come in on the same platform as men and they are transactional. They want to shut the door they came in. I think that women that I want to support and promote are more like what we’re talking about here, but you can’t assume it. Inevitably I will be in a hearing and the women that may be in opposition to me are brought forward as a women’s issue. They are women against women. I’m surprised, but you learn that some of the women who have gotten ahead have played by the same rules. It is very nice to see that some women are much more open. We work with some great women legislators, at all levels. There you can see the difference, more collaborative, sharing, being willing to engage and work on issues. And then you see the ones who are not supportive and shut the door and are transactional, or say ‘No, we really don’t need that. We’re just fine.’ And maybe they are fine. One of the things I want to see is people who are supporting others in a responsible way.

Alicia Kozlowski: 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.

Hnu Vang: Women really do have to transform institutions, because these institutions are not made for women to be in it. I view leadership as having a panoramic view. We play a big role in fighting for our community. We are very pro social engagement. We have a willingness to share power. And I think another aspect is that women wear so many hats during the day. We are not just one identity.

Ellie Krug: My trajectory here to womanhood is a little bit different. I didn’t transition genders until I was 52. So I had five decades presenting as male, living according to my gender assigned at birth. In that world, there was no question about how men dominated. Now I have lived 13 years, finally getting to be truly who I am, seeing the world through the eyes of a woman — and being marginalized in a variety of ways. Not because I’m trans, but because I’m a woman. Although there’s the transgendered marginalization to talk about too.

I am a unifier, not a divider. I’m someone who will work to bridge differences. And someone who will try and talk about how humans are good, because the vast majority of people have good empathetic hearts, whether male, female, nonbinary — however, they identify. Many people are afraid. And that allows their hearts to be turned off, or they avoid using their hearts. I think it’s much easier for me to talk about that as a woman than as a man. And I think that that’s partly because of the way our society is structured and organized. I’m on this side of the fence. I love it. Far better than I liked it on the other side.

María Isa Peréz-Hedges: Shout out to PTR, Senator Patricia Torres Ray has been such a champion in that in that leadership role as a senator. And as the first Latina senator. As women we always have to prove a point that has already been proven.:We are working in a society that pushes us away.

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.

So the work is on education and educating each other and breaking bread and not just putting us in these boxes of a census. But gathering us in full circle of recognizing that things haven’t changed much. I mean, we’re getting things reversed with Roe vs. Wade. We’re getting folks who literally tell us how we can be represented without knowing where we come from or how our bodies feel. So we are the transformative work. The action that is taking place is that we’re here having conversations daily, outside of the Capitol, outside of even being elected, and getting young women engaged in this work.

These people are my home girls — they are not just trying to break the cycles. They’ve had to go through a lot of work as being a staffer to a Congresswoman in D.C. for 10 years, and now running for their Asian community. These are young 25 year olds that just got out of college and are in the streets, protesting in the aftermath of George Floyd, to make sure that police are being held accountable.

The work is being of momentum, and having each other’s backs through this election process, through this campaigning, and writing our goals together. How are we going to do things inside those tunnels?How are we going to be protected under those tunnels?

Because there is one job of running a campaign, then there is a whole other wave. We recognize that we’re out here to fight for women in general, but also not to obliterate the history of BIPOC women. That’s the transformative action.

That is what inspires me about Patricia Torres Ray. Because she did it for so long and she was by herself. She really was in challenging moments where she amplified this new step for us to go to the House and for us to go to the Senate.

Big Voices Speak Out About Ongoing Threats to Democracy, Reproductive Rights, and Public Safety

Men are also quite capable of being transformationalists who see and support the Big Picture. Women have been stepping out for them as well.

In late October, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at a Gov. Tim Walz-Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan rally about what is at stake in the 2022 election in terms of defending democracy. Later that day, U.S. Senator Tina Smith opened up her Minneapolis home to support U.S. Congressional candidate Jeff Ettinger, a pro-choice candidate in a southern Minnesota District 1. The next day, Sen. Smith was supporting get-out-the-vote efforts, including at a Saint Paul gospel service alongside Minnesota Sen. Bobby Joe Champion.

Earlier in the month, Sen. Smith also opened up her home to support Minnesota attorney general incumbent Keith Ellison. There U.S. Senator colleague Amy Klobuchar said: “50 percent of Americans have an election denier on the ballot. And we are keeping our head above water right now in Minnesota … The one guy that we have to make sure keeps going, because he has so much thrown at him all the time, is Keith. For me this is personal. When [former Senator and Gov.] Mark Dayton decided not to run for Senate, the first person I saw was Keith Ellison. He said, ‘You should run. I am going to write you a $50 check.'”

She shared thoughts about his role as Minnesota attorney general so far: “The opioid work that they did, taking on those major companies. If you talk to the county attorneys, they tell you he didn’t just do what other attorney generals did. He brought the money back and consulted with locals about the treatment programs and where that money goes. … He has beefed up the division that helps [county attorney generals around Minnesota] when they have really tough violent crime cases. His office with his leadership is undefeated in outstate, violent crime cases.”

Saint Paul mayor Melvin Carter shared a story about how Ellison charged a lawsuit against a man who bought 33 guns in four months that he then sold on the black market; one of those was used in a mass shooting in Saint Paul.

Former Wellstone Action staffer Pam Costain urged people to door knock, make calls, and proactively support candidates like Ellison who preserve Minnesota values in democracy, rights, and safety.