As a teenager, Franzen was in a youth group that visited government leaders. Only one of the leaders was a woman. In her suit and heels, she made an impact on the young Franzen. “I wanted to be like her. She had an aura. Power that wasn’t demanded, but composed, strong,” she says.
Franzen learned civic-minded leadership in the Girl Scouts. After graduating in Puerto Rico with a B.A. degree in political science, she moved alone to Minnesota. She has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota, and a law degree from Hamline University.
In 2012, Franzen was elected as a Democratic Minnesota Senator for District 49, representing Edina, Bloomington, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. She ran for office only because Senator Patricia Torres Ray asked her and said she “thought I had the vision and strategy for office.”
Franzen believed the idea was crazy. Not only did her district tend to vote Republican, but she had never been involved in partisan politics. She was a young corporate attorney at Target, in government affairs, where she largely tracked legislation and lobbied at the local, state and federal level. However, friends felt it was a natural progression. Her husband thought she might give it a try to “get it out of my system.”
With a strong door-knocking campaign, Franzen’s “boots on the ground” strategy made a difference – by reassuring voters no one would work harder. Franzen won with 53 percent of the vote in what would become Minnesota’s most expensive legislative campaign against former Minnesota House Representative Keith Downey, a Republican.
Bringing a fresh perspective
Franzen’s first term was not easy. She was challenged and at times felt bullied. She knew her time in office would go by too quickly if she didn’t come in strong.
As someone with a corporate and legal background, she understands the importance of negotiation and compromise. “When someone doesn’t come to the table ready to negotiate, I’m driven to find out why they want to protect the status quo,” Franzen says.
Franzen is passionate about building meaningful legislation – especially in regard to early childhood education. “It’s frustrating to rebuild a system that has been underfunded, but I believe that even smaller steps are worthwhile,” she says. She has also worked on the Health and Human Services Committee, Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, as well as the Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
The value of collaboration
Franzen sees issues from multiple perspectives. She brings a young, strong woman’s perspective. She knows she has to make decisions that men do not about “doing it all.” As a mother, if she returns to the legislative session too quickly after her second child is born, that will be judged. If she delays her return to the active session to stay home longer, that will be judged as well.
Franzen views this choice-making process as applicable to everything. “It comes back to tolerance. There are differences among all people, not simply related to race and religion. As a mother, I will have succeeded if I teach my children to be compassionate and respectful.”
She strongly believes in the value of tolerance in the political sphere as well. “I’m open to ideas. Open to disagreements. Open to changing my mind,” Franzen says. This is a hallmark of the political culture of Puerto Rico, where politics are based on respectful, transparent discourse, which is something Franzen values.
This year the Minnesota legislature loses eight incumbent women. Franzen would like to see those shoes filled by women. Regardless of party, women are “ready to get things done.” She points out that she and two women – Woodbury’s Susan Kent and Owatonna’s Vicki Jensen – worked on a controversial “not perfect” gas tax transportation bill when Congress was stalled on finding funds for transportation needs. Although that bill was not passed to law, it demonstrated the collaborative power of women. Franzen believes that by incorporating more diverse opinions and perspectives, more common ground can be reached.
Franzen believes women in coalition can offer a stronger voice. “If we stick together, we can make a bigger difference in challenging the status quo,” she says. Her advice to women in politics: “Don’t be discouraged about doing what you feel you need to do to make your point. Don’t let other people define you.”
Minnesota Women in Office
The need for local women in office is revealed in these 2015 statistics from the Office on the Economic Status of Women:
MN Women in U.S. Congress
20% of the 10 Minnesota seats
Women in the MN State Legislature
33% of 201 seats
Women on MN School Boards
40% of 2,176 board members
Women on MN City Councils
27% of 3,481 council members
16% of 825 MN citiesGrowing up in Puerto Rico, Melisa Franzen was introduced to politics as a part of everyday life and discourse. She learned not only to be independent, but that “government impacts every aspect” of one’s life. And, it’s important to participate.