Values & Vision: Talking to People Engaged in Politics (With Election Results)

Thanks to our underwriters, we were able to talk with 20 people engaged in Minnesota politics as advocates, organizers, and candidates. We asked why they are running for office, or why they are engaged with the issues that matter to them. The conversations were deep, interesting, inspiring.

Here is the group of people we talked to, with short introductions, along with election results for those who were candidates. Most of them won their race easily, including the first Black women senators, as well as the first trans woman and the first two-spirit representatives.

The new candidates step into office on January 3.

Susie Strom, Leigh Finke, Brion Curran, Clare Oumou Verbeten, Susan Pha, with moderator De’Vonna Pittman

Moderator De’Vonna Pittman: The goal today is to talk about some of the strengths you bring to this landscape as a transformationalist — that is what we women do, we transform the landscape, we transform the politics. So we are going to talk about the nature of representation. What are some of the fears that folks have about seeing something different in politics, different types of people, women, ethnicities? We are going to talk about the endorsement process, and how the conversations about abortion and public safety and education affects politics. Tell us who you are, and why you are running.

All election graphics generated by Star Tribune

Suzy Strom [lost by less than 700 votes]: I am running for Minnesota House 36A. My district includes Circle Pines, Centerville, some of White Bear township. I am a mom of two young daughters, a four and a one year old. I am a U.S. Army veteran, and I am currently still in the reserves. I am an attorney. And I am a Korean American adoptee. I live in North Oaks with my family. I am running because service is really, really important to me. I want to continue to serve our community and the state and the country. And considering my two girls — I want their future to be better and brighter.

Leigh Finke [WON with 81.4%]: I am running for the Minnesota House of Representatives in district 66A, which is St. 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. I am running to be the first trans person elected to the Minnesota legislature. I am running because of an increasingly hateful and violent anti-trans movement that is taking place across the country, including here in Minnesota. It is essential for everyone to have a voice in our government.

Brion Curran [WON with 53.6%]: I am running for state house in 36B. I am Susie Strom’s counterpart in the same district and thrilled that we get to be teammates in this race together. Services is incredibly important to me as well. 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. Like Leigh mentioned, 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 am running.

Clare Oumou Verbeten [WON with 78.5%]: I am running for the Minnesota Senate in District 66, which includes parts of St. Paul, Roseville, Falcon Heights, and Lauderdale. 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.

Susan Pha [WON with 64% of vote]: I am running for State Senate District 38, which encompasses Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center. I am currently the mayor pro tem in the city of Brooklyn Park. I am serving my second term as a council member. I am a mom of four, five months pregnant right now. I am running for State Senate because being on the city council for the last six years has really 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 really can help people to thrive in our communities.

Edie Barrett, Natalie Copeland, Alicia Gibson, Liz Lee, and Erika Bailey-Johnson

Edie Barrett (did not defeat incumbent): I live in Ortonville, which is next to the South Dakota border. I just obtained my master’s degree in public affairs from the Humphrey School, graduating this past May. I also took on a minor from the center of spirituality and healing. My area of focus in my education was on integrative leadership and social change. I am running for Minnesota House District 12. I want to prioritize civility and decency, as well as transparency, while honoring what it means to be in service to the needs of our rural areas. I believe if we don’t get better at simply being human, including finding our shared values and supporting what it means to be in community, it makes it very difficult to talk about complicated, challenging topics like gun control or abortion. I support freedom around women’s health care.


Natalie Copeland [took second of three seats]: I am running for school board in St. Cloud, Minnesota district 742. This is my second term. I have been on the school board for the last four years — four very tumultuous years for everybody, but especially for schools. I am a community organizer and the executive director of United Cloud, an anti-racist organization, helping folks know love and stand up for their neighbors. I know my kids are going to be much better prepared for the world than I was growing up here, where the biggest difference was whether you were Catholic or Lutheran. It is a three-peat [of challenges today] for our Somalian neighbors: anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. So we have continuously organized around the fact that everybody belongs here and everybody should be able to thrive in our community. One of the reasons I ran is to help get our Gender Sexuality Alliance into our middle school. Our LGBTQ students are under attack by parents, by community members, by folks from even outside our state and money — coming at our kids and our teachers with lawsuits saying they can’t have rainbows up in their classroom, saying they can’t say the word gay or read a book about two men or two women who are with each other. It’s just a scary, scary time. I feel like we’re going backwards. But I think St. Cloud is a bright light in our community. Our goal is to have at least one adult in every building that has connection with one child. If someone is connecting with a student, they will know when something is going wrong, when something may be happening at home, what is going on with the homework, and then hopefully bring them over the bridge into a more successful time in their school careers.

Alicia Gibson: I am phenotypically white, but I am also Japanese American. I grew up in a house where the primary person that I was very bonded to is a Japanese immigrant. I grew up in Oklahoma. She married a man in which she had a tremendous amount of conflict, who was a soldier that she met in Japan. I would eventually get a PhD in comparative literature, cultural studies and comparative literature. My dissertation was on the atomic bomb. While I was doing the research on that, living in Hiroshima, lI realized that that was the argument that my grandparents returned to over and over again in their courtship. I do think that there is a way in which I was born to embody these conflicts — that tears us apart, but love can really transcend. I really try to show up in spaces, and listen deeply and advocate for the things that communities are talking about, whether they are relevant or specific to my life or not. I help advocate for community itself.

One of my major issues is reproductive justice. We are in a bit of a lull thinking we are in a post-feminist world, right? I think the Dobbs decision really pulled the rug from underneath our feet and enabled us to see that is not accurate.

I ran for city council in Ward 10, of Minneapolis. That has really evolved — more akin to running for a legislative state. The person who won the seat — I came in second — raised $150,000. I had been involved in political organizing for seven years. The reason I got involved was frustration before the George Floyd murder with city politics and how uncivil it was becoming. When I had smoke coming in my windows, that was a really big wake-up moment for me as a parent, who had made a promise about being in Minneapolis as our city and putting down roots and really feeling those roots coming up out of the ground. Because the question is: How do you raise small children in a place in which the city is literally on fire?

Liz Lee [WON with 75.3%]: I am a Hmong woman, Southeast Asian, also a daughter of refugees. I am very honored to be the Democratic candidate for Minnesota U.S. House District 67A, the northeastern part of St. Paul. It is one of the most diverse districts in the state. When I am elected this November, I will be the first woman ever to represent the district, which is surprising, but also not and really sad. I will also 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 this November.

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. I love that Natalie brought up that the last two years have been really difficult for our students, especially the kids in the public school system, who were already behind.

Erika Bailey Johnson [did not defeat incumbent] : I am running for Minnesota House and I am in the Bear Clan. My Ojibwe name is Butterfly Woman and I live in rural Bemidji. My full-time job is as sustainability director at Bemidji State University. I received my biology degree from the University of Minnesota — Morris, where I was a volleyball player. My husband and I taught for five years internationally — two years in Mexico and three years in Kuwait. I grew up in Williams, a town of 230 people. I grew up eight miles south of a town of 230 people. Our nearest neighbors were a mile away. I was an only child. My dad was in the logging industry, and a paraplegic. So my mom and I did a lot of the physical work around the property. I didn’t really realize until later how much that upbringing had to do with who I am and what I can bring to the world.

I have a real responsibility to connect people to the earth. I was part of the governor’s committee for pollinator protection. I am really dedicated to seeing the voices of youth elevated. They already can see the future — they already have the answers — they just are not being listened to or are not at the table.

Even my youngest son, the way they talk about gender is not something I grew up with — this fluid conversation. It is so different and it is so beautiful. There is a lot of turmoil in between big changes. I want to be part of getting us on a better path.

Ellie Krug, Alicia Kozlowski, Hnu Vang, Terri Thao, HaoPay Lee, Suzann Willhite

Ellie Krug [WON third of four seats]: I am running for school board for Eastern Carver County Schools District 112. It is a school district with about 9200 students, approximately 1500 educators, the largest employer in Carver County, — a county that went for Trump in 2020 by six points. But it is a county in in some respects turning purplish.

I was volunteering in the schools last spring, speaking to LGBTQ students, both in an alternative high school as well as middle schools. My message for them was about being worthy, that they mattered — an affirmation. Somebody came to me and said, ‘Ellie, there are four seats open on the school board this fall. We think you should run as a school board candidate. I heard a lot of things about the fact that I am transgender, and how that might be a lightning rod and how I might be the subject of a lot of negativity. But it was also important to me that me running would send a great message to the LGBTQ community out here in Carver County, not only the students, but also adults, that they mattered. And so I decided that I would do it. I happen to be hopelessly idealistic. I am a student of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy — I was alive when they were alive, 11 years old when they were murdered. And they taught me before they went, like they taught a billion other people, that we all have an obligation to make the world a better place. And that is really the underlying reason why I’m running. The school district here is doing an incredible job — they graduated 99 percent of their seniors. I also want to get help get them get ready for things that are coming, like book bans, attacks on LGBTQ students, and other kinds of marginalization.


Alicia Kozlowski [WON with 71.1%]: My pronouns are they/them. I am running for Minnesota House in district 8B, which is in eastern Duluth. 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, 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. Because I look around at our community — we have a housing crisis, right? In 2020, my mom died of homelessness and addictions and battling the jail system.

I look around and 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.

Hnu Vang: I am a board member of Maiv PAC, the first Hmong American Women’s Political Action Committee in the nation. We are dedicated to raising funds to endorse state-level candidates, to really building an inclusive democracy. We also want to make sure that immigrant women also learn about the voting process, the civic engagement process. Priorities that Maiv PAC pushes forward is economic security, education, and health care.

Terri Thao: I am one of the founders of Maiv PAC. In 2019, I ran for office, for St. Paul City Council in Ward 6 on the east side. I did not win my race. But what I have always known is:

If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.

It is really about seeing, when we solve for the most vulnerable, we are able to solve for everybody else. That is why I continue to do this work, training leaders — how do we bring more folks to the table and help co-create the menu? When we figure them out for Hmong women and families, we figure it out for a lot of folks in Minnesota and across the nation. We just endorsed a round of candidates. The bridge-makers of issues are the women, the moms, right? We are bridging to in-laws, our children, our relatives, helping them navigate — we know what pivotal roles they have in their families and in the community.

HaoPay Lee: I am the oldest daughter to Hmong refugees, a product of the Hmong diaspora, and also a generational gender-based violence survivor. I am also part of Maiv PAC. Part of the reason I decided to get involved in policy politics is because I have first-hand experience in witnessing and experiencing how marginalized people, especially women, are impacted by the systems they are in. I always say that when women succeed, we all succeed as a larger society. Women are often the carriers of our traditions, our culture, our people, and yet we have the least power-making for decisions in life. So it is really important to for me to educate more women — especially about their power in voting and how they can influence policy and what that can do to impact people. I always say I hate politics. But in order to really make the change that I want to see, I have to get into politics. And so here I am. I have a lot to learn to make our community more inclusive and especially bring liberation to young women and girls.

Suzann Wilhite: I am not running for office, but I do what I can to get people in office who represent the diversity that we need in order to represent all of us. If it is about us, include us. There are so many people who need to be at the table where the decisions are being made.

I am currently president of Equal Rights Amendment Minnesota. It is a volunteer group, as most women’s organizations are, which is part of the issue — women need to have equal pay, to be able to be able to participate at a greater level in our society, in our government and jobs, and, and managing our homes and families. The Equal Rights Amendment is 24 words that says we should all be equal under the law. And sadly, we are still talking about that in 2022. We see the ramifications of the backlash against this idea today in Roe v. Wade being overturned — not having bodily autonomy, as people who can be pregnant. It is sort of shocking to me, but at the same time, I know the history. And I understand why we are where we are.

I have a passion around the constitution that said ‘We the People.’ I thought it meant everybody. As I got older I learned it was ‘no … not you and not you, and certainly not you.’ When you read this document, it is pretty appalling, the number of people who are excluded intentionally. So we have to be added, even for voting rights — including Black men and then women — but we don’t have full equality under the law. In our federal Constitution, we should have that at this point. It is being blocked, even though we have 38 states, the required number. We also want it in our Minnesota constitution — protections in our state. The more people we have who support equality, the better off we are. I saw that in Nevada, with the first majority women legislature in 2019. They started to pass laws around sex trafficking, sexual assault, paid family leave, and issues that mattered to the diversity that we have.

Laverne McCartney Knighton, Nadia Mohamed, Sharon Brooks Green, Maria Isa Pérez-Hedges

Laverne McCartney Knighton: I am a 35-year resident of the Twin Cities. I live in St. Paul, in district 65. I live in a neighborhood that was part of Rondo — the history there, Rondo being somewhat disrupted and destroyed due to the 94 freeway being built. I have seen this community transition and change and evolve and become all that it can be. In 2020, I ran for state senator in this district against a 30-plus-year incumbent. As we all know, 2020 was a pivotal year, after George Floyd’s murder. So many Black women rose up that year to really make a difference. I was asked to run. I was running for change, for eradicating the status quo. We do not get to ask any women of color to wait anymore. We have waited long enough. So basically, I jumped into the race in early June that year. I had less than two months to fully launch a campaign. We raised more than $30,000 and were able to garner 36 percent of the vote. I felt like that was a pretty successful run. For such a short time, I was very proud of what I was able to build with my campaign team. I believe we should have elected representatives who represent the communities they serve.

Nadia Mohamed: I am a Somali American. I am also a Muslim American who immigrated here to America when I was 10 years old. I have lived in St. Louis Park since the day I came to America. It has been the only home I have known. I live in a very predominantly white, affluent, if not upper middle class. It was highly segregated in the way that we have interacted socially, economically. Housing-wise, you could tell what neighborhood you were in. Because we are a suburb there is this belief that ‘we are good to go’ as a first-ring suburb, we don’t need any resources, we don’t need anything. That is how the council members and lawmakers and decision makers mostly operated when I was growing up. So as soon as I finished high school I started getting into community advocacy, letting people know we are here. The growing population in the suburbs are people of color. It is quite unfair for us not to be heard and not to be listened to and not to be at the table.

A year before finishing my college studies, at the age of 22, I decided to run for office. It wasn’t easy, but like Ms. Laverne was touching on — Black woman are realizing it is time, right? We are not waiting for anybody else anymore. I became the youngest elected city council member in the city, as well as the first Black woman, the first Muslim woman, and the first Somali American.

For awhile I was the only person of color and the only renter, and the only person who experienced low-income housing. And now we are getting a few more voices, and the conversation is no longer one sided. It is multiple stories being told. Those stories are becoming part of the decision making.

Sharon Brooks Green [WON one of the four seats]: I am running for school board director in Robbinsdale Area School District 281, currently serving on the board. I almost did not apply. But I thought, I know the values that I bring to the table. We have some 11,000 to 12,000 children in our district. I am sitting here with a master’s degree in advocacy and political leadership. I am currently a doctoral candidate for public policy and administration. With these credentials, knowing that I wasn’t fully using them — if not me, who would and with what values? I am the second black in history on this board, with Helen Bassett, and it gives representation to the majority of our students, because we now are 60 percent people of color with about 25 percent Black. I love to hear from the community about what our school should look like. I think that we have more in common than we don’t. I also started a nonprofit organization to support families impacted by prison.

María Isa Pérez-Hedges: [WON with 78.6%] I am a Puerto Rican born in Minnesota, raised my entire life in district 65B, which is the west side of St. Paul. I am a youth worker, I direct 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. Recognizing the disparities — 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 say, ‘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.

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.

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