The People Behind the Legislature

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A few of the people behind the scenes that make the legislature work: (l-r) Kära Josephson, Sarah Lopez, Inderia Falana, Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, Maikao Vue

This year was the first in nearly two decades that I was not part of the Minnesota legislature as a senator. I stepped down last year because I wanted to do more outside of the voting chambers to bring in diverse voices who could help elected officials understand the challenges faced by Minnesotans.

There was tremendous progress this year around many bills I had championed in the past. This was partly because of leaders like Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park) as House speaker and Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Minneapolis) as majority leader in the Senate. Historic accomplishments in 2023 include:

  • Abortion rights are state law.
  • Health insurance and driver’s licenses were expanded to include undocumented Minnesotans.
  • New paid sick time and family leave benefits were enabled.
  • Breakfast and lunch are free to all schoolchildren.
  • Undergraduate public college in Minnesota is free to students whose families earn less than $80,000 per year.

The faces of these legislative accomplishments are the Senate and House bill authors. Less recognized are the people behind the scenes who enable the legislative process to operate smoothly.

People like Shemeka Bogan, executive assistant to senate president Bobby Joe Champion. Bogan worked closely with the newly elected majority, adding considerable leadership responsibilities to the job. She runs the calendar of the president while managing expectations from the legislative members, staff, and the public. Senator Champion is also chair of the Economic Development Committee, which had a large volume of work connected to significant federal funding for development projects. It is an incredibly busy office to support.

I worked independently as a lobbyist this year in economic development. With every contact, regardless of how busy she was, I consistently saw Bogan juggle the demands of her work with characteristic friendliness and diplomacy.

I also spend a lot of time on energy and environmental issues, which is how I saw the work of people like Maikao Vue and Kära Josephson. The Minnesota Senate’s Environment, Natural Resources, Climate & Energy Conference Committee approved an historic list of accomplishments in an omnibus bill. Years of proposed legislation from the House was finally able to move ahead in the Senate in 2023, which meant the committee needed to hear a tremendous amount of new testimony. Behind the scenes coordinating the extensive work of those hearings were Vue, legislative assistant to committee chair Foung Hawj, and Josephson, committee administrator.

Linda Jackson, director of journal production, is another unsung heroine. Jackson records what a legislative body has discussed and publishes it in a daily journal, which is used by the courts to determine legislative intent. The legislative journals record votes, attendance, introductions of bills, committee reports, amendments to bills, and reports of conference committees.

All of this work means Jackson, and the people who serve in related roles, need to be extremely meticulous about details, accurately reflecting the final decisions made on the floor. It is a daunting job with overwhelming volume, especially this year. Jackson is exceptional meeting the demands of this role.

I also admire Migdalia Loyola Meléndez, deputy chief of staff for public engagement for the Governor’s office, for her effective bridge-building. She works closely with people of color to ensure they are included in every aspect of government. People can rely on her for policy updates, information about jobs, and funding and other opportunities available through state government.

The Role of Lobbyists

When legislators are moving a challenging volume of bills, the difference between a bill passing and stalling can come down to the work of good lobbyists. It can take weeks to get a bill drafted, with hundreds of requests coming to offices from constituents. Lobbyists do the initial research that leads to the draft of a bill that is then presented to a representative or senator. Lobbyists search out people who are willing to be champions of the bill as authors. It can take months more for staff research assistants to review language before it is presented in a committee.

Imagine how difficult it is to provide testimony by some of the most marginalized members of communities who want to see legislative action — such as youth, rural constituents who live a long distance from Saint Paul, and people who are undocumented or from immigrant populations.

Two of the people I have gotten to know over the years make sure that the voices of immigrants are represented. Emilia Avalos and Sara Lopez lead Navigate MN/Unidos MN, which grew from a small networking operation into a statewide immigration justice movement that amplifies the voices of low-wage and undocumented people. Unidos lobbied successfully on behalf of some of the most politically contentious bills of the session.

For two decades, the Driver’s Licenses for All legislation and health care for undocumented families were difficult bills for some legislators to publicly support, because of the politics of their districts. The stigma felt by undocumented workers also made it difficult; it is hard to advocate alongside people who are in the shadows. But these two women successfully made the case this year, partly because of their understanding of the legislative process, and mostly because of their determination and passion.

Lopez and Avalos pointed out why it is important for all workers to be able to drive and have insurance in case there is an accident on the road or at the workplace. They also were able to show the expense of an emergency room visit, compared to being able to see a doctor earlier.

Ultimately, they made those votes less risky for elected officials to take by showing the data. They reminded legislators that if we do not attract young people and immigrants to work and attend schools in rural areas, schools and businesses close for good.

Driver’s Licenses for All, paid family and medical leave, and the expansion of the public insurance program MinnesotaCare for undocumented Minnesota residents are now law in Minnesota, thanks largely to Lopez and Avalos.

First Generation Voices

I love seeing first-generation voices representing their marginalized communities in political spaces. Many of these young women are often the only person of color on a team. The work is demanding, the salary is not great, and the issues are challenging. They largely train themselves, and are often recruited eventually for higher paying positions elsewhere.

Inderia Falana and Jessica Oaxaca are two of those women. Both are former Senate legislative assistants who were recruited elsewhere because of their performance at the legislature. Falana is working for the City of Minneapolis, and Oaxaca is working with Hennepin County government.

Politics at the local and state level can be deeply frustrating — and also deeply rewarding. There are so many people working to build a better Minnesota who we never notice.