Breaking Barriers in Minnesota Politics

Thanks to our underwriters, we were able to talk with 30 people around Minnesota who are engaged as candidates or campaign leaders. This is the first of a six-part series based on those conversations. Thanks to De’Vonna Pittman, former candidate for Hennepin County Commissioner, for talking with most of these people.

See also our earlier series of conversations, conducted by a Bosnian journalism trying to learn how to elect women in a patriarchal system, at

QUESTION: What political barriers are diverse Minnesota women and LGBTQN+ people trying to open, and why is this important to you?

A compilation of some of the people we talked with about this question

Clare Oumou Verbeten

Clare Oumou Verbeten (photo by Sarah Whiting)

lives in Saint Paul’s Como neighborhood, running for Senate District 66

Those of us who are marginalized in some way, whether we are women or LGBTQ, we are used to being in this space of being told no and being underestimated. There are systemic barriers that have kept us out of these positions of power, right? But for me, being a Black woman, being a queer woman, also being young — this Minnesota Senate is not the youngest place — I am used to fighting for my worth and rights.

I often talk about my mom and my ancestors and the people who brought me here to this moment when I talk about why I am running. I think it is really important to start with that grounding of where you come from and who has brought you here. My mom had to completely start over when she immigrated from Senegal to this country, learn a new language and build a new career, and raise my sister and me. My mom is going to be damned if we lose our right to abortion access. And that fight and that push to stand up for yourself and your community, and to find those people who are going to have your back, that is all I know.

If we are going to have a true democracy, we need people of all walks of life to be in office. That includes different racial identities, different gender identities, different sexual orientations. Those things that make up who we are as people really do impact the way we experience the world.

There has never been a Black woman in the Minnesota Senate in our 164 years of statehood.

I plan to get elected this year alongside my sisters Zaynab Mohamed and Erin Maye Quade and Farhio Khalif. We are going to bring a perspective to the table that has ever been there, openly talking about racial justice and police brutality and the impact that has had on Black women and Black mothers. We have never been there to fight. So yes, we need to increase that representation. But it is not just increasing it for some random reason. We as a government should reflect the community that we serve. And right now, we do not reflect our community. So we are part of changing that and building a true democracy.

Alicia Kozlowski 

Alicia Kozlowski (photo by Sarah Whiting)

lives in Duluth, running for House District 8B

I am running because for me, 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. We have never been represented by somebody like me, with the communities that I am bringing along.

In 2020, my mom died of homelessness and addictions and battling the jail system. We can also have a green economy that helps to lift everybody up in our economy. I take that holistic approach to ‘what are the things that we are doing to lift families and children and elders, along with our workers.’ Paid family medical leave, affordable childcare, supporting entrepreneurs of color … because we know that it is our communities who are the fastest growing businesses, increasing our tax base. Public safety also is a big aspect of this — ending gender-based violence and rooting out violence, which is often the cause of homelessness. It is really those intersections that bring me to this time.

My mom had walked into the Duluth city council and she said, ‘if you don’t give us a seat at the table, we are just going to tear the table down, 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 just work together. We are the ones out there doing the work, seeing things that folks don’t even see, with solutions that otherwise wouldn’t have been worked on. That is power of having Black and brown and queer representation. 

Suzann Willhite

Suzann Willhite

president of Equal Rights Amendment Minnesota campaign 

I am not running for office, but I do what I can to get people in office that represent the diversity that we need to represent all of us. I love the saying that if it is about us, include us, because there are so many people that need to be at the table where the decisions are being made. I am currently president of Equal Rights Amendment Minnesota. I have a passion around the constitution that said ‘We the People.’ I thought it meant everybody. I learned as I got older, no, no, not you, and not you, and certainly not you. The number of people who are excluded intentionally. We have to be added, even for voting rights. We don’t have full equality under the law. So it is a passion of mine, that we get there. The more people we have who support equality issues, the better off we are. I saw that in Nevada.

So for me, equality under the law is very important. And getting people in the seats, the decision makers, that represent all of us, is very important. So I am an advocate for that. I support voting for equality, electing equality candidates that will support equality in their positions.

Ellie Krug

Ellie Krug

lives in Victoria, running for Eastern Carver County school board

I heard a lot of things about the fact that I’m 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 running would send a great message to the LGBTQ community out here in Carver County, not only the students, but also for adults, that they mattered and that maybe I’d be there to give them some public representation.

I happen to be hopelessly idealistic. I’m 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’s really the underlying reason why I’m running. Because I do want to make the world a better place. The school district here is doing an incredible job. They graduated 99% of their seniors this year, astronomical. I also want to help get them ready for the things that are coming, like book bans, like attacks on LGBTQ students, more vocal attacks, and other kinds of marginalization.

Brion Curran

Brion Curran
Brion Curran

lives in Vadnais Heights, running for House District 36B

Especially in the last couple of years, the proposed legislation that we have seen across the nation is not only alarming, it is downright disgusting. It is not who we are as people. That is not how folks want to be represented. And for me, in my journey as a queer person, my life philosophy is to allow people to come to know me as a human being.

My wife and I are members of our local American Legion, a place where you might not guess that a lesbian couple might go to hang out. But it is like a family. What has really been touching over the years is to hear folks actually look us in the face and say, ‘Thank you for coming here. You have changed minds, and you have changed opinions. And we see you and we trust you as people and we care about you.’ And before I start to get teary-eyed, that is really for me where those connections happen.

We can certainly do a lot to focus on specific issues regarding bigotry and discrimination and racism. At the same time, for me it is just showing up as your authentic self and letting people feel that genuineness from your heart. I think that is really where we start to make a difference. There is a lot of negativity out there. I try not to buy into it. It doesn’t get me down. A lot more people are supportive than are the loud voices out there. They are louder, but we are a whole lot mightier.

Leigh Finke

Leigh Finke
Leigh Finke

As a trans person, and as a person who has knocked on a lot of doors this year, I can tell you — not everybody wants everybody’s voice heard. I hear quite regularly, how can you expect to represent me if you are trans and you care about all these trans issues? It is a very hard thing to hear, I’ll be honest, because I have never been represented by a trans person, and yet somehow they have managed to represent me.

It is necessary, not just to get representation, but to allow new representation to actualize change. So not only do we need to get the first Black women into the Senate, but then the Senate really needs to make space for what that representation means going forward. Having a trans woman arrive in the House, and then having that person affect no change for her community, doesn’t really add any true value. So not only do we need the representation, but we need the space to make the change that we are trying to bring. Otherwise, we are just there for show, and I am not going to be there for show. We are there to make change.

There is a lot of fear. There is a lot of worry that people who are different somehow are not going to manage the interests of people — the dominant gender, and racial majorities.

Susan Pha

Susan Pha

lives in Brooklyn Park, running for Senate District 40

There are definitely people that are very afraid of the increased representation of women, LGBTQ candidates, and BIPOC candidates and elected officials. When I first got elected to the City Council in Brooklyn Park, I was the first person of color ever elected to city public office, and we are the second most diverse city in Minnesota. I am the first, and that was just in 2016. I am happy to say that since I have been elected, there have been several people of color who have been elected. Now the council is a much better representation of the people that actually live here. Yet there are definitely people who have voiced their concerns. I try to understand that — that they are coming from a space where they may fear change, they fear some kind of loss, that somehow they are going to feel the loss of representation of people who are like them. But I totally agree with Leigh. It is not because we are unique and different in some ways that we cannot represent others.

Natalie (Ringsmuth) Copeland

Natalie Copeland

lives in Saint Cloud, incumbent for Saint Cloud school board

Through the last years of my journey as an anti-racist facilitator, I have been kicked out of churches, I have lost friends, my kids could not play with some kids anymore because they thought I was dangerous, especially when I said that George Floyd was murdered. Those are fighting words to some folks here. So, it is a continuous movement towards something better. Our institutions — schools, churches, jails, anything to do with our criminal justice system — upholds the old ways in a vast measure. There has to be some radical change in our institutions in order to serve everyone and for everyone to have a voice — not  even just a seat at the table, but leading the table. Erica is right. Our youth already get it. They are our current leaders.

For 20 years in leadership I was usually the only woman at the table and I would always defer to the man — that is how I was socially conditioned for decades of my life. Even now, when I am one of seven people sitting at a table leading the school board, I can feel myself starting to defer to a man even though I know he is dead wrong. I have to call on my inner self and let the little girl go and [remind myself that] I have a degree in education and what he is saying is wrong. It is about reminding myself that, yes, I am a woman, but as a human I have the necessary leadership skills and wherewithal to lead and be an expert in the room and not to apologize for it.

At the doors, we still hear women say ‘my husband tells me who to vote for.’

HaoPay Lee

HaoPay Lee

Is a member of MAIV Pac, which supports Hmong American candidates

I am the oldest daughter to Hmong refugees, a product of the Hmong diaspora, and that’s how I move about the world, and also a gender-based violence survivor. I am part of Maiv Pac, the first Hmong American political action committee in the nation. I always say that when women succeed, we all succeed as a larger society.

For me, it is about my community, and how I can improve and make our community more inclusive, and especially bring liberation to young women and girls.

Women are often the carriers of our traditions, our culture, our people — and yet we have the least power-making in decisions.

Erika Bailey-Johnson

Erika Bailey Johnson

lives in Bemidji, running for House 2B

I have a real responsibility to connect people to the earth. I was part of the Governor’s committee for pollinator protection. I got asked by my community to run for office. I am dedicated to seeing the voices of youth elevated. They already can see the future — they just are not being listened to, or are not at the table. It is amazing. Even my youngest son — the way they talk about gender is not something I grew up with. It is just this fluid conversation. It is so different and so beautiful. 

There is a lot of turmoil in between big changes. I want to be part of getting us on a better path. I have been asking a lot of whys lately. Why are we afraid of people that are different? 

The actual winning isn’t always in landing a seat. It is in bringing awareness to our communities about what is happening in those seats. And it really is about making sure that we put the power where it belongs — in the hands of the people.

— De’Vonna Pittman, moderator