Working overtime for Minnesota

Being a state legislator is “a job you’re never actually done with,” Jamie Becker-Finn says. Deep into her first session as the state representative from District 42B (Little Canada, Vadnais Heights, Gem Lake, parts of Shoreview and Roseville), she squeezed in time for an interview in early May, between a doctor’s appointment for her three-year-old daughter and the 10 a.m. morning roll call.

“Because we don’t know when we are going to go home,” she explains, “I usually try to fit in as much time with my kids as I can in the morning.” Her schedule may change throughout the day, especially toward the end of the session. Sometimes she cannot get home for dinner or even for bedtime for her two children.

New legislator and accomplished attorney

During the earlier months of the session, on three days of the week, her day began at 8:15 a.m. with four hours of committee meetings: Environment and Natural Resources policy and finance committee, followed by the Public Safety and Security policy and finance committee. As a policy-only committee, the Veterans Affairs committee met once a week. The Select Committee on Technology and Responsive Government does most of its work after the session ends. As the regular legislative session neared its May deadline, her schedule changed. As committee work on bills wrapped up, legislative action moved to conference committees and the House floor.

Becker-Finn balances her legislative work with her job as an assistant Hennepin County Attorney and her family life. The legislature is in session for less than half the year, but, she says, “If you actually want to do it well, it’s a lot more time than just when we’re here in session.”

After the session, she will return to her work as a prosecutor, which she describes as “meaningful work that I want to continue,” as well as a necessary part of the family income, since a legislator is paid only a part-time salary. State law requires public employers like her county attorney’s office to give legislators unpaid leave. Even after the session, legislative work continues, with committee meetings in the interim and community meetings and constituent requests for help throughout the year.

While she had seen the legislature in action during her years as a legislative aide, some parts of the process look different now that she is a representative. She was surprised to find how personal the work process can be. “As an attorney, you’re used to dealing with logic and facts and evidence,” she says, but in the day-to-day work of the legislature, “there’s a lot of managing people’s feelings.”

And, a wife and mother

For Becker-Finn, “the best days are the days where I feel like I’ve been able to communicate my point of view well, and still get home in time to actually see my kids and read them their books before bedtime.”

After the kids are in bed, she goes to her home office and back to work: answering emails, reading to prepare for the next day’s meetings, responding to requests from constituents for help with various issues. Community meetings and school events also take up many evenings.

Life as a legislator has affected her family life in other ways. An online threat told her to watch what she said or someone would kidnap her children from school. “I had prepared myself for threats and nasty comments against myself,” she says, “but this caught my husband and I off guard.” They alerted police, the children’s schools, and their daycare, doing “the things we need to do to be more careful than the average family.”

Issues of importance

As part of the DFL minority in the legislature, Becker-Finn has faced the frustration of seeing Republicans reject proposals she cares deeply about. She says it was “really great” to be part of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus – she is one of four Native American women legislators. Becker-Finn grew up in Cass Lake, Minnesota, a descendant of the Leech Lake Ojibwe.

Having three other Native American legislators, she says, helps to give “strength to speak to things that would have been harder for only one person on her own.” Serving on the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, she spoke to pipeline and water issues. Another bill she sponsored would ban lead ammunition, which can poison people and bald eagles. “It’s a little different to have people who actually grew up in these communities and consider these areas sacred homelands to us,” she says.

Becker-Finn believes that the best way to connect with individual people is to talk face-to-face, so she has started door-knocking in the district. That’s not just for campaigns, she says, but an important part of getting to know what is on people’s minds, what is important in their lives. “There’s nothing to compare with face-to-face connecting with neighbors and people you represent.”

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