From left to right: Maria Isa Pérez-Hedges is running for the Minnesota House of Representatives. If elected, her leadership would follow other Latina elected officials like Senator Melisa López Franzen and Senator Patricia Torres Ray who will not be running for reelection in 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Maria Isa Pérez-Hedges, a Puerto Rican artist and activist from St. Paul’s robust West Side Latino community, is a new name entering state elections—but she says she was born into politics.

Pérez-Hedges’s mother, Elsa Vega-Pérez, was the first Latina to be appointed to the Minnesota Office of Equal Opportunity. Pérez-Hedges announced a run for the Minnesota Senate in December before changing course to seek a House seat.

“I happened to be hearing everything that was going into that policy work when I was in the womb,” Pérez-Hedges said. 

But Pérez-Hedges’ hopes for a more diverse legislature could be hampered by recent redistricting that has the potential to produce a state Senate with no Latino representation.

A record number of women entered Minnesota politics in 2020, but several announced that they’re leaving the state legislature for several reasons, including new political maps produced by redistricting. Senator Patricia Torres Ray (DFL–Minneapolis) announced her retirement in November and DFL Caucus Leader Senator Melisa López Franzen is stepping down because of redistricting issues.

Pérez-Hedges, the only new Latina candidate in legislative races so far, is seeking a seat in the comparably more diverse state House, but this political shakeup has called into question the future of Latino political engagement in Minnesota. 

Pérez-Hedges’ activism focused on affordable health care and youth, informed by the work of local giants in the Latino political community such as Torres Ray, the first Latina elected to the state legislature, and her state representative, Carlos Mariani (DFL–St. Paul).

Energized by her desire to bring a new voice to the state legislature, Pérez-Hedges announced in December her run for the state Senate. But when Mariani announced a month later that he was retiring, Pérez-Hedges made an about face and decided to run for his seat in the Minnesota House instead. 

“At the time, there were Latinas in the Senate,” Pérez-Hedges said, adding that she didn’t have a reason to be concerned about representation of her community. “Why would we lose anymore in the legislature that I’ve known closely—that I’ve been mentored by?”

There is some hope for diverse newcomers in the state legislature at large. Five Black women have announced campaigns for state Senate, which has never had a Black female senator. Zaynab Mohamed, a community organizer for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is running in Torres Ray’s district. Erin Maye Quade, a former state representative, has returned to run for the Senate. However, outgoing state legislators raised concerns that the needs of constituents of color will fall on just a few lawmakers of color.

“We need to focus on activating people of color at all ages and in all parts of the state,” López Franzen told Sahan Journal. “We all have a piece of responsibility in making sure we have representation. It should not fall on one or two people of a particular ethnicity or race. It should fall on all of us to ensure that those voices are heard and uplifted.”

Redistricting sidelines Latina Senate Minority Leader

López Franzen’s role in the Republican-majority Senate seemed to be on the rise as she entered her third term representing Minneapolis’s southwest suburbs in District 49. 

Senate DFL Caucus members elected López Franzen as minority leader in September, making her the first woman of color and Latina to serve in the position. She’s spent the last five months working to advance post-COVID recovery programs for workers. She’s also sponsoring a bill stalled in the Senate to legalize adult-use cannabis. López Franzen said she had been looking forward to pushing for policies like paid family leave, all-day preschool, and more support for childcare.

The state’s new political maps, which are redrawn every 10 years based on the Census results, placed López Franzen in District 46 with Senator Ron Latz, a DFL incumbent of 20 years. López Franzen, who had every intention of running for reelection in November, faced a choice: She could enter a difficult race against Latz, who previously represented a majority of the new district, or she could step back and retire.

“It was probably the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my career and personally,” López Franzen said. “I had no idea that I was going to be put in the minority of a new district. Once you cultivate a relationship of 10 years with a community, it’s hard to start over.”

She announced her retirement on February 23 and received an outpouring of concern from supporters about women in the legislature stepping aside for men. Five women in the DFL and Republican party were placed in the same district as male state senators.

“People had the assumption that I didn’t fight for it. But I’ll tell you, if I had decided to fight for it I would have won,” she said. Instead, López Franzen said she made way for Latz, who she sits next to on the Senate floor and holds in high regard, for the sake of party unity. 

López Franzen stressed the need for new voices—from the Senate floor to legislative assistant desks. As a young lawmaker herself, López Franzen said she wonders if her 10-year run in office was enough.

“I’ll be honest—I wasn’t done,” she added. “I know someone else will continue that baton, because there are really capable minds. But I wonder what would have been accomplished in four more years had I stayed around.”

Trailblazing senator retires, seeks to activate Latino political base in Minnesota

López Franzen’s announcement was a  shock for many in light of Torres Ray’s decision just three months earlier to retire. It meant the only two senators from the Latino community were leaving office.

Torres Ray became the first Latina elected to the state legislature in 2006 and has since represented Senate District 63 for five terms. She chairs the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus and is the minority leader of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.

“The work that I’ve done to open the door and to invite diverse voices into this process, that’s what has been most important to me,” Torres Ray said. “I don’t believe the group of elected officials that are in the House and Senate truly represent the diverse people of Minnesota.”

She added that most of the legislation she’s authored over the years has reflected the needs of diverse communities in the state. But working under a Republican-majority has become so difficult, Torres Ray said, it’s essentially driving her out of office.

“It’s just really permeating the legislative process,” Torres Ray said. She especially noticed the effects of polarization in the senate after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in 2020. “The lives of people, the difficulties they’re facing, the economic loss, everything that my community was facing at the moment was not important to many people here. People here play politics with that pain.”

“It has become so personal and so difficult to manage for me that I’m angry,” she said. “I feel there is a need for a new voice of a legislator that can understand this moment and effectively move forward the needs of my district.”

Torres Ray added that without Latino representation in the state Senate, lawmakers lose depth in policies that could be developed by people with lived experiences. The Latino community, for example, includes people of different races, income levels, immigration status, and other factors that impact their needs. The community deserves a senator that understands that dynamic, she said.

Torres Ray said she’ll be shifting her focus to recruiting potential Latino activists and political leaders across the state. She’s especially interested in activating that base in Albert Lea, St. Cloud, Rochester, and areas around Mankato.

“Latinos have been very invisible in this country and yet Latinos contribute in significant ways,” she said. “It was a very difficult decision to leave the Senate knowing that my presence here inspired many young people to come and participate in this process.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.