Miranda Pacheco lost her voting rights after a drug conviction. Now she works as a drug and alcohol counselor at the same center where she came for treatment. And she's running for Duluth City Council. Credit: Courtesy Miranda Pacheco

Miranda Pacheco plans to vote for the first time ever this summer—and she will be voting for herself.

Pacheco, 43, is an at-large Duluth City Council candidate. She’s also an alcohol and drug counselor at Mash-ka-wisen Treatment Center, where she began her own addiction recovery journey. And she’s a convicted felon from a drug possession charge in 2013—which meant that until she completed her probation sentence in April, she did not have the right to vote.

Now, she’s hoping to bring her experiences with homelessness and addiction to the nine-member Duluth City Council to advocate for housing and mental health care.

“I found my voice in that time, and now I’m able to use it in a good way,” she said. “Before, I didn’t really think what I had to say mattered, especially in the political realm.”

When Pacheco received the letter from the state notifying her that her voting rights had been restored, she noticed it also mentioned another right she had gained: the right to run for office.

“I just bawled,” she said.

When Miranda Pacheco received the letter notifying her that her voting rights had been restored, she noticed it also mentioned another right she had gained: the right to run for office. “I just bawled,” she said.

The Minnesota legislature passed a law this spring restoring voting rights to 55,000 Minnesotans with felony records who were serving probation or parole. That statute took effect June 1. In Minnesota, candidates for office must be eligible to vote. So the law change means that tens of thousands of new Minnesota voters could become political candidates, too.

Pacheco’s voting rights were restored two months before the law took effect. She felt glad to see the legislature give back voting rights to so many people with histories similar to her own. Having the right to vote, she said, makes people “feel like a person—like a part of society.”

Early voting is now underway in the Duluth primary, where eight candidates are running for two at-large seats. The August 8 primary will narrow the field to four contenders. If she wins the election in November, Pacheco will represent all of Duluth—and she hopes to bring a particular voice to communities who have often been underrepresented, with a focus on housing and mental health issues. 

Duluth is facing an affordable housing shortage, and residents worry that problem will only get worse as the city attracts new residents, based on its growing reputation as a climate refuge. Pacheco would also become the only Native American on the Duluth City Council—an absence the city has felt since Renee Van Nett, the first Indigenous woman elected to the council, died of cancer last summer. 

Indigenous Minnesotans have been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis in recent years. Now, with the new law change, many people with drug charges—and stories like Pacheco’s— are getting their voting rights back.

In deciding on her city council candidacy, she thought, “Now they have somebody that looks like them that they can vote for.”

‘I just didn’t care’

Pacheco had a tumultuous childhood: She moved around Minnesota with her mom while her father bounced in and out of prison and dealt with his own addiction. By the end of 10th grade, she had dropped out of high school, moved out of her mom’s house, and was working in Minneapolis. She gave birth to her first son at age 20.

In her early twenties, she started drinking and using cocaine. For a while, she was homeless. She entered an abusive relationship with someone whose life was “based on drinking and partying,” she said. “I just fell into that with him.” 

But they had their own apartment and stayed employed, which created a sense of stability. They had two children together before he got deported to Mexico and they broke up. Pacheco recalls that this is when she started taking pills while she was drinking.

“I just didn’t care,” she recalled. “I remember I ended up crashing my car and coming to when I was upside down in a field.”

She entered her first treatment program, where she was introduced to painkillers—which became another addiction. While she tried to manage her addiction to painkillers, she encountered meth. “It was just all downhill from there,” she said. “I would have to commit crime to maintain my habit as well.”

In 2012, she lost custody of her children. “From there, I really didn’t care about anything,” she said. She was caught possessing a large amount of drugs in 2013. 

Pacheco describes a period of incarceration, probation, and homelessness—a spiral that kept her committing crimes to maintain her addiction. After a felony conviction and probation violation landed her in jail, she realized she could be facing a long term in prison.

“That’s where I was like, I have to change, or else,” she said. 

Laying out tobacco

In October 2015, Pacheco arrived at Mash-ka-wisen Treatment Center, which serves Native Americans in recovery. The treatment center, nestled by a lake in the woods, describes itself as one of the first Native American–owned and –operated treatment facilities in the country.

At the time she enrolled, Pacheco recalls, she was not particularly in touch with her Ojibwe roots. “I just picked up the culture and soaked it in,” she said.

The counselors urged her to offer tobacco as a form of prayer. Pacheco was not familiar with the practice, but began to offer tobacco and pray every day by a tree. After 90 days in the treatment center, she shifted to a halfway house, where she began to look for a job and housing.

“Every single step that I took in that direction, I would lay out my tobacco,” she said. “That is literally what got me through everything.”

She got her first full-time job at a Duluth homeless shelter, and started looking for an apartment. She told a prospective landlord that she was in recovery. It turned out the landlord’s son was in recovery, too. She decided to give Pacheco a chance, and rented her the apartment.

“What I thought were barriers were testaments that we do recover,” Pacheco said.

With employment and housing secured, she was able to regain custody of her kids. The family began attending traditional ceremonies, dancing in powwows, and going to sweat lodges. Pacheco started running long distances, including Grandma’s Half Marathon. She enrolled in Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, where she began an internship at Mash-ka-wisen Treatment Center.

She bought her first house in 2021 and recently finished her junior year on the dean’s list at the College of St. Scholastica. Now she has her own office at Mash-ka-wisen, where she works as a counselor.

“There’s something here. It’s just a sense of peace,” Pacheco said. “When I graduated from here in January 2016, I said to myself, and probably out loud, ‘I’m going to come back here and I’m going to be a counselor.’ And I did.”

‘One of those people that can make impossible things happen’

Melisa Gomez-Romo, who operates a homeless shelter in Duluth, met Pacheco on a 17-mile run. It was Gomez-Romo who first texted Pacheco earlier this year to ask if she wanted to run for city council. Pacheco responded almost instantly, Gomez-Romo recalled.

“Miranda is just one of those very powerful voices. She knows she can overcome things,” Gomez-Romo said. “She got her kids back. She beat addiction. She’s one of those people that can make impossible things happen.” 

Her experiences with homelessness and addiction can help her break down obstacles for other Black and brown people—and that’s a perspective that the Duluth City Council needs, Gomez-Romo said.

“These are systems in place that were meant to keep someone like Miranda down, and Miranda has overcome those barriers,” Gomez-Romo said. “And because of that, she knows what’s needed.”

Pacheco started her campaign by herself with a small team. In politically progressive Duluth, securing the DFL endorsement is often a key step toward winning office in the November general election. At the DFL convention in May, Gomez-Romo recalled, Pacheco made a point of speaking with every delegate at every table. She gave a powerful speech, sharing the story of her addiction. And the delegates endorsed her.

Bridget Holcomb, who was then a volunteer on Pacheco’s campaign, recalled the endorsement as an “amazing moment.”

“I think that was really reassuring for all of us,” Holcomb said. “We knew that people were going to love her as much as we do.”

After the convention, Holcomb became Pacheco’s campaign manager. She encouraged Pacheco to share her story. At the time, Pacheco was not sure how much to reveal about herself.

“When people know that this is what you’ve been through, and you’ve come out the other side, and your first question was, How do I give back to my community, we immediately know that we can trust you,” Holcomb said. “We might not agree with you on every decision that you will ever make. But we know that you are making decisions based on what you think is best for the entire community.”

A focus on housing and mental health care

Pacheco hopes her experience will inform policy work on the Duluth City Council, with a focus on housing and mental health care.

“I came to Duluth homeless,” she said. “I was able to crawl my way out of that. And I think that everybody deserves that right.”

She’s also seen how a lack of housing impacts her clients as they graduate from their treatment program. She wants to see more sober housing and mental health care beds. People with mental-health problems are too often sent to jail or the emergency room for treatment, she said.

“When we talk about housing, it’s not just private housing,” she said. “It’s for people that are trying to save their own lives.”

Holcomb has been impressed with the joy that Pacheco brings to the campaign. While out knocking on doors, she always enjoys meeting people’s cats. And Pacheco has used her athleticism as a fundraising gimmick: hoisting elected officials and candidates on her back, as a way to solicit donations.

“It’s so fitting because she lifts everybody up anyway,” Holcomb said.

A cycle of empowerment

One of Pacheco’s campaign volunteers, Laurie Turman, says she joined the campaign team because Pacheco’s story resonated with her. She cited her own experiences with addiction and a felony conviction. 

“It actually made me feel empowered,” said Turman, a 55-year-old union millwright. She could see how hard Pacheco had worked to overcome her struggles, she said. “I think that shows that you don’t have to let these things keep you down. You can rise above, and that’s definitely worth the battle.”

At Mash-ka-wisen Treatment Center, where Pacheco first arrived in 2015, her journey from recovery to City Council candidacy is inspiring current patients.

Caitlyn Taylor, a fellow alcohol and drug counselor at Mash-ka-wisen, said Pacheco serves as a role model to their clients.

“She’s really humble in sharing what she’s been through and what worked for her, what was particularly hard,” Taylor said. Her run for city council, and presence as a counselor who graduated from the program, provides them a sense “that their life can be different.”

The clients were “super excited” to hear that their counselor, who was once in their position, is now running for office, Taylor said.

A feeling of hope ran through the treatment center, Taylor said: “If she can do it, we can do it too.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...