From top left, clockwise: Zaynab Mohamed, Liz Lee, Erin Maye Quade, María Isa Pérez-Hedges, and Alicia Kozlowski will be among the new faces in the legislature next year. Thirty-five of 201 Minnesota legislators will be people of color—and of those, 22 will be women or nonbinary. Credit: Ben Hovland and Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal, and courtesy Alicia Kozlowski

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Established and newly-elected legislators are sounding a hopeful note after Tuesday’s election promised to deliver the most diverse Legislature in Minnesota history.

At least 35 out of 201 members of next year’s House and Senate identify as people of color, according to a Sahan Journal count verified by DFL and Republican party leaders. 

LGBTQ representation will also expand. According to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that works to elect LGBTQ lawmakers, 11 of next year’s Minnesota lawmakers belong to the LGBTQ community—a record that will more than double that representation in the Legislature.

The increasing diversity in next year’s legislature continues a decade-long trend. The currently seated Minnesota Legislature is now the most diverse in state history, with 27 lawmakers of color.

The new legislators will include Minnesota’s first Black women to ever serve in the Senate, the first Japanese American legislator, the first openly nonbinary lawmaker, and the first transgender legislator.

They’ll be joined by the youngest woman and first member of Generation Z to serve in the Legislature—Zaynab Mohamed, who is also one of three Black women elected to the Senate. Generation Z is typically defined as someone born between the mid- to late-1990s and the early 2010s.

Alicia Kozlowski (DFL-Duluth), who is Ojibwe and Mexican, became the first nonbinary person elected to the state Legislature. 

“In this moment, a watershed—tidal wave—is happening now because Duluth, Minnesota, all corners of Minnesota, are beyond ready for this true wave of representation,” Kozlowski said.

Diversity from suburbs, greater Minnesota

Esther Agbaje (DFL–Minneapolis), the co-chair of the House’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, noted that more representatives of color are coming from the suburbs and greater Minnesota.

“I think it’s great that we now have a Legislature that is starting to look more like the state of Minnesota,” she said.

Overall, 17 percent of next year’s Legislature will consist of people of color, nearly mirroring the state population. About 20 percent of Minnesotans are people of color, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

The vast majority of the incoming members of color—30—belong to the DFL Party. Five of next year’s legislators of color are Republicans: one is a newly elected state representative, two current state representatives are headed to the Senate, and the rest won reelection to the House.

The new Democratic members will have the opportunity to shape the state’s political roadmap for the next two years, after Democrats won control Tuesday of both the House and Senate for the first time since 2012.

Though the growing People of Color and Indigenous caucus hasn’t met yet, Agbaje said they will plan to bring a racial justice lens to legislative priorities.

“We know that when we are doing right by our marginalized communities in Minnesota that everyone does well,” Agbaje said. “I think you’ll still continue to see a lot of our efforts focused on people’s basic needs, meeting people where they are, and ensuring that we are doing this in a way that doesn’t continue to perpetuate past harms.”

Recent but swift change

Diversity has come to the Minnesota legislature relatively recently—and quickly. In 2013, during the last session Democrats held a trifecta of the House, Senate, and governor’s office, nine Minnesota legislators identified as people of color, according to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.

Patricia Torres Ray (DFL–Minneapolis), an outgoing state senator, was one of three senators of color when she took office in 2007. As she’s seen the Legislature grow more diverse, she’s also seen changes in how communities of color engage with the Capitol.

“Generally communities of color feel more invited when we have people inside who represent them,” she said. That means they spend more time at the Capitol and in the offices of legislators from their own communities, she said.

The growing diversity also means the state’s diverse communities will be better represented in policy discussions, Torres Ray said.

“Typically the people of color are the people who bring up issues connected to our communities,” she said.

Having more leaders of color inspires the next generation, she said.

“So many young people and people in our communities see themselves in these leaders and they get inspired, not only to run for office, but to be part of the process,” she said.

Many legislators of color are relatively new to the Capitol, so they lack the seniority that often results in leadership positions, Torres Ray said. She advised the incoming legislators to challenge those rules, and credited House Speaker Melissa Hortman for opening up chair positions to newer legislators of color in the last session.

“Predominantly white men put in place a lot of rules to preserve their power,” Torres Ray said. “It’s time for us to look at rules for the future that really bring the voices of the people that represent majorities.”

Agbaje, too, expressed hope that legislators of color would be able to chair committees in both the House and Senate.

“I think we all are relatively new to the Legislature but not new to leadership in our communities,” she said. “I think the experience that we bring is one of our lived experience, of closer experience to the people of Minnesota. So I think that that’s really helpful to bring that perspective into each legislative session.”

Most committee chairs have yet to be named, but on Thursday afternoon the Minnesota Senate DFL Caucus elected its leadership team. They chose Bobby Joe Champion (DFL–Minneapolis) as Senate president. Champion will be the most senior lawmaker of color when the new legislative session convenes next year. He will be the first Black person to serve as Senate president. Athena Hollins (DFL–St. Paul), who is also Black, will serve as House Majority Whip.

On Friday, Republicans chose Lisa Demuth (R–Cold Spring), who is biracial, as the House Minority Leader.

A call for both parties to grow diversity

Though many of the new members of color are DFLers, the Republican Party also added to the diversity of its House caucus. Walter Hudson, who is Black, won a state House race in Wright County. 

Hudson, who serves as a member of the Albertville city council, said the Republican Party in Minnesota doesn’t tend to seek out diverse candidates. He’d like to see that change. 

“The approach that I think Republicans should be taking is actually engaging people in relationships where they’re at and where they live—to learn what their issues are and what their values are—and see how those values jive with the Republican platform,” Hudson said. 

Hudson said that the Legislature’s increasing diversity is “noteworthy,” and that it can serve as common ground for legislators of color from both political parties. 

“My hope is, as we move forward, that the diversity will manifest itself in discovering how we’re alike as opposed to focusing so much on what makes us separate and distinct from each other,” he said. 

Kozlowski said that as the DFL Party looks to the future, it must continue to adapt to the energy its diverse candidates harnessed this election. 

“So important is all those people who are coming behind us,” said Kozlowski, whose late father was the Fond du Lac Band elder and lauded environmental activist Ray “Skip” Sandman. 

The victories won by LGBTQ candidates in Minnesota are especially resonant coming after an election cycle in which Republican candidates and Republican-aligned groups around the country attacked transgender rights and gender fluidity, Kozlowski said. 

Electing leaders with a wide range of identities and life experiences will help to ensure that the DFL majority governs in an intersectional way, they added. 

“If we’re going to talk about housing, then we’re talking about LGBTQ and racial justice,” Kozlowski said. “Same thing with policing. Same thing with public safety. Having this block of folks coming in at the same time, so it’s not just one but it’s many, having many comrades, that’s how we’re actually going to be able to change policies and change how we’re funding and distributing wealth.”

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...

Abe Asher

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.