Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

When Maria Regan Gonzalez ran for mayor of Richfield in 2018, some questioned if she was old enough or credible enough for the job, or if her Latina identity might lead her to favor constituents of a similar background.

But Gonzalez, who was 33 at the time, had a strategy for rising above the doubters. She kept a laser focus on her key issues–affordable housing and access to food and other basic services for all city residents.

“I just created a strategy and approach to continue to lead in spite of those challenges and barriers,” she said.  

Gonzalez, 36, who ran unopposed when incumbent Pat Elliott decided not to seek office again, went on to shatter barriers by becoming Minnesota’s first Latina mayor and Richfield’s youngest mayor.

Gonzalez announced earlier this year that she wouldn’t run for reelection because she wants to have kids. She hopes to balance her family life with her new job as director of equity initiatives at M Health Fairview. 

She recently spoke with Sahan Journal about her time as mayor, her thoughts on leadership, and her new job. 

Born in Connecticut and raised in Wisconsin, Gonzalez often visited Minnesota, where she had family. In 2012, she moved to Richfield after attending college in the Twin Cities. 

She became Richfield’s mayor after serving on its city council for a couple of years. The inner-ring Minneapolis suburb’s cultural and economic diversity was part of what made her want to be its mayor.

“I felt like it was extremely important to be able to bring to the table leadership that could hold and welcome that diversity and really build up a city,” she said. 

As mayor, Gonzalez has championed programs aimed at making Richfield more equitable and accessible. 

“I have made the decision from the beginning, 2016 when I first got into office [on the City Council], to focus my time in spaces where leadership could be fostered or grown,” she said. 

That approach led her to focus on serving groups that often have been left behind. “I always thought about, ‘Is this a meeting, is this an event, is this a space where there’s a lot of existing leadership?’ ”she said. “And if it was, I decided not to spend my time there.”

Freedom to lead

Gonzalez didn’t get endorsed by a party during her run, which is rare for mayors. Although that meant she didn’t get formal support from a political party–help that can include endorsements, donations, and volunteers–it allowed her to focus on the needs of her community rather than strictly adhering to a party line, she said.

“I don’t have to put a party platform above what’s best for my community,” she said. “I’m going to focus my leadership on working with my neighbors to come together to think about what’s best for our community.”

I don’t have to put a party platform above what’s best for my community. I’m going to focus my leadership on working with my neighbors to come together and think about what’s best for our community.

Maria REgan Gonzalez

Gonzalez believes her status as a political independent allowed her to pull in voters who previously weren’t very involved or engaged in local politics.

“The campaign was helping diversify and build a more robust democracy by getting more people normally left out of the voting processes into [it],” she said.

Access for all

One of Gonzalez’s key goals has been to improve access to basic services for all residents. For instance, she worked to ensure that construction plans for Interstate 494 included a pedestrian bridge. That allowed residents ready access to the Super Walmart and Sam’s Club on the other side of the highway, Richfield’s main sources of food and medicine. 

The bridge cut residents’ walk to the grocery store from 30 minutes to about 10 minutes, said Mary Supple, Richfield’s at-large council member.

Gonzalez also has worked to provide organic curbside pickup to Richfield residents and to make housing guidelines more inclusive for disabled homeowners, including adding a requirement that showers have zero-barrier entries.

She said she ran for local office because of the direct impact she could have on her constituents’ lives.

“Local government is the closest level of government to the people,” she said. “Where do you get your water from? From your local government. Who plows your roads? Your local government. Who… keeps the light on in your city? The local government. Who helps ensure that you have access to green space and places to play with your family? Can you feel included? This is all the local government.”

As mayor, she has worked with renters’ and tenants’ organizations, on new affordable-housing policies, and with the Richfield Disability Advocacy Partnership, which seeks to make Richfield sites more accessible for disabled residents.

Gonzalez has played a key role in including the voices of disabled people in policymaking, said Judy Moe, the partnership’s director and co-founder.

Moe met Gonzalez at a 2018 City Council meeting where Moe’s daughter had spoken about the problems some city landscaping practices were causing for Richfield’s disability community. Gonzalez suggested that Moe gather a group of disabled residents to discuss the barriers they faced.

“I almost fainted, because you cannot get a candidate to care about the disability community, and especially not in 2018,” Moe said.

During her time as mayor, Gonzalez has emphasized equal services and opportunities for all residents. “She focused on making sure that everyone in the community is included,” Supple said. “She’ll think about how we can make sure that all of our systems and outcomes are more equitable.”

Be true to yourself

Gonzalez’s achievements have inspired her constituents, Supple said.

“It helps kids to say, ‘Hey, there’s somebody that looks like me that’s in a leadership position. I can be the mayor someday or the governor or the president,’ ” Supple said.

Having a young Latina in office has helped ensure that other young people of color are heard, said Richfield City Council member Ben Whalen.

“Some Richfield schools have 90 percent or higher students of color, and it’s a real sign to them that their community gets a voice in leadership,” Whalen said.

Gonzalez’s advice to other Latinos in leadership roles is to be true to themselves and to remember that their decision-making needn’t follow the status quo.

“There’s that pressure to fit the mold. Don’t buckle under that pressure,” she said.

Not being wealthy makes it difficult to be a mayor since the stipend is nominal, Gonzalez said.

“You can see the demographics of who our mayors are… and access to wealth… is a huge component,” she said. “You don’t see too many teachers, too many nurses, too many public health professionals like myself running for office… What ends up happening when you have a full time job and you’re in office is… it’s just really difficult to live a healthy, balanced life.”

There’s that pressure to fit the mold. Don’t buckle under that pressure.

Maria Regan Gonzalez

During her time as mayor, Gonzalez completed a two-year fellowship with the Bush Foundation, which seeks to nurture leaders in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Her fellowship  focused on what it means to bring a leader’s identity and spirituality into their civic role.

During her two years as a Bush fellow, Gonzalez learned that she could effectively foster change if she made decisions that aligned closely with her values rather than navigating by self-interest or partisan politics.

“Any time you have a question and you don’t know the answer, asking yourself what is in most alignment with who I am and what my values are is going to give you the right answer,” she said. “You get the most effective leadership.” 

Making decisions that way allowed her to lead in moments of crisis and through unprecedented challenges, she said. Gonzalez enacted emergency powers to address the COVID-19 crisis and unrest following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. She also started a weekly mini video series, sent out bilingual fliers, and went door to door to make sure that residents knew they had support during difficult times.

Although Gonzalez doesn’t currently plan to run for another public office, she hopes to foster systemic change in her job at M Health Fairview, where she is focused on removing health care barriers for patients with limited English proficiency. It’s one of several projects she’s leading that seeks to improve M Health Fairview’s interpretation services.

“Wherever I go, I will bring my leadership to that position,” she said.

Aarushi Sen is an intern at Sahan Journal. She is a journalism and political science student at the University of Minnesota.