Agbaje, a 35-year-old lawyer and daughter of Nigerian immigrants, seemed poised to beat DFL veteran Raymond Dehn in District 59B. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Esther Agbaje, a 35-year-old daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Ivy League-educated lawyer and former State Department officer, held a strong lead over Rep. Raymond Dehn in the DFL primary Tuesday. But an extension to count mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic meant the race was too close to call.

With all 15 precincts reporting Tuesday night, Agbaje led Dehn by 444 votes. Ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday and arrive by Thursday will still be counted in the unofficial total. While it’s possible that Dehn could make up the difference, he told Sahan Journal that was unlikely and that Agbaje will likely be headed to the Capitol.

In an interview Wednesday, Agbaje said she was “very excited” about the preliminary results and that, assuming they hold, she is ready to get to work to earn every vote in November and help keep Minnesota blue in the general election.

“I think people are really ready for a new generation to get a chance to lead,” Agbaje said. 

Agbaje said the pandemic and massive protests and unrest after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd have made it clear that previous efforts to address Minnesota’s racial and economic disparities have not worked, and that a new approach is necessary. She said she would represent District 59B, which encompasses some of the poorest parts of north Minneapolis and some of the wealthiest areas of downtown, with a “sense of urgency.”

Although the victor will face Republican Alan Shilepsky and Green party candidate Lisa Neal-Delgado in the November general election, the winner of the DFL primary in the heavily Democratic district is all but guaranteed to win in November.

In an interview with Sahan Journal, Dehn said he was “98 percent sure” Agbaje’s margins would hold. He said he had texted Agbaje, saying it looked likely she would prevail, and invited her to meet up in a few weeks to have a conversation.

“I’m disappointed,” he said, “but we have elections for a reason. Voters get to decide.”

On the day that Joe Biden also picked Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to be on a major party ticket, to be his running mate, Agbaje’s apparent victory, as well as a primary win by Athena Hollins in a heavily DFL St. Paul district, positioned the Minnesota legislature to raise its number of Black women from three to five.

Agbaje, who now lives in downtown Minneapolis, was born in St. Paul to Nigerian immigrants. She grew up in Brainerd and Faribault before heading east for college.  Before law school, she worked as a foreign affairs officer in the State Department focusing on the Middle East, including helping activists in Egypt developing freedom of speech and assembly laws after the Arab Spring. She holds a law degree from Harvard University and a master’s in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

These experiences have shaped both her policy priorities and her approach to working with others. As a student attorney at Harvard Law School’s Legal Aid Bureau and a volunteer for Volunteer Lawyers Network Housing Court Project, she’s advocated for renters facing eviction in both Boston and Minnesota. She’s frequently seen people lose their housing when their hours are cut at work or they face a health crisis, she said.

If she wins, Agbaje said her first focus would be on stronger eviction protections for tenants. She also wants to expand urban agriculture to create a “strong resilient local food source”–the need for which became evident, she said, when grocery stores were heavily damaged during George Floyd protests.

Dehn, 62, a North Minneapolis resident who has served in the legislature since 2013, also focused on closing racial and economic disparities. During his tenure in the statehouse, Dehn, the only member of the Minnesota legislature with a felony record, successfully pushed for Ban the Box legislation, preventing employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history; a law allowing people with felonies to become chemical dependency counselors; and landmark sentencing reform. He also chairs the House Subcommittee on Elections, where he’s championed legislation to restore voting rights to people on probation and parole. 

In a moment when policing and criminal justice reform have taken center stage in Minnesota, Dehn said his perspective as a former “consumer of the criminal justice system” was needed in St. Paul.

“At this point in time, I think representation of an individual like me with relationships at the Capitol will be valuable in this coming biennium,” he told Sahan Journal Monday.

Nicole Chamberlin, 50, a voter in the district, film producer, and graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said she felt inspired the first time she heard Agbaje speak.

“I feel like my voice is being heard as a Latina,” she said. “I have different needs as a community member. I want to make sure that my community is being taken care of, that people who look like me are being treated equally, I feel like every time I’ve heard her speak, she speaks to that. I feel like she hears me.”

Nationally, Black women are the Democrats’ most reliable voting bloc and have often been praised as the “backbone” of the Democratic party. Yet currently only three Black women serve in the Minnesota legislature. Agbaje, part of a wave of more than 30 Black women running for office in Minnesota this year, hopes to increase that number.

Agbaje called the tide of Black women running for elected office “amazing,” and said Tuesday’s apparent wins for candidates of color would provide “more representation of what the state of Minnesota looks like” across both chambers of the statehouse. If results hold, she’s excited to join the legislature’s growing People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) caucus, which has been playing a major role in shaping the legislature’s conversations about the future of public safety.

“It’s not just enough to come to us at voting time to get us to help you get the vote out,” she said. “It’s time to really start to support what everyone else acknowledges is the backbone of the Democratic party.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.