Kaohly Her (DFL-St. Paul), the new House Majority Whip, in her office at the Minnesota State Capitol. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

As President Joe Biden took the oath of office in Washington, another transition of power was underway 1,000 miles away in St. Paul. The changes in the Minnesota Capitol are more subtle: Democrats kept control of the House, while Republicans retained the Senate. But the new Minnesota legislature includes the most diverse group of lawmakers in the state’s history—and a new Hmong American majority whip in the House.

Self-reported demographic data show that since 2014, the number of legislators of color in the Minnesota Capitol has more than tripled, from 8 to 25.* That means people of color represent 12 percent of the legislature, while people of color make up some 20 percent of the Minnesota population.

The new class of Minnesota legislators started their term with a whiplash of historic events in Washington. The same day that Democratic wins in Georgia flipped control of the U.S. Senate, a mob of mostly white insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the election. 

At a moment when democracy seems especially fragile, Minnesota’s legislators of color plan to strengthen it by bringing in voices that often don’t get heard in the political process.

‘Having the opportunity to sit in these seats is not a given’

As Esther Agbaje prepared to swear in as one of the newest members of the Minnesota House of Representatives, one thought filled her mind: She hoped her internet connection wouldn’t go out.

The connection held steady, and on January 5 Agbaje took the oath on Zoom from her office at the State Capitol, with a group of eight other legislators.

Agbaje, 35, an Ivy League–educated lawyer who was born in St. Paul, grew up in Brainerd and Faribault, and now lives in downtown Minneapolis, is the first Nigerian American to serve in the Minnesota legislature. 

As she took her oath, Agbaje (DFL-Minneapolis) joined a changing Minnesota legislature. To Agbaje, the statehouse’s growing diversity signals a shift toward truly multiracial, representative democracy.

“This is a space that was never really meant for women or for people of color, so it’s still kind of fun to see your name on the door, or that your badge works to get into different places,” she said.

On January 6, the morning after she took her oath, Agbaje awoke to the news that Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had won their Senate races in Georgia, flipping the chamber to Democratic control. The diverse coalition that turned Georgia blue, and the election of Warnock as Georgia’s first Black senator felt like another hopeful sign of the growing power of multiracial democracy.

But that afternoon, insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the voices of that diverse coalition. They had come to Washington at the president’s invitation, after he and many of his Republican allies repeatedly told racist lies about the validity of votes in cities with large Black populations. Five people were killed in the melee. It was a violent assault on the democratic values Agbaje came to St. Paul to uphold.

“There are still people pushing back on this multiracial, multi-class democracy,” Agbaje said. Seeing that in action was disheartening, she added. But she hoped that it would help Minnesotans and all Americans to see the state’s growing diversity reflected in legislative leadership. “If that’s not representative democracy, I don’t know what is,” she said.

Agbaje had hoped to come into office as part of a Democratic majority. While Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, Minnesota retained its unique status as the only state in the country with a split legislature. While the Minnesota House, where Agbaje serves, has a Democratic majority, Republicans fended off challenges to their majority in the state Senate. 

Still, Agbaje is hopeful about making progress this term—finding small ways to change the system, working across the aisle, instead of pursuing sweeping packages. “There is definitely an energy there, and I think that energy shouldn’t be wasted,” she said.

Starting as a legislator during a pandemic means relationship-building has to happen deliberately and remotely. Legislator group chats help build camaraderie. The freshman legislators, Agbaje said, haven’t yet landed on a name but are considering “COVID class” and “Pandemic Posse”–and members reach out to each other via phone and text message.

On introductory phone calls, Agbaje is already finding common ground with her colleagues and finding ways to collaborate. Support for small farmers, for example, can cross rural-urban divides. Representative Todd Lippert comes from Northfield, where agriculture is central to the economy; in Agbaje’s north Minneapolis district, community gardens proliferate. Heather Keeler, a new representative from Moorhead and a fellow member of the POCI (People of Color and Indigenous) Caucus, wants to work on housing, health care, and education in Indigenous communities—all priority issues for people in Minneapolis. 

Spending reflects values

Agbaje hopes to use her positions on finance-related committees—capital investment, housing finance and policy, and taxes—to allocate resources with an eye toward equity. 

“I think where we put our money shows what we actually value,” she said. “I’m hoping to be a voice on those committees to make sure that we’re putting our values towards people, and putting our money and resources to value the people we haven’t really in the past.”

As she swore her oath, hoping her internet connection wouldn’t falter, Agbaje reflected on her place in the Capitol.

“I was really just thinking that this is an incredible opportunity,” she said. “This is an incredible space to show that women, Black people, immigrants, and descendants of immigrants–that we have a voice in this country, we have a voice in this state and we should be heard. And having the opportunity to sit in these seats is not a given.”

Esther Agbaje in Gold Medal Park in downtown Minneapolis, shortly before winning her DFL primary against incumbent Raymond Dehn in August. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A monument that belongs to the people

Representative Kaohly Her (DFL–St. Paul) became overwhelmed when she entered the Minnesota Capitol two years ago for her first day at work. She had always thought of the Capitol as a monument that belongs to the people. But then she found herself standing in a place that represented the American democracy her Hmong grandfather fought for in Laos.

“I never believed that this is what I would be doing one day,” Her said. “I’m a refugee who came to this country as a small child. My family was just trying to make it in America.”

“What an honor and blessing to carry all of those people into this work with me,” Her said of her Hmong ancestors.

In December, two years after her election, the Minnesota House DFL Caucus elected Her to serve as the majority whip for the current legislative session. Joined by Agbaje in the most diverse state legislature in Minnesota History, Her continues to prioritize issues concerning immigrants and other communities of color—now in a new leadership role.

The majority whip is responsible for “whipping up votes,” she said: surveying members to track how they will vote for a particular bill and sometimes prodding them toward the party line. This information helps policy makers determine whether a bill enjoys enough support to pass—or how it needs to be changed to ensure passage.

When she first became a state representative, Her said she didn’t realize how few people actually contributed to shaping policy for the whole state. As the majority whip, she’s changing that. 

“You never know that you’re doing it differently than other people,” Her said. “I come from a collectivist culture; that’s how I do my work. I care about people. I care that they feel that their work is meaningful, and I care that people are heard. I try to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”

Her added that it isn’t enough to listen to the needs of her constituents and then tell them, “We’ve heard you.” She said that she cannot consider a problem heard unless she’s also taking action. 

‘No one’s ever done things like that before.’

“To me, that seems like a very logical thing to do,” Her said. “But then you hear feedback saying ‘No one’s ever done things like that before.’”

As a collectivist, Her said she has been able to work across the aisle with her colleagues and her constituents alike. 

Her recalled one conversation she had with a colleague who had been in the House for a while. She asked him if it had always been this difficult, this partisan. He said that current legislative debates feel much more civilized now that the state legislature has diversified. That gives Her some hope.

“We’ve had conversations now about structural and systemic racism that we would have never had, had it not been for the diversity that we have seen at our state legislature,” Her said. “We are now talking about intersectionality. We have never talked about that before.”

Not everyone welcomes these new conversations. Her was working from home with her husband and daughter when she saw images of the U.S. Capitol putsch attempt on her computer. 

“I just watched in disbelief,” Her said. “This symbol of what our country stands for was being overrun by people who have benefited the most from the system that we’ve created. And I just couldn’t reconcile that within my own mind.”

The attack became a topic of conversation at most of her back-to-back meetings—but not a deterrent.

“The work can’t stop,” Her said. “Conflict and the issues that arise, it should absolutely inform us in the decisions that we make and what we do. But it should never stop our fight for equity and justice.”

Lately, Her has been thinking about the way systems change. The legislature is likely to become even more diverse in sessions to come. How can the state manage the struggles between people who feel like they’re losing power and people who are finally gaining a voice?

“Our truth can be really different, but they can both exist in that same reality,” she said. “And that’s a really hard concept for people.” Ultimately, Minnesota voters and her colleagues in the legislature can argue over losing influence—or open a conversation about how to share power.

*Clarification and correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified Kaohly Her’s role. She is the House majority whip. This story has also been updated to reflect that the count of legislators of color is self-reported and may not be complete.

Becky Z. Dernbach

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

Hibah Ansari

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