WAITE PARK — Hushed voices filled a hotel conference room as women from across the state shuffled in to the launch of a two-day training, looking for seats as female empowerment songs boomed from the speakers.
As they ate dinner, local elected leaders told stories of cold-calling constituents, door-knocking for hours on end and the challenges of simply existing in a male-dominated political field.
By the end of the meal, those hushed voices rose to make loud and confident proclamations about why they were attending the conference: to learn to win in an election.
The 50-or-so attendees at the Vote Run Lead training ranged from a first-time campaign manager from the far western edge of the state to Minnesota's second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
While the gathering was small, the mission is not: The women are part of the Vote Run Lead nonprofit's mission to flip the Minnesota Legislature to a majority-woman membership in just two election cycles.
"We deserve to be in those spaces," Flanagan said at the June 17 dinner. Flanagan participated in a similar training 17 years ago just after her first run for office, when she was elected to the Minneapolis school board.
Now the highest-ranking Native woman elected to a statewide executive office in the nation, Flanagan told the women that their voices are needed in all levels of government.
"You all have so much experience that is needed and necessary in the halls of power. The conversation changes when we are at the table," Flanagan said.
The number of women serving in the Minnesota Legislature is the highest it's ever been; currently 72 women make up 36% of the Legislature.
But at the current rate, the state is still 22 years away from having a female-majority Legislature that's reflective of the state's population breakdown, according to Vote Run Lead.
The nonprofit is working to accelerate that change in Minnesota with its so-called Run 51 initiative, which aims to flip the Legislature to majority-women membership by 2024. The organization is looking at three bellwether states for Run 51: "New York because it's blue, Georgia because it's red and Minnesota because we have a divided Legislature," said Beth Peterson, Minnesota director for Vote Run Lead.
The organization started in 2005 as part of the White House Project, a political training program that ended in 2012. Two years later, a group of women gathered in Duluth and founded Vote Run Lead in response to demand for continued training. Since its inception, the New York-based organization has trained more than 55,000 women nationwide.
Vote Run Lead is nonpartisan but looks to support women, nonbinary and otherwise gender-nonconforming people who are antiracist and reform-minded, according to Peterson. The nonprofit's trainings are for people looking to run for all levels of office, including nonpartisan city councils and school boards, as well as campaign managers and people still on the fence about running for office someday.
"Here's the thing about women in office," said Tarryl Clark, a former state senator who represented the St. Cloud area. "I served in the Senate. With that said, I will tell you it took me three times to get there. So persistence and patience are really important."
Clark now serves on the Stearns County Board of Commissionersonly the second woman to do so. "This is not an uncommon story around our state," she said.
Last week's training focused on the "down and dirty" of campaigning — from building a campaign timeline to selecting a digital platform, as well as how to stay safe as a woman or person of color on the campaign trail.
Minnesota ranks 12th nationally — tied with Michigan at 35.8% — for the number of women in the state Legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Only in Nevada's statehouse do women make up a majority, with 59%. Nationally, women make up 31% of legislative bodies — the highest it's ever been, having quintupled since the early 1970s.
Becky Parker of Ortonville, Minn., is the campaign chair for Edie Barrett, who is running for a House seat. Parker said she switched parties and became more involved with politics after seeing diminishing civility and integrity among politicians. She attended the Vote Run Lead training to learn how to help Barrett get elected — or at least get her name out there so she can run and win in the future.
"I just turned 69. I said, 'The last year of this decade of my life, I'm going to live with purpose,'" Parker said.
Erika Bailey-Johnson of Bemidji is also vying for a seat in the Minnesota House, in part, due to the growing divisiveness in the state and country. Her campaign manager, Crystal Kastl, said she never envisioned being involved in politics until she heard Bailey-Johnson was running.
"I wasn't going to touch [politics] with a 10-foot pole but I know how Erika works with people and I agree that's exactly what we need right now — someone who can build bridges and listen to others in a way that respects them instead of alienating people," Kastl said. "The whole goal is just to build a community and build a better Minnesota."