Politics was a national sport as Melisa López Franzen was growing up in Puerto Rico, one that enticed her long before she became a player in a far-away Midwestern state.
In high school, she was inspired by an encounter with Puerto Rico's secretary of state and enthralled by a 4-H trip to Washington. Family and friends were constantly debating the territory's political status.
"I grew up in a place where you can talk about politics but still have dinner together," López Franzen said.
When she moved to Minnesota to attend the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, she thought it would be a two-year stop in a career working behind the scenes on public policy. The Edina state senator is now nearly a decade into her tenure at the Minnesota Legislature and has stepped into her most public role yet: minority leader of the Senate DFL caucus.
Democrats selected her to lead them at a key moment, hoping she could broker deals while simultaneously charting a path to wrest Senate control from the GOP — an effort that will rely heavily on suburban districts like hers.
"When the time came, I saw what I brought to the table was something that was meeting the moment," said López Franzen, 41, who is the first woman of color in the post. "Suburban woman, young kids, small-business owner and someone really in the middle of the road who wants to listen to both sides and bring some sort of compromise at the end of the day. And I think that's what's missing in politics now more than ever."
When lawmakers return to the State Capitol on Jan. 31, they will face off over redistricting maps, how to respond to the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, the best use of a projected $7.7 billion budget surplus and what to include in a package of infrastructure projects.
The already difficult policy debates will be coated in another layer of complexity, with all 201 legislative seats and the governor's office on the ballot in November.
Supporters say López Franzen can bring people together on contentious issues, an ability that was evident before she joined the Legislature, said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, who encouraged her to run in 2012 for a seat long held by Republicans.
"I was bored and I was fed up," López Franzen said, when she was approached to run. She was working as an attorney for Target, where she had been involved in government affairs. "What I was seeing in my line of work is that it was too divisive. It was too polarized with the Tea Party at that point."
She said she was met with comments like, "Oh, she comes from corporate, she's not liberal enough. Oh, she's not from here, she's not one of us." She promised residents she would work the hardest for them, a vow she said she made again when facing off in the contested minority leader race.
Torres Ray said López Franzen has been able to represent a complex constituency that includes very progressive and very conservative residents.
Leading in divisive times
López Franzen will also need to navigate divides within Democratic ranks. When she won the job last September, she took over a post that has seen considerable turnover in recent years. Democrats replaced Sen. Tom Bakk, an Iron Ranger who had led the caucus for nearly a decade, with Woodbury Sen. Susan Kent two years ago. Bakk and a fellow northern Minnesota senator later left the DFL, becoming Independents who frequently side with Republicans.
Kent stepped down as leader in September and announced she wouldn't seek re-election, saying she needed to prioritize her family. Her decision followed criticism over how she handled a sexual harassment complaint about her former campaign manager. López Franzen resigned from her role as assistant minority leader over the situation, a move she said drew some questions from colleagues when she later opted to run for minority leader. In retrospect, she said she should have pushed for workplace changes without resigning.
She took over her caucus' top job around the same time her Republican counterpart, Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, was picked for Senate Majority Leader. The two share some common ground. They both have young children — López Franzen and her husband have 5- and 6-year-old sons — and were members of the Purple Caucus in their early years at the Legislature, a bipartisan group that has since dissolved.
"Senator Franzen and I have a very good working relationship. I look forward to working with her," Miller said shortly after he was elected majority leader. He said he has watched lawmakers' rhetoric and decorum deteriorate during debates over the past couple of years. "My hope is with Senator Franzen as leader of their caucus and me leading our caucus, we can hopefully improve on that."
The Purple Caucus was productive, López Franzen said, but saying you can come to an agreement is "not fashionable" anymore. "I hope that we can get to that agreement. I think if it's just [Miller] and I doing the work, I think we could get a lot of things done," she said.
She has released sharp statements about her Republican colleagues since taking the leadership role, condemning their potential move to oust Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and the GOP's approach to the pandemic.
Her priorities for the state's $7.7 billion surplus include putting some money aside in reserves and spending more to support health care workers, teachers and child care providers. López Franzen, whose father was a police officer, also said legislators need to address rising crime by putting money toward recruiting and retaining law enforcement, as well as mental health assistance and youth intervention programs.
Juggling several jobs
Co-workers inside and outside the Legislature offered the same description of López Franzen: "organized."
She balances work at the Capitol with a young family and job as president and co-founder of the public relations firm NewPublica, which focuses on multicultural and immigrant communities.
NewPublica co-founder Alberto Monserrate said during calls she can be talking business while picking up groceries after just departing a legislative meeting. And he said shortly after giving birth to one of her sons, she texted him from her hospital bed about business issues.
"She is able to juggle multiple things in a way I have never seen anybody able to do," Monserrate said.
In 2020, she raised her political profile by adding another item to her to-do list: stepping in as a surrogate for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar when the state's senior senator was campaigning for president. Before U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips was elected, she said she was repeatedly asked to run for the Third Congressional seat, but didn't see herself in that role at the time. She said she feels well-represented by Phillips, but didn't rule out a future bid for Congress.
"We need more workers, more people willing to work and less loud voices," López Franzen said, then wrapped up the interview.
She had to run to another meeting.