As hundreds converged last month on the south lawn of the State Capitol to see Gov. Tim Walz sign the state budget, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan noted the crowd looked like Minnesota — much like the Legislature this session.
Democratic control of the House, Senate, and governor's office made many new policies possible, according to DFL legislators. But something else was at work, they say: a commitment to racial and gender equity, driven by the most diverse Legislature in Minnesota history.
At least 35 of 201 lawmakers identified as people of color, according to a Sahan Journal count verified by DFL and Republican party leaders. There were 27 lawmakers of color in the 2022 session.
It was one reason for some of the session's "big wins," Flanagan said. "Our democracy functions better when it accurately reflects the people that it seeks to represent."
"We want equity to be the butter in the batter, not the frosting on top of the cupcake," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, in an interview. "This session should make a huge dent in the disparities that we have."
Hortman said she deliberately appointed legislators of color to chair powerful committees, a change implemented after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police in 2020. Leadership positions usually were assigned primarily by seniority, which "benefited older white men," she said.
Two Minneapolis DFLers — Reps. Fue Lee and Hodan Hassan — chaired the House Capital Investment and Economic Development committees, respectively. Rep. Jay Xiong, DFL-St. Paul, headed the Workforce Development committee.
"They weren't the only voices of color at the table, but they were voices of color directing large investments of state resources," Hortman said.
Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe, was the only person of color on the conference committee that finalized the Health and Human Services budget bill.
"It was my job to make sure I stand up for those dots on those graphs, because to me, those dots are ... the people that I know and understand," she said.
Keeler said she saw children at some events walk up to lawmakers of color in awe of seeing themselves represented. "Planting those seeds for the future generation," she said.
Funding for youth homeless prevention services tripled largely due to Keeler's efforts, said Beth Holger, chief executive director of the Link, a nonprofit that provides resources for youth homelessness. "We had a legislator that really cares deeply about the youth that was in the final decision-making process," she said.
Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, was chief author of the Bring It Home Minnesota bill, creating a state-based voucher program administered by local public housing authorities. The program, funded in the housing budget bill, will provide about 5,000 state-based vouchers to low-income renters annually from 2024 to 2027.
"When somebody has a stable home, we know that leads to them having a better outcome," she said.
The Legislature passed a health care spending bill that allows unauthorized Minnesota adults and children who meet income eligibility requirements to join MinnesotaCare, the state's health insurance program for low-income individuals and families. About half the state's 81,000 unauthorized people will be eligible for MinnesotaCare because they have an income below 200% of the federal poverty line.
"People were looking at us to make sure that Minnesotans of color were getting their fair share, particularly when it came to the surplus," said Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis.
Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, chair of the Senate Education Finance Committee, recalled that about 30 students shared their experiences over Zoom during a January hearing. That was one reason the Legislature allocated $64 million over the next two years to help schools hire counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses, she said.
"I wanted to go into the session giving our schools as much financial stability as we could," said Kunesh, of Standing Rock Lakota descent. She also helped steer through policy changes to help Native American students honor their culture in school.
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, was chief author of the labor bill signed into law on May 24. The bill was a collaborative effort by lawmakers in the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus and their colleagues.
"When you interact with each other, it reminds you of the fact that we're state legislators ... [and] not just doing policy for north Minneapolis or downtown or Northeast," said Champion, the first Black senator to serve as Senate president.
The labor bill included the PROMISE Act pushed by Champion, establishing a program for business grants in communities that have been adversely affected by structural racism, civil unrest or lack of regional economic diversification.
Lawmakers shocked many Minnesotans by passing a $2.6 billion bonding package, the largest in state history. Behind the backroom scramble was Lee, chair of the House Capital Investment Committee. "Having a more diverse body enriched the conversation we were having about investment," he said.
As someone who lived in public housing when he was young, Lee was particularly happy to see an additional $70 million in the package for public housing.
"We just want to let community members know that communities are being heard," Lee said.
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This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newspaper dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up to receive Sahan's free newsletter in your inbox.