Laura Yuen
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The weekend that Erin Maye Quade was making national headlines for powering through a contraction during her DFL convention speech, another young mother who'd been called to serve in the Minnesota Legislature was confronting a challenge of her own.

Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Waconia, was comforting one of her twin babies, who had a 103-degree fever, and wondering how she would make child care work the next several days.

In that worrisome but ordinary moment for any working mom, Coleman mused about the barriers in state politics that make it harder for parents of young children to participate.

"As he's lying on my chest, I thought back to all the female candidates I had talked to that bowed out because of their obligations as mothers and viewing this arena in St. Paul as not friendly to parenthood — in particular, motherhood," Coleman told me.

Sen. Julia Coleman tries to keep up with her son Adam running in the Senate tunnel on April 23, 2022. Coleman had an issue with child care that day.
Sen. Julia Coleman tries to keep up with her son Adam running in the Senate tunnel on April 23, 2022. Coleman had an issue with child care that day.

A.J. Olmscheid

This Mother's Day, we salute all the moms at the Capitol who are trying to craft stronger supports for parents across the state. And we mourn the absence of all the moms who never ran for office because the culture or the conditions discouraged them from taking that leap.

You could not have invented a grander metaphor for the adversity we put mothers through than Maye Quade, a former state representative, literally laboring as she sought the Democratic-Farmer-Labor endorsement for a suburban State Senate seat. When you watched the video, did you wince, like I did, when she paused mid-sentence to buckle in pain, place a hand on her belly, and deeply exhale?

She uttered the most graceful "excuse me" before resuming her speech, while the crowd cheered.

"It was hard to watch," said Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, who saw the video and considers Maye Quade a friend.

"Just because women are strong, smart and capable doesn't mean that we need to continue working in the midst of the most challenging circumstance anyone could have on the planet," added Kotyza-Witthuhn, a mom of four.

Maye Quade stuck around to finish her speech, a Q&A session and the first round of balloting before she withdrew from the process to leave to give birth to her daughter. We can stand in awe of Maye Quade's dedication and toughness and still ask: Is this the picture of a democratic process that is accessible and fair to all? Is this the image Minnesota wants to transmit to the world?

A woman seeking her party's endorsement was actively and openly giving birth. And the convention was not suspended to accommodate a glaring medical emergency.

"I would have wanted to hear someone stand up and say, "This is not safe,' " said Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights. "I guarantee you if there was someone who was having a heart attack or passing a kidney stone, no one would be saying, 'You stay here and have your heart attack and continue to give your speech.' Everything would have stopped."

Richardson was especially alarmed because she has spent years advocating for closing disparities in maternal health outcomes. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I was worried about her health," Richardson said of Maye Quade. "That was my initial reaction. It was concern for her, and for the overall health of her and her family."

When the delegates in the room cheered for Maye Quade, I am reminded of the times women are lauded for our heroism and strength, but ignored when we plead for structural changes like equal pay, paid family leave and family-friendly workplaces.

Laborgate, after all, is far from the only example in which our state can make the Capitol climate more inviting for parents of young children.

The ability to vote and attend hearings remotely — a COVID-era tool that continued this session because of omicron — needs to become a permanent option. Hearings can go long into the night, and votes can pop up at any time. If a kid is sick, or child care falls through, or an aging parent needs help, the remote alternative has been a lifeline for legislators to get their work done.

When Coleman, the Republican senator, had her sick baby nestling up against her, she offered suggestions on Twitter about what a more inclusive, welcoming Legislature would look like.

In the Minnesota Senate, which likes to think of itself as the more prestigious chamber, the rules do not permit lawmakers to bring children onto the Senate floor. Coleman told me she stopped breastfeeding her twins this session because she could not keep them nearby. In contrast, legislators in the House like Rep. Erin Koegel routinely kept her baby, Clara, at her side on the floor and in committee meetings. Her colleague Kotyza-Witthuhn remembers delivering a speech on the floor while Majority Leader Ryan Winkler glided her napping son back and forth in a stroller.

Rep. Leon Lillie, D-North St. Paul, took a turn holding Rep. Erin Koegel’s baby Clara, then five months old, in April 2019.
Rep. Leon Lillie, D-North St. Paul, took a turn holding Rep. Erin Koegel’s baby Clara, then five months old, in April 2019.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Still, parts of the culture must change, Coleman said. She recalled the time a fellow legislator asked her during a late-night meeting whether she had "babies at home crying for you?" On the campaign trail while very visibly pregnant, some voters would tell Coleman her job was to be home with the baby.

"Having children doesn't tie your hands behind your back," she said. "It puts brass knuckles on your fist, because it makes you want to fight that much harder for the future they're going to inherit."

Coleman, Richardson and Kotyza-Witthuhn have all worked on legislation to improve the conditions of working parents. The Republican and DFL proposals on matters like paid family leave vary greatly, but the conversation is taking place because people with firsthand experience ran for office and fought to have a say on how policy is made.

"We want to bring to the table these lived experiences," Kotyza-Witthuhn said, "not just for folks in the Legislature, but for everyone in Minnesota."