Women of color want ‘equal representation of our own’

Second of a two-part story

This story concludes last week’s “Who’s at the table when decisions are made?”

Celebrants and supporters join in a toast with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Inauguration of Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton in 1994. (Foto by Flashman)

Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) tells us that of nearly 1,900 women state legislators in office nationwide today, 24 percent are women of color, and of the eight women of color who are now serving as mayors in the nation’s 100 largest cities, five are Black women. Participants in a recent symposium say the time for that to change is overdue.

“I do think it makes a difference for African Americans, Latinos, Asians or Native Americans to have the opportunity to be able to be in elected office, to speak authentically on issues that their communities uniquely experience,” former Minneapolis mayor Sharon Sayles Belton told the MSR during the February 23 all-day symposium. “It doesn’t mean that you’re the African American mayor or just the Latino mayor.”

The event, named in her honor, was held at the University of Minnesota and hosted by Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Participants included Mary Parham-Copelan, one among a handful of newly elected Black female mayors and the first woman to be mayor in her city of Milledgeville, Georgia; and Melisa Franzen, one of five Latino state lawmakers, currently serving her second term in the Minnesota State Senate.

Parham-Copelan being sworn in as the first woman mayor of Milledgeville, GA (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Sayles Belton and Copelan described their experiences as mayor. Said Parham-Copelan, who defeated the incumbent mayor, “They said I won by six votes, but they took the sixth vote back — I’m OK with that. That five is fine with me.”

Franzen, who represents Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina and Minnetonka, added that she was an unknown when she first ran for state office in 2012. The DFLer won her seat in what has traditionally been a Republican-leaning district. “I didn’t run as a Latina, but as a young woman,” said the Puerto Rican native who was reelected in 2016.

Parham-Copelan said she got into the mayor’s race about two months before last fall’s election. “I had prayed about it when I came into this race. There were some challenges I did face on the campaign trail” as a female candidate, but she believes voters found her “more personable” than her opponent.

Both women disclosed that some people discouraged them from running for office. Franzen reportedly was told that her first foray into politics shouldn’t be for a state senate seat, and Parham-Copelan’s background as a realtor, an educator, and pastor of her church was questioned as she lacked the business and professional experience held by her predecessors. “It was a lot of challenges for me,” she added. “We never stopped [campaigning] until the very last minute.”

Now in office, both women say they still must reassure their constituents. “I represent my district first and foremost,” Franzen said. “I’m also [a] state senator and have to represent my state.”

Parham-Copelan stressed, “I have found that most [of the residents] have warmed up to me.” She said in response to a question, “It is very important to have a person of color in office, especially in this day and time.

“We need equal representation of our own in office so that we can identify whence we come from, where we’ve been, and the discrimination and inequality that requires someone of color to be at the table, sit down, and bring those issues to the forefront and move us forward in the future.”

“Hopefully, we can get other [women]” to seriously think about running for office, Franzen added.

The MSR briefly talked afterward to both Franzen and Parham-Copelan.

(l-r) Sharon Sayles Belton and Mary Parham Copelan (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

While about 19 percent of Minnesota’s population is people of color, around eight percent of these (16 members) now hold legislative seats. “We certainly need more representation in government, not just women but men [of color] who can have a voice for people who are underrepresented,” said Frazen.

She is co-sponsor of a bill introduced by State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Minneapolis) for undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. “This is a safety issue as far as I am concerned,” she pointed out. “I think it’s finally time to get it done.”

“I saw our city declining,” Parham-Copelan gave as her reason for running for mayor. Milledgeville, located about 90 miles from Atlanta and two hours from Augusta, has around 19,000 people. “I wanted to become a vital part of restoring [Milledgeville] and vitalize our city.”

Now, as mayor, Parham-Copelan said she hopes in the next four years to expand her career from local to state level. “I want to help foster and facilitate laws to move forward so that everybody has representation.”

University of Notre Dame Africana Studies Professor and Chair Dianne Pinderhughes, one of the symposium’s two keynote speakers, told the MSR that she advocates “gender quotas” for U.S. elected offices.

“They may reserve seats in the legislature…a certain percentage of women in office,” which she pointed out is the case in some European, African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. She said she would like to see women serving as at least 30 to 40 percent of elected officials in this country.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.