A new image of rural Minnesota: Cheniqua Johnson on her historic run for MN House

This article is the third in an occasional series profiling candidates running for various offices and how their election might impact our communities.

Cheniqua Johnson Photo courtesy of Cheniqua Johnson

Worthington, MN-native Cheniqua Johnson is the youngest DFL-endorsed woman and one of the first women of color to run for state office in her district in Southwest Minnesota.

The 22-year-old University of Minnesota graduate has a background in public service and community organizing, including serving as a political organizer for the DFL Party and as a legislative intern for U.S. Senate and policy intern for Gov. Mark Dayton. One might think running for office would be the natural progression for Johnson, but she said she did not think about it until approached by Rep. Ilhan Omar (DFL).

“I started to think about my community and what is it that we really need,” said Johnson about her decision to run for House District 22B. “I really felt that it was necessary for our community to start being able to speak up and have people listen to them and that’s where I see my role.”

The following are Johnson’s responses to the MSR’s questions:

MSR: What is the most important thing you want to accomplish if you get elected into office?
Cheniqua Johnson (CJ): Bringing more individuals to this conversation when it comes to state governance. Our state government does not necessarily represent the state in its entirety, and I want to be able to bring more individuals to the conversation – whether that be farmers, or people of color, immigrants, young people. [I want to] bring that voice and that perspective to places where I feel currently there are none.

MSR: What is the most controversial issue you think you will have to deal with if you get elected and how will you deal with it?
CJ: I don’t know if controversial is the right word, but what I will say is this idea of the rural-metro divide. Politically it’s not necessarily a voting issue, but I do think that it is something that is a perception issue.

One of the things we are really trying to combat is [the idea] the metro does not care about rural Minnesota or that rural Minnesota does not have a voice at the state legislature. I will bring representatives from [the] metro – because there are some that have never been to rural Minnesota, southwest Minnesota – to my area to show them around and get them involved in the conversation so we [can be] on a united front.

I think we are stronger together. We are very similar despite geographic location, despite backgrounds, despite ethnicities, cultures, religions – we are pretty similar in experience.

Photo courtesy of Cheniqua Johnson

MSR: What do you like most about your district?
CJ: I love Worthington. I love the people, the diversity, the activism, and the community. It’s my home. My district is in southwest Minnesota and is one of the most diverse districts in our part of the state. There are 50+ languages spoken in my district with families, cultures and backgrounds from all around the world. That’s the reason I believe we need to have leaders that can adequately represent that diversity in our district at St. Paul, in our city councils, and on our school boards.

MSR: How do we get money out of politics?
We as a community and we as a state have to be united and understand that we aren’t going to back individuals with the most money or we aren’t going to follow the money. Right now, money is politics because people follow the money. We look for candidates with the most money, who have fundraised the most expenses, who have the best ads, who have the best videos, and we don’t necessarily get back to who has the best message.

So, if we can return to this idea or bring forth a new idea that money does not equal – and money doesn’t not equal – success, then we can understand that we will no longer be following money. We will follow the people, we follow what the community wants, we will follow our values as a state, and that’s what I will be working to try and get back to.

We underestimate the effect of grassroots organizing and the effect of conversation. It costs me no money as a candidate to knock on someone’s door and say hello. None. And, that should be the most important factor.

MSR: What do you say to people who say they do not like politics or politicians?
CJ: I ask them why not. In some capacities there is a valid reason in our community when people feel they are not included in a conversation to have a distaste [for] politics and political conversations. And, then I would explain to them that we are living in a day and age that it is not going to matter if you like politics or politicians – you have to be a part of this conversation.

We just need to be echoing that message of, personally, if you don’t like something, if you don’t necessarily see yourself in politics right now, the only way that aspect is going to change is by speaking up and being willing to have the conversation. Don’t dislike something so much that you think it doesn’t matter or become disengaged in what’s happening.

Decisions are still being made, laws are still being passed, regulations are still being put forward. You’re only doing yourself a disservice [by disengaging] because then there is only a group of people that continue to have this lack of accountability. And, if you feel like the issue is accountability in politics or accountability in politicians, you have to be willing to be part of the conversation and part of the discussion.

MSR: What elected officials past or present in the state do you admire?
I admire Representative Rena Moran. She’s been a huge advisor and mentor to me – and a friend. And, I admire Rep. Omar, not an endorsement, but I admire her and her willingness to expand voter turnout in a safe district by 37 percent because that’s going to be what’s really key to us.

Rep. Ilhan and Moran are two people who have truly invested in my race. Rep. Ilhan is the sole reason that I had that push to run for office. She directly asked me about running for office, and I had not before. Just being both validated by Rep. Moran (DFL) and then supported [by Oman] helped me really understand this is where I should be.

MSR: What is the greatest impact your position will have on the African American community?
In the African American community, where I am from, [the greatest impact] is that I’m showing them that they can [do this] as well. I’m showing us, as a people, that we can be a part of these conversations and we have every right to be. That’s a huge reason why I am running for office in my area.

I am the first person of color to do so in my community, probably in like a 60-mile radius, and we’re there. Yes, there are Black people in rural Minnesota. I want people to know that…we are individuals that are working and giving back to our economy and community, we’re parents, teachers, educators, nurses, labor workers. We’re just in every part of what’s happening in the rural economy. We are your farmers, we are your small business owners.

So, if we can continue to bring forth this new image of what rural Minnesota is, I think it’s empowering for us as a people. And it’s not me doing that – I am actually a very young person in the race here – it’s the community speaking up and saying, “Hey, I am more than a Black person in southwest Minnesota. I am all of these things.”

Just to be able to showcase that narrative and put it forward to challenge the idea of what representation looks like is really important.

Interview conducted by Keith Schubert. Photos courtesy of Cheniqua Johnson