Still, there were gains in the past session
The 2018-19 Minnesota legislative session, which wrapped up in May, included 21 minority lawmakers. That makes up 10 percent of the 201 total members of the House and Senate, which is the most diverse state legislature in history.
Nearly all of them make up the People of Color and Indigenous caucus, or POCI. Of the 21 minority members, six are Black. Even with the slight increase in diversity, the legislative session was still a struggle for Black lawmakers pushing Black issues.
“The things that will really give Black people prosperity fail,” said Senator Jeff Hayden, (DFL-Mpls), speaking on a Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage panel alongside other Black lawmakers.
The panel gathered July 10 in front of an audience of mostly Black community members at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) in Minneapolis with a few people of other races sprinkled in.
Black lawmakers and community members alike expressed frustration that Black issues continue to be ignored or barely addressed at the capitol. “A lot of people don’t want to hear about it,” said State Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights). She added she is often asked why she always talks about equity.
Richardson said she often responds; “‘Why are you never talking about it?’”
There are still successes, insisted State Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) that must be seen as gradual accomplishments. “You have to find ways to get a win, to keep working on small things to get through bigger things,” said the fifth-term legislator. “In legislative sessions, nothing ever happens all at once, especially in one session.”
Black agenda initiatives
Though fighting uphill and greatly outnumbered, Black legislators were able to pass bills that will help Black Minnesotans. State Rep. Mohamad Noor (DFL-Mpls), one of the four Black lawmakers on the panel, co-authored a successful bill that increased the Minnesota Family Investment Program’s cash assistance for low-income families by $100 monthly.
The help of small investments for poor, often Black families, Noor pointed out, can make a world of difference.
In his first term, he was also able to push through legislation that set aside $5 million for minority information technology, or IT, professionals. A Black person in IT can now apply for up to $75,000 to help start an IT business.
Richardson, also in her first term, was able to have 13 of her bills pass. Her successes included a bill that targets people of color and women for employment in the state’s $1 billion utility industry, a bill that expanded funding for homeless youth, and another that allocated money for shelter-based mental health grants.
For small business owners of color and women owners, Moran locked down over $1 million over the biennium for the Neighborhood Development Center. “If you are not able to go to a bank to get a loan to start a small business, go to the NDC in St. Paul,” said Moran. She also authored a bill that would exempt hair braiders from needing to pay business registration fees.
In the Senate, Hayden had less success. Minnesota has the only party-split legislature in the country; the Minnesota house has a DFL majority, the Senate a Republican majority.
Hayden was able to pass a bill that allowed people who live on restricted covenants, drawn up during the twentieth century to bar Black land ownership, to be able to renounce the land restrictions.
Many of his other ambitions, however, met with intense opposition. Hayden said he tried to pass a child protection system bill that would release and rehabilitate the disproportionate number of Black children in juvenile detention centers, but it was “killed.” So was an emergency insulin bill that would provide those in need of the medicine a resource as pharmaceutical companies continue raising insulin prices.
Hayden said he didn’t want to take away from the wins of Black lawmakers “because they are working as hard as they can.” Ultimately, though, he said the overall effort amounts to “nibbling at the edges.”
Gaining power through numbers
Though a member of the majority, Richardson said she felt that same intense opposition in the House as well. One issue that Richardson and Moran worked on was a bill to help remedy the alarming rate at which Black women die during childbirth.
Black women are nearly four times as likely as White women to die due to pregnancy complications. Black babies are twice as likely to die in their first year of life.
Even when controlling for education, income, zip code and environment, said Richardson, the inequity still exists. “It’s not about money or education attainment,” she said. “It’s about racism, pure and simple.”
Black people in the audience expressed deep frustration about how Black issues seem to stagnate in the legislature. Some directly asked the Black lawmakers what can be done.
“We need to apply pressure to legislators that don’t look like us,” said Hayden, noting opposition often comes from suburban and rural lawmakers.
Moran reiterated the value of steady incrementalism, adding that despair or disillusionment will only exacerbate Black issues.
The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage is also a resource. The council, which aims to ensure that people of African heritage have equal access to State resources and procedures, meets on the second Tuesday of every month.
Richardson said it all comes down to the numbers: “We need to run more and run in more places.”
When Richardson ran for her seat representing suburban Mendota Heights, Inver Grove Heights, Sunfish Lake and Eagan, people told her a Black woman couldn’t win there. “It’s important to know we can run and we can win,” she said.
The next meeting of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage is Aug. 13 from 6-8 pm at the Centennial Office Building across the street from the State Capitol.