St. Paul elects first black lawmakers to Minn. Legislature

John Harrington
Former St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington will be the first black state senator from St. Paul. He will represent St. Paul's East Side, a seat formerly held by the state's first Hmong senator, Mee Moua.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Tuesday's election was historic for the Republican takeover of the state legislature for the first time in 38 years, but it was significant in St. Paul for another reason.

The Capitol City elected its very first black lawmakers to both the House and Senate. They won the seats vacated by the state's first two Hmong lawmakers.

St. Paul's black population stood at 12 percent in the 2000 Census, roughly the national average. But until now, St. Paul has never elected a black legislator to serve at the Capitol.

On Tuesday, voters on the East Side elected their former police chief, John Harrington, to the state senate.

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Harrington thinks his name recognition and reputation for public safety helped him win office. But he also credits his predecessor, Mee Moua, and Cy Thao, another pioneering Hmong lawmaker, for showing the city that minority representatives can do a good job representing all their constituents.

"They opened the door frankly in my mind. I can remember time when in St. Paul, where I could show up for a call, they would ask for 'the other police,' meaning they wanted the white police to show up," he said. "Within my career of 33 years, that level of racism still existed."

During his six-year tenure as police chief, Harrington prioritized domestic violence and gang activity, and achieved notable reductions in both. He's hoping to extend that influence as a state senator.

Harrington is undaunted that he'll be in the minority party up at the Capitol. He says it's been the story of his life, coming up on the south side of Chicago, attending Dartmouth College, joining the St. Paul Police and becoming police chief. He says sometimes it's easier to lead from the back, where people aren't complacent.

One of Harrington's new colleagues at the capitol will be Rena Moran, another Chicago native. Moran moved to Minnesota 10 years ago as a single mother of seven. She briefly lived in a homeless shelter and, despite having a college degree, took a job cleaning at Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America. She worked her way up as a community organizer and five years ago bought a home in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood.

Moran says she ran a hard campaign of door-knocking and listening to what was on the minds of her neighbors.

"It was my life experience that really resonated with people right now at this moment, and regardless of the color, I tell you, because when you lose a job, you lose a home, it has no color," she said.

Rena Moran
Rena Moran is the first black representative from St. Paul to be elected to the Minnesota House. Her district includes St. Paul's historically black Rondo neighborhood.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Moran is the first Wellstone Action fellow to be elected to the state legislature. Wellstone Action trains emerging leaders from communities of color. Moran said the training taught her leaders need to prevent problems, not just react to them.

"As a person who works for a non-profit, we're always grabbing our babies out of the river. They're always in the river and we're always running to help them because we gotta do that, and it's a good thing," she said. "We need to help people around housing, around whatever life is handing us at the time. But we also need to go upstream and find out why babies are coming down the stream."

Moran is a relative newcomer to St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, but it was once the heart of a thriving black community before it was divided by the Interstate 94 corridor in the 1960s. It's perhaps surprising that the neighborhood never elected a black representative to the Legislature before.

Minneapolis elected its first black lawmaker more than a century ago and is currently served by Bobby Joe Champion and Jeff Hayden.

Matt Little has been watching the progress of black Americans in public life in Minnesota for more than half a century. Little served as president of the NAACP in Minneapolis. He, too, wonders why it took St. Paul so long.

"I think there was a tendency to think it was impossible," he said. "We have a tendency to do that sometimes rather than continue and keep right on pushing and pushing and pushing. But now that we have not enough to have a black coalition in the legislature at this point, but at least it's a darned good start."

The four black lawmakers make up 2 percent of the Legislature. With the exit of Moua and Thao, there will be no Hmong lawmakers at the capitol next session.