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Susan Allen aims to be first American Indian woman legislator

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Susan Allen
Attorney Susan Allen, 48, has lived in south central Minneapolis for the past 14 years. She is running for the Minnesota House seat representing District 61B.
MPR Photo/ Sasha Aslanian

Voters in south Minneapolis will go to the polls in early January to fill a Minnesota House seat vacated by DFLer Jeff Hayden, who has moved on to the state Senate. The Democrat hoping to succeed her in the heavily-DFL district is Susan Allen. If Allen beats independent Nathan Blumenshine, she'd become the first American Indian woman to serve in the Minnesota legislature.

Allen, 48, is an attorney who's lived in south central Minneapolis for the past 14 years.  District 61B is a series of neighborhoods divided by Interstate 35W. Almost half the children there live in poverty.

"It reminds me of a lot of the places I grew up. It's 62 percent minority," Allen said.

Allen means the small towns and reservations in the five states she called home by the time she was 14. Her parents came from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. They moved frequently because her father was an Episcopal priest. He'd been raised in Indian boarding schools, and the Church sent him to Yale Divinity School.

"He was an Ivy-educated Indian, and when he came back for his first job in South Dakota, the Episcopal Church said, 'OK, they were going to pay him half of what they paid the white priests.' "

Her father refused to stay and work for less, so the family moved often, trying to close the pay gap. That conflict, and her parents' struggle for justice defined Allen's childhood. They encountered frequent reminders that Indian people weren't welcome.

"We would go to a restaurant and you'd just stand there and stand there and wait to be served and so that's how I learned how to deal with discrimination," Allen said. "He just would act as though he belonged there and that we belonged there even though we were the only minority people in the room most of the time."

Allen learned from her father that American Indian people could help change institutions by participating in them.

When the seat came open in the legislature — a place where there are currently no American Indian 'members' — Allen saw it as an opportunity. 

Since 1848, nine American Indian men have served as legislators here. Six of them held office while Minnesota was still a territory. 

Participation by this group that now makes up about 1 percent of Minnesota's population, has been thin over the last 150 years.

David Wilkins, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and an author of a textbook on American Indian politics, said Native American participation in state and federal politics — as voters and candidates — has increased nationally over the last 20 years.

"It really wasn't until the gaming phenomena that indigenous political participation at the state and federal level really erupted and it really has grown phenomenally in just the last few election cycles," Wilkins said.

Wilkins thinks that gaming has given tribes an economic foothold, and political participation is vital to protect that.

Allen's legal expertise is representing tribes in their negotiations with state and federal governments. She says she brings also the experience of having been a single mother reliant on public transportation and public assistance as she put herself through law school. She thinks that's an important perspective to bring to the capitol as well.

"Only a few people have ever questioned... said — and I just sort of let it go — but it was saying 'Well, you're Native American. What are you going to do for the rest of us?' "

Allen's main priorities for district 61B are to create jobs and close the academic achievement gap — issues she sees as important across the district.

   Blumenshine, Allen's opponent in the Jan. 10 special election, is a progressive who takes similar positions on issues but is running as an independent. The winner will get to run for office twice in one year. House members are all up for re-election next November.

That ballot will also include a constitutional amendment defining marriage. As an open lesbian, Allen pledges to use her reelection campaign "to turn out voters against writing discrimination into our state constitution."