Wave of young, diverse Minnesota politicians sees path to power after primary wins

Six women in a collage
From left to right: Zaynab Mohamed, May Lor Xiong, Erin Maye Quade, María Isa Pérez-Hedges Liz Lee and Clare Oumou Verbeten.
Photos courtesy of candidates and Drew Arrieta, Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Fresh off their victories in last week’s primaries, a new generation of young, diverse Minnesota politicians — many of them women of color — is poised to take power at the Capitol in January.

The Minnesota Senate is likely to add two senators of Hmong ancestry, two Black women and a Muslim woman, all DFLers, based on their primary wins. Likely new lawmakers also include several young Republicans and a DFLer expected to be the first transgender person to win a seat in the Legislature.

Collectively, the results from the Aug. 9 ballots signal some of the biggest shifts seen in a single Minnesota election cycle as communities of color reshape the state’s political and social landscape.

“Minnesota is being very clear right now that we are ready for young people and people of color to lead the state,” said Zaynab Mohamed, 25, who won her primary in Senate District 63, a reliably DFL district in the Twin Cities area. She will face the GOP nominee Shawn Holster in November.

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“I will be one of the first Black women, the youngest woman, the first Muslim woman, the first woman wearing a hijab” in the Senate, she said. “It’s heavy, but it all should have happened a long time ago.”

Most of the young, diverse candidates who won in August will face an opponent in November’s general election. However, they’re running in districts that tip overwhelmingly toward their party, making their ascension to the Legislature likely.

A new ‘sisterhood’

When Erin Maye Quade went into labor during her DFL endorsement speech in April, some thought her campaign was over. Instead, the former Minnesota House lawmaker prevailed in the August primary for Senate District 56 in the south Twin Cities suburbs.

If she beats GOP candidate Jim Bean in November, Maye Quade, 36, will be the first Black woman elected to the Minnesota Senate. It’s a lot of pressure,” she said, “People still audibly gasp when I tell them we’ll be the first ones.”

After decades of legislatures made up largely of white, older, wealthy men, the landscape is shifting and lawmakers are starting to look more like the people they serve, Maye Quade said.

Twenty-seven-year-old Clare Oumou Verbeten, the DFL-endorsed candidate for Senate District 66, said the number of women running for seats in the Legislature following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending a national, constitutional right to abortion, shouldn't go unnoticed.

She described her and other women candidates of color in Minnesota as a “sisterhood.”

“I look up to all the other women of color running right now … we really know our communities in and out and truly represent our districts. I want to make them proud and other people to see us and think ‘Hey, I could do that too.’”

Mohamed is expected to replace retiring Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, who was the first Latina elected into the state Senate. Mohamed sees her primary win as putting her one step closer to helping create a government that works for all Minnesotans.

First elected in 2006, Torres Ray recalled how difficult it was just 16 years ago to run for the Legislature as a woman of color.

“There were very few organizations recruiting and training women of color. I didn't know the magnitude of the challenge and the opportunity until I entered the field,” she said. Women of color, she added, must still work harder to get elected and stay elected. “We are constantly challenged to demonstrate that we have what it takes to do the work.”

Of any advice to her possible successor, Torres Ray said, “Be authentic, build strong relationships, truly care for others and never forget your roots, everything else you can learn.”

‘Each of us running is different’

If Liz Lee wins this fall, she will be the first woman ever to represent House District 67A on St. Paul’s east side. She’d also be the third Hmong woman in the Minnesota House. In her primary, she won 89 percent of the vote against incumbent John Thompson. In November she will face GOP nominee Beverly Peterson.

Lee, 33, sees the wave of young, diverse politicians as a “homecoming” for many women of color who’ve returned to help lead the communities that raised them.

“People of color are not monolithic, each of us running is different,” she said. “Parents want their children to succeed and leave ‘rough neighborhoods,’ but this is what it looks like when you come back to your people and you’re ready to serve.”

Lee said she decided to run the day Minnesota’s Suni Lee won her Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. She hopes to tell that to Lee one day.

María Isa Pérez-Hedges, 35, said she was also inspired to run by other women of color, including her young daughter. Pérez-Hedges won her primary in House District 65B, which includes parts of St. Paul and West St. Paul. She hopes to fill the seat open by the retirement of DFL Rep. Carlos Mariani. She will race against GOP nominee Kevin Fjelsted.

She said she wants young girls to see themselves in her and understand the power they can wield.

“This was the first time I was able to vote for a Latina on the ballot and it was me,” she noted.

“That was so eye-opening. The House and Senate have been run by men, but when you look behind the man, it’s always really been women doing all of the work,” she added. “We are mothers, daughters and wives of a new generation — and we are not sitting down and being quiet anymore.” 

New voices are emerging outside the state legislative races, too.

May Lor Xiong, 42, became the first Hmong woman to win a GOP primary in the country. She’s running in November for the 4th Congressional District seat against DFLer Betty McCollum.

Many people, she said, ask her if she’s in the wrong party, assuming that because she is a woman of color she is a Democrat. 

“Republicans aren’t just older white men anymore,” she said. “You have to look at a party’s value and if that aligns with you. It’s not just about being a leader to the minority group but a leader for everybody.” 

While the November elections will likely deliver many firsts for Minnesota, Maye Quade said this is only the beginning.

“Every decision that we have made, every law and policy in the state of Minnesota, has been made without Black women involved. That is going to change,” she said. “We are bringing representation to the House and Senate. I don’t think you can have a democracy without Black women, and now, we’re going to be at the decision-making table and there will be more than just one of us.”

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