Ruben Vasquez came into the year trying to pull off an unlikely feat of joining a very small list of Minnesota legislators of color at the State Capitol.
Born in Mexico City, Vasquez has spent nearly four decades in Minnesota. He and his family have lived in New Brighton for the past decade. Winning a seat in the Legislature, he figured, would help as the state adapts to its evolving racial demographics.
But Vasquez found the state’s long-established political machinery to be his biggest obstacle.
“I need to do something to start having those conversations that people are afraid to have, because, in my opinion, sometimes ‘Minnesota Nice’ gets in our way,” said Vasquez, 47, a longtime DFL activist.
Vasquez has been among more than a dozen candidates of color who have campaigned for House and Senate seats this year. Some are encountering enormous challenges as they try to bring more racial diversity to a state Legislature still lacking it.
Out of 201 legislative seats, fewer than a dozen are held by people of color, about 5 percent. Though the number of people of color in Minnesota has grown rapidly, the statehouse is far whiter than the state as a whole, where minorities are 19 percent of the population.
In some cases, new candidates are defying political party norms by running head-to-head against established incumbents. In north Minneapolis, Hmong activist Fue Lee is battling hard to unseat Rep. Joe Mullery, a DFLer who has won the party’s endorsement.
“It takes a lot of commitment,” said former state Sen. Mee Moua, who became the first Hmong woman to serve in the Senate, representing the East Side of St. Paul.
“The party structure is spending a lot of resources protecting the status quo and not thinking to the future [demographic changes] and saying, ‘This is the reality of our state,’ ” she said. “Are we about protecting the status quo or are we about crafting leadership that’s fit for the present and future of this state?”
Candidates of color say it is incredibly difficult to break through as a legislative candidate, particularly at one of the crucial first steps in the process, the local endorsing convention.
Running for legislative office is simple. Pay $100 and your name will appear on the ballot. Mounting a successful campaign, however, typically involves earning the endorsement of a major political party. Those endorsements unlock party cash, build a volunteer base and provide pivotal party assistance.
Candidates of color and political newcomers often find the fast-paced process confusing and alienating, one in which coaching and mentoring from seasoned political operatives can make or break a campaign.
Many of the state’s most successful politicians, from former Vice President Walter Mondale to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, credited mentors for their success and, in turn, mentored the next generation of political leaders.
Ken Martin, the state DFL Party chairman, said party officials have worked hard to groom candidates of color. He cited efforts taken during his tenure to diversify the state party’s leadership and staff to develop a pipeline of diverse candidates. But local nominating conventions are outside of his control, he said.
“These decisions are ultimately made, in terms of who is endorsed at these conventions, by local activists,” Martin said. “We don’t necessarily have complete say in who ends up getting endorsed.”
Candidates who lose an endorsement fight face a tough choice. If they abide by the endorsement, simply ending their bid, it will help preserve relationships within the party should they make a future run. Running against an endorsed candidate is highly discouraged in both parties and can have long-lasting repercussions. Primary fights mean a party has to spend money fending off challengers from within, depleting resources for the general election fight.
“There are people who will get really frustrated with the process, especially first-time candidates,” Martin said. “They don’t understand how it works and when they don’t end up getting a result to their liking, they end up running in a primary. We don’t encourage that at all, obviously.”
Keith Downey, the Minnesota Republican Party chairman, disputed that minorities are underrepresented at the Legislature, saying that Minnesota’s minority population is not uniformly distributed across the state.
“I would disagree with the notion that somehow percentage of population would be a perfect proxy for estimating how many representatives you should have,” Downey said.
Recruiting candidates of diverse racial backgrounds is not a top priority for the Republican Party, Downey said. Nonetheless, he said his party has endorsed several candidates in recent election cycles, including five in 2014. Two prevailed, both Hispanic men, who now represent suburban and exurban districts in the House.
“Republicans are far more interested in the person and what they stand for and their experiences,” Downey said. “Republicans tend not to look at these other factors,” like race and the makeup of the Legislature.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said one of the reasons the statehouse has been slow to diversify is because of the slow pace of turnover at the Capitol. He said he’s confident that as communities of color organize and become politically active, the Legislature will change over time.
Matt Musel, a veteran campaign operative, is part of a growing network of activists who have worked on several campaigns by candidates of color. Activists like Musel have employed savvy strategies when pitching candidates. Instead of highlighting the historic nature of a race, a candidate has a better shot of winning over delegates through compelling narratives.
One way is to emphasize the deep roots some candidates have in Minnesota, particularly when their race and skin color often prompt questions about where they are from.
In Vasquez’s case, he often highlighted his Minnesota experiences — annual trips to the State Fair with his family and attending his children’s sporting events — to address questions about his origin.
After weeks spent training new delegates and supporters, Vasquez entered his convention in Fridley on a recent Saturday, confident that he could prevail. He was seeking the endorsement in a House race after the incumbent said she would seek her party’s endorsement to the Senate.
As he was preparing to deliver his opening speech, a last-minute surprise delivered a gut punch.
Rep. Connie Bernardy, the incumbent, had lost her party’s endorsement for the Senate seat and decided to seek her old House seat.
Vasquez suddenly faced a high-stakes dilemma: Bow out or press on and risk angering local Democrats.
“That was the most heartbreaking thing for everybody, for my team, for my supporters,” Vasquez said of his decision to step aside. “I didn’t even get a chance to give my speech.”
But Vasquez has built a formidable group of supporters and volunteers — one he could tap for a future run.
“Right now I’m at a point where I don’t want to rule it out, but at the same time, I don’t know,” Vasquez said. “I want to refocus on trying to figure out what is next for me.”