Terri Thao always said no when people asked her to run for the Sixth Ward City Council seat on St. Paul’s East Side. This year, after 2018 elections that saw women and minority candidates make history across the U.S., she finally said yes. “We need some really great leadership — and that might be me,” she said.
The daughter of Hmong immigrants, Thao, 40, believes there’s no better time for her to help shape economic development, affordable housing and support for small businesses. “I want to start where I can shine,” she said.
Voters who set turnout records last year elected people who broke age, race, gender and sexual-orientation barriers across the U.S. The results are inspiring a new crop of Minnesota candidates like Thao.
The early roster of prospective candidates for state and local elections this fall and in 2020 suggests that some longstanding obstacles are fading.
“People are realizing that you don’t have to have a particular pathway to represent people,” said Samantha Pree-Stinson, a Green Party candidate for the Third Ward seat on the Minneapolis City Council. “There is no magical qualification list, so why not me?”
She’s a former Army medic and ex-Democrat who first sought the seat in 2017.
Lindsey Port of Blueprint Campaigns, a nonprofit group that supports progressive candidates across the state, has met with more than 30 people who plan 2020 campaigns. All but three are first-timers.
“People are feeling more of a responsibility to run and put their voices out there, especially women and minorities and young people,” Port said.
Nelsie Yang embodies all those characteristics: She’s 24 and, like Thao, the daughter of Hmong refugees. She’s a rookie candidate also running for the St. Paul City Council’s Sixth Ward seat.
“I actually grew up believing that people of color could not run for office,” said Yang, a TakeAction Minnesota organizer. “I always saw old white men running.” She believes it’s time for “a future represented across race, gender and class.”
The 64 women who now serve in the Minnesota Legislature don’t represent a record. But in November’s midterms, voters elected an unprecedented number of women to the U.S. House — including the youngest and the first female Muslims and American Indians. They also sent the first openly bisexual person to the U.S. Senate and chose the first openly gay man to serve as a governor.
Shifts in the public’s acceptance of candidates with varied backgrounds are reassuring to Davin Sokup, a transgender man considering a 2020 run in Senate District 20 in south-central Minnesota.
A carpenter, Sokup calls himself a “grassroots, blue-collar Democrat” and said his potential bid would focus on affordable housing, health care, economic equality and green jobs.
“Ultimately, I’m not running to gain acceptance,” he said. Still, his experiences could help him find common ground with voters, Sokup said, because there’s “overlap between working hard and working hard to be yourself.”
Republicans across the state also are working to recruit a diverse field of candidates. Two Republican women who lost in last year’s blue wave hope voters will look beyond party to find qualified representatives.
Former state Rep. Sarah Anderson, a Republican from Plymouth who served six terms in the Legislature, worries that divisive politics attract candidates on both sides of the aisle who are ratcheting up hostility.
“No party escapes this plague,” she said, adding that progress on policy priorities will stall “until people understand that you can’t have healthy dialogue and get to a good result by doing this kind of thing.”
Former Rep. Roz Peterson of Lakeville said she believes that voters in the suburbs “do a better job of looking at the candidates over strictly just party.”
She’s encouraged by the interest of newcomers and minorities in political office. “We need to have good people who are willing to serve,” Peterson said, noting that voters must “look at candidates and make sure they reflect your priorities.”
Brad Svenson, an Independence Party candidate from Apple Valley, agrees. He’s gearing up to run in the Second Congressional District. The caustic battle between the two major parties, he said, “makes people like me look better. There’s a real option who’s not a party hack.”
Svenson believes that he could be the choice of voters who, like him, don’t want to “belong to the party of [President Donald] Trump or … the [Hillary] Clinton and [Sen. Bernie] Sanders party either.”
He knows the odds of winning are steep. But if Democratic and Republicans “even admit that I exist, I’m winning” because voters become aware of a different option, Svenson said.
Liz De La Torre is aiming higher. A sexual assault advocate from an immigrant family, she’s running for the First Ward seat on the St. Paul City Council. Women’s victories in 2018 convinced her to run.
“I didn’t want to wait on the sidelines anymore,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do it, but I don’t think I ever felt empowered or ready.”
De La Torre is not surprised that women are leading the emergence of fresh candidates. They’re accustomed to hard work and getting things done, she said, and are “an antidote to corrosiveness.”
Women Winning, a group that helps candidates from any party who support abortion rights, is helping to animate that trend. The group has been contacted by more than 300 women just since last November’s election and has already trained more than 100 of them, said Executive Director Meggie Wittorf.
“When things are not working, these women are stepping up to solve problems,” she said.
Bonnie Westlin a Maple Grove Democrat who challenged GOP state Sen. Warren Limmer in 2016, said the surge in women and minority candidates makes perfect sense.
The only way voters can “have their life and experience represented is to elect somebody who looks like [them],” said Westlin, who plans to run again next year. “If the objective of government is to craft policy to support the citizens of this state and this country … you need to hear from everybody.”