At fundraisers and front doors, Angela Conley told voters she was a renter, rode the bus and once relied on county services in a tough time.
Only then would she mention that if elected she would become the first black commissioner in Hennepin County’s 166-year history.
“Jaws would drop,” said Conley, 41. “But there’s so much more to this than being the first black person to be on the board.”
Twin Cities women of color achieved many historic firsts in Tuesday’s election, not only at the State Capitol and on Capitol Hill in Washington but also in city halls and local government centers.
Richfield elected the state’s first Latina mayor, Maria Regan Gonzalez. Mandy Meisner, who was born in South Korea, became the first person of color on the Anoka County Board. And Hennepin County elected its first two commissioners of color, Conley and Irene Fernando.
The pattern was reflected nationally, in the record numbers of women of color who ran for office.
“At the local level, women of color are looking around and not seeing or hearing their voices and perspectives adequately represented,” said Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota whose work focuses on women in politics.
It wasn’t just race, the newly elected officials said. The elections also ushered in office holders diverse in class, age and background.
It’s what motivated Conley, who works in job assistance for Hennepin County, to run for office. She looked at the Hennepin board and decided it didn’t reflect the Fourth District, which includes downtown and south Minneapolis east of Interstate 35W and Fort Snelling.
Conley, who lives in the Bryant neighborhood surrounded by an array of languages and incomes, told voters her story. How she knew what it meant to struggle and look to the county for help.
“These are all things that hit a spot in people, where they could relate to it,” she said. “Representation could be a lot of things.”
On election night, she soundly defeated longtime Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, winning 57 percent of the votes.
“When we’re not at the decisionmaking table then we have people making decisions for us,” Conley said. “And I personally got tired of people making decisions for me.”
Getting to work
At the same time, the new faces said they’re not so much fixated on breaking new ground as focused on the job ahead.
Meisner, who was adopted by Minnesota parents as an infant, said her background came up only occasionally while campaigning to become the first person of color on the Anoka County Board.
Though not part of her platform, “it is definitely part of what’s been in my heart personally,” said Meisner, community relations manager at North Metro Mayors Association.
Meisner, 43, won nearly 65 percent of the votes in the election to represent the Fourth District, the county’s most diverse pocket anchored by Columbia Heights and Fridley. She centered her campaign message on jobs, mental health and addiction issues, and community development.
Like many suburban counties, Anoka’s demographics are in steady transition. The number of people of color in Anoka County has more than doubled since Meisner settled in Fridley 18 years ago, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
“I do not think I am now somehow going to represent all people of color,” she said. Still, she added, “there’s something about when you understand what it’s like to be the only person in the room that looks like you and know they’re in a position of leadership.”
Fernando, 32, made history alongside Conley on Tuesday when she was elected to the open Second District seat on the Hennepin County Board. A child of Filipino immigrants, she grew up in California before moving to Minnesota for college.
The district she will represent stretches west from St. Anthony and the dense core of north Minneapolis to the suburban neighborhoods of Plymouth. While she campaigned on a message of equity, she said she doesn’t have all the answers.
“Out of seven people, we should have some strong diversity, so that collectively we are able to ask the questions that we need to ask and invite others into the room,” she said.
Groundbreaking politicians from previous decades are savoring the new wave of women — many of them first-time candidates — having names on the ballot.
“It’s beautiful to see,” said Edwina Garcia, 73, who in 1990 became the first Latina elected to the Legislature. “They’re confident women, they’ve paid their dues. … That’s going to inspire a lot of our kids.”
Garcia, now a Richfield City Council member, was elated when Regan Gonzalez joined her at the council dais last year. Now, Regan Gonzalez, 33, will become the first Latina mayor in state history, as well as one of the youngest.
Regan Gonzalez, a senior project manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, said her Mexican-American background allows her to navigate different worlds and connect with the city’s diverse residents. Being a “first,” she said, can be isolating. But when she considers mentors like Garcia and other women elected this year, she’s overcome by another feeling.
“There is community that is ready for a change,” she said. “I am not alone, and we are not alone.”
Women of color taking office is notable in part because of what it conveys to younger generations. Perhaps the highest-profile example this year in Minnesota was former legislator and political activist Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, who was elected lieutenant governor on the DFL ticket with Gov.-elect Tim Walz.
“Women who run for office do serve as role models,” Pearson said. “This will obviously affect not only current politics, but also politics going forward.”
Conley, who herself was inspired by figures such as state Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis — newly elected to Congress — and Michelle Obama, saw this close up on the campaign trail. A teen she met told her that she aspired to run for office someday and wanted Conley to be her mentor.
“I won’t ever forget her,” she said.