DFL state Reps. Karen Clark and Susan Allen, who represent parts of south Minneapolis, announced Friday they will not seek re-election when their terms end next year.
Clark is the longest-serving openly lesbian state legislator in the nation. Allen, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a lawyer, was the first openly lesbian American Indian woman elected to any state legislature.
Clark was first elected in 1980 to represent four neighborhoods just south of downtown and is in the middle of her 19th term. Allen won her seat in a special election in 2012 to represent several south-central neighborhoods of the city and will step down at the end of her third term.
"I got elected the same day as Ronald Reagan, by the way," Clark said. "I was young; I thought we could change things overnight."
Clark worked in the 1980s on a law that gave workers the right to know if there were toxic chemicals in their workplace, and she has been a champion for justice and equality.
Rep. Rod Hamilton, a Republican from Mountain Lake, said his first memory of Clark was during a Gov. Tim Pawlenty speech in which he was expressing support for the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law that defined marriage as between one man and one woman and was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Clark stood up while Pawlenty was speaking and turned her back.
"I have never personally witnessed anything more powerful," Hamilton said. "Whether you agreed with Karen or supported her in her position on that item, you have to admit that was one of the most powerful and effective statements ever displayed on the House floor."
The two legislators later enjoyed a kinship because they both grew up in southwest Minnesota, and Clark gave Hamilton, a pork producer, a tour of her district.
"She understood rural issues, because of where she grew up, more so than I understood urban issues," Hamilton said.
Asked what she thinks of the national reckoning on sexual harassment, which led to the resignation announcement of U.S. Sen. Al Franken on Thursday, Clark said it is a deep-seated national problem. She passed a bill in the 1980s making sexual harassment grounds for workers' compensation, she said.
"Cultural change is deep and slow, so I'm hopeful because I see all different sectors taking some leadership," Clark said. "It is discouraging to see some of the people we've trusted and admired be part of this problem, but we all have to be part of the solution."
Clark said affordable housing and environmental justice will be her top priorities in 2018. She is stepping down to spend more time with family, she said, pointing to her spouse, Jacquelyn, and younger sister, standing beside her in a room at the Capitol for the announcement.
"We just don't have enough time together," Clark said.
Push for diversity
Allen said she has been mentoring other candidates of color knowing one day she would step down.
"It was never my intent to serve in the Legislature forever, but rather to answer a call to public service at a time when racial minorities were severely underrepresented," Allen said Friday. "Since that time, an increasing number of candidates from minority backgrounds have stepped up to run for public office at all levels of government. I also have faith in our community's ability to send another bold activist legislator to the Capitol to represent the progressive views of our district."
Several candidates have already said they will run for Allen's seat representing neighborhoods including Powderhorn, Central, King Field and Lyndale. Three candidates — Korina Barry, Aisha Gomez, and Ben Schweigert — attended the announcement Friday. Barry is a social worker at the University of Minnesota. Gomez is an aide to Minneapolis City Council Member Alondra Cano. Schweigert is an assistant Hennepin County attorney.
Clark said several people are contemplating a run for her seat. One of those — Farhio Khalif, the founder of a shelter for East African and Muslim women in Minnesota escaping domestic abuse — attended the announcement. Omar Fateh, who works for the Minnesota Department of Revenue, said Friday he also is running for Clark's seat.