The Minnesota Legislature was once a lonely place for state Rep. Rena Moran. After her election in 2010, the St. Paul Democrat was the only black woman serving in the 134-member state House. Just seven of 201 state lawmakers identified as minorities.
“It was taxing,” she said. “We [were] trying to represent communities of color’s voices through legislative policy and practice and that can get lost in a body of 134 individuals.”
By 2017, the share of lawmakers from communities of color had doubled. While Moran was still one of just a handful of African-American legislators, more American Indian, Hmong, Latino and Somali Minnesotans were filling the chamber. With power in numbers, Moran said she found ample “support to look at our work as legislators through a race-conscious lens.”
The People of Color and Indigenous Caucus was born.
The coalition, known as the POCI Caucus, has grown in size and influence in recent years, especially in the DFL-led House. But the death of George Floyd in police custody and the protests that followed have brought new visibility and power to the 19-member caucus.
Members of the caucus are taking the lead in drafting and advocating for a sweeping criminal justice and police accountability package now at the center of the special session that started Friday. Some are vowing to withhold votes on a major public works bill and other top legislative priorities without action on the slate of police reform proposals.
“That’s the power of having numbers, the power of having a caucus,” Moran said of the ability to vote as a bloc on legislation. “It’s the power for us to say: ‘We need to negotiate there.’ ”
The current Legislature is believed to be the most diverse in state history. Twenty-one lawmakers are from communities of color, according to self-reported data collected by the Legislative Reference Library. All but two are Democrats and members of the POCI Caucus.
Even with those gains, the members make up just 10% of the Legislature. And communities of color remain underrepresented compared with the state’s overall population.
Since forming in 2017, the POCI Caucus has sought to overcome those gaps by coalescing around issues of equity and representation. Members successfully pushed for a state task force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and increased funding to recruit and retain teachers of color. Last year, in a show of political strength, members threatened to derail a University of Minnesota regents vote over concerns about a lack of diversity among candidates.
The caucus’ 2020 agenda included dozens of proposals related to educational, health and economic disparities. Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis Democrat who is one of two black state senators, said the caucus’ strength — and challenge — has been bringing members from a range of cultures and backgrounds together to advocate for the “same overarching goals” of improving lives for marginalized communities.
“I think that’s when we’re at our best,” Hayden said. “We have a clear goal and we’re speaking in a unified voice.”
Members say they’ve also been able to influence what’s included in bills to be more responsive to the needs of people of color. Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said that power in part comes from other legislators wanting POCI Caucus members’ votes. But Mariani noted that white committee chairs are now carrying bills that address equity in education, housing and other areas.
“We get our names, energy and our lobbying effort behind specific issues that we believe are incredibly important to our communities,” said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis.
POCI Caucus members say Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed has brought new urgency to their work and the need for leadership from communities most affected by police brutality and racism.
Rep. Ruth Richardson, a freshman Democrat from Mendota Heights, hailed the current moment as “a critical point” at a recent news conference on the criminal justice measures.
“It’s 2020,” she said. “If you’re not going to listen to us today, you’re never going to listen to us. And it is incumbent on our communities to lift up the voices of the people who have been most impacted by the pain.”
The special session that started Friday will offer a fresh test of the POCI Caucus’ power, as the politically divided Legislature works to find common ground on lingering coronavirus response measures, the criminal justice reform package, an expected $1 billion-plus public works bonding bill and another measure that could include money for Twin Cities communities damaged by looting and arson.
“This is a moment that offers a way for that group to accelerate its influence and its skills,” said Mariani, a public safety committee chair working on the criminal justice package. “Particularly as the [House DFL] majority has been very open about saying that, ‘We’re going to take our cue and our leadership from you on this issue, because we’re not as well versed as you are.’ ”
That deference from DFL leaders was on display during a recent POCI Caucus news conference on police reform. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, the chamber’s highest-ranking Democrat, spoke last, pledging to “listen ... stand back and create space for leadership to come from the voices and the people of color and indigenous members of the Legislature and then to stand with them and to act.”
Moran, who serves as POCI Caucus chair, saw the gesture as a “sign of change.” But the commitment to sit back and listen remains a “double-edged sword,” she said, when members of color remain in the minority.
“We also need her to help us lead,” she said. “We need our white colleagues, men and women, to step into this arena and help us make a difference.”
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.