Amáda Márquez Simula said she didn’t run for mayor of Columbia Heights as a Latina. That’s just who she is.
“I don’t know any other way to be,” she said. “I was running because I think that I can do some good things and I have the leadership skills to help our community move forward [and] be a bridge to bring more people into our council that represent our community.”
Nevertheless, Simula’s election Tuesday makes her the first person of color to hold elected office in Columbia Heights in modern times. A community organizer and political newcomer, she beat City Council Member Nick Novitsky by 10 percentage points, garnering nearly 55% of the votes.
Columbia Heights ranks among Minnesota’s most diverse cities, with 35% of the city’s 20,000 residents identifying as nonwhite. The City Council, which includes the mayor and four members, doesn’t reflect the diverse community, Simula said. But she knew residents were ready for a change when others encouraged her to run.
“I’m a new, fresh face to those people,” she said. “So for me to win by the amount of people I did really shows that the community is looking toward the future, not looking toward how it’s been.”
Simula, who declined to give her age (“I think it puts undue pressure on women to compare them to each other”), started laying the groundwork for politics back when she campaigned for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. At the time, she was a young mother living in Edina and often mistaken as a nanny in the upscale and predominantly white city.
“I’m Mexican and have brown skin, and people just thought and assumed that I was the nanny taking these kids to the pool,” she said.
Simula served as a Girl Scouts troop leader for 13 years and became involved in the community and volunteer work. When she moved to Columbia Heights seven years ago, she became fully engaged in grass-roots organizing by founding the nonprofit HeightsNEXT, a sustainable community movement.
For the past 2 ½ years, she’s worked part time in the city’s Public Works department as head of the compost program, which was recently recognized when the League of Minnesota Cities named Columbia Heights its 2020 Sustainable City. As mayor, Simula plans to step down from that job but continue working as adult enrichment and senior program manager for Columbia Heights Public Schools.
Simula was named the city’s Humanitarian of the Year in 2017. “As soon as that happened, other people kept saying to me, ‘So what’s next? So you’re going to run for office?’ I think it was definitely a catalyst for other people to start seeing that and requesting it of me,” she said.
But first she campaigned in 2018 for Nelle Bing, a young, progressive mom with purple hair who lost her bid for the City Council by 50 votes to Novitsky. Bing’s run proved to Simula that the city was ready to put people on the council with progressive goals and a community-building vision.
Simula also realized a nonprofit like hers doesn’t play a direct role in decisionmaking. That became clear last summer when she helped organize the city’s first Pride Festival and asked Mayor Donna Schmitt for a proclamation recognizing the city’s LGBTQ community. Schmitt said no.
“That really hurt a lot of people and fueled a lot of discontentment with the citizens,” Simula said.
Schmitt, who decided not to seek re-election after serving two terms, said she stands by the decision because a proclamation shouldn’t “support hot political items” and because it was her prerogative to deny it, just as she did with a request for an anti-abortion proclamation.
Schmitt said that while city government has mostly been run by men, more women than ever are now involved. She served on the City Council for six years and on the Planning Commission for nine years before becoming mayor. But she said she wasn’t aware of a person of color serving on the council.
“It’s interesting to see the dynamics changing,” Schmitt said, adding that she hopes to see more young people run for office, a goal Simula shares. She said she wasn’t surprised that Simula won because she has been active in the community and ran a strong campaign.
Plans are being made with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar for a virtual luncheon next week with Schmitt and Simula.
“We want her to be the best mayor she can be, and if I can help that transition I am more than happy to help her,” Schmitt said.