A group of Minnesota legislators was ready to call it quits after a long, contentious day of negotiations over police accountability last summer when Rep. Rena Moran decided to try one more thing: a personal story.

Her son wanted to be a police officer when he was young, she told her Republican and Democratic colleagues, and every week she brought him to St. Paul's youth police program in St. Paul.

But as her Black boy became a teenager, he cast aside that dream. Moran told legislators she envies those who trust their local officers, who talk about going to school with them or seeing them at church.

Her personal tale helped open the door to a deal on the police reform package earlier this year, Moran and others in the room recalled. It's a skill set that will be called on again when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 5 for another round of divided government — and Moran steps into one of the State Capitol's most powerful jobs.

"We all have our data and facts that we can pull out and hit people with," said Moran, soon to take over as chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which sets state spending priorities. "But it is those stories that are powerful."

When the legislative session starts, Moran will be at the center of setting Minnesota's budget for 2022 and 2023, hoping to tackle racial disparities head-on even in the face of a predicted $1.3 billion budget shortfall. She plans to come armed with stories.

"It is trying to remove what divides us and working on what brings us together around common concerns or issues or values," Moran said.

She will be advocating for more money for equity efforts and trying to find common ground with Senate Republicans who aim to reduce government spending.

"Senate Republicans are very interested in living within our means," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, who as Finance Committee chairwoman will be Moran's counterpart in the Senate.

Moran, 60, represents portions of St. Paul's Summit-University, Thomas-Dale and North End neighborhoods. Her policy work has drawn on far different life experiences than many of her colleagues'.

Disconnected issues

Growing up in a tight-knit community on Chicago's South Side, Moran saw people organizing around local issues. Her father was shot and killed when she was a child. Her mother died of cancer while she was getting her early-childhood education degree at Southern Illinois University. In 2000, after hearing Minnesota had a good education system and was family-friendly, she gave away most of her belongings and moved here with six kids in tow.

They spent a few months in the Sharing and Caring Hands homeless shelter. It was almost impossible to find affordable housing for her family, Moran said. "It was a crisis then and it is more of a crisis now," she said.

A "vicious cycle" ensued, Moran said: She needed a job, but to get a job she needed child care, and to get child care she needed money. She recalled walking to a state office to apply for financial assistance and wondering why they did not have resources in the same place to help find a job, child care and housing.

"I'm like, 'This is not OK. This is not a system that is doable for families,' " Moran said.

Jump ahead a decade, and Moran had become involved in the Summit-University neighborhood, left an administrative assistant job to become an organizer, and then ran successfully for the Legislature. She saw a similar disconnect in how lawmakers treat issues and plans to urge other committee chairs to use broader strategies to address systemic problems.

Diplomatic skill

Moran is among a small group of lawmakers, roughly 10% of the 201-person Legislature, who are people of color. Following the death of George Floyd, she led a special House Select Committee on Racial Justice. Last week the group recommended a long list of changes, from creating a $1 billion fund for Black, Indigenous and people of color's economic development projects to expanding programs for pregnant women and children under age 3 in communities with education disparities.

But tax increases won't be on the table as far as the GOP is concerned, said Rosen, who considers state spending growth to be "unsustainable."

Moran and Rosen previously worked together on a child-protection task force. Rosen said she is "very willing" to work on eliminating racial disparities. But, she said: "We want to study the issue and make sure we get it right, because we can't keep throwing money at an issue and it's not working."

Still, Moran said she believes investing to reduce disparities could end up saving millions. She wants to "reimagine" state systems and hopes ideas like community schools, where broader services are located in school buildings, would also resonate with GOP lawmakers in rural areas that are struggling.

"What I am hearing these rural legislators saying is exactly what communities of color are saying: 'What you are doing for us is not working,' " Moran said.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she picked Moran for the Ways and Means post because Moran is able to stand in for Hortman in any situation, "really truly listens" and can get things done with legislators who have different beliefs.

Hortman was sitting between Moran and Republican Sen. Warren Limmer, the key GOP legislator in police accountability negotiations earlier this year, when Moran told the story about her son.

"For a few magical moments there in the Governor's Cabinet Room he really heard her," Hortman recalled. "That was sort of the beginning of the end of solving the puzzle, and that diplomatic skill is important."

Limmer, of Maple Grove, said Moran ensures people like him with different backgrounds understand her constituents' experience.

"I'm looking forward to working with her again and to try and keep that dialogue that helps us write good law," Limmer said.

Wary of tax increases

Spending to address racial equity gaps will be a central budget priority for House Democrats next year, Hortman said. She deployed a baking analogy: "It's not the frosting on top of the cupcake. It's the butter in the batter."

Gov. Tim Walz will put out his spending plan in January. House Democrats and Senate Republicans will follow later in the session. Walz said he wants all options on the table to close the projected budget gap: tax increases, spending shifts, cuts to state programs and using reserve dollars.

Moran echoed that but noted she has previously been cautious about tax increases. In St. Paul, she said, tax levy increases have hit families who don't seem to see the benefits of the ensuing spending.

"You can only do that so much on people who are struggling," she said.

Moran has seen neighbors worry about taxes and heard their distrust in police. She has struggled to find affordable housing and taken in a homeless young man with mental illness. She lost her father and has a daughter hurt by gun violence.

"Usually the things that I care about, and that I fight for and think about, I do it because in some type of way I have these lived experiences," Moran said. "Those who have been impacted by systems can also be the experts about how we can improve those systems."

Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044