Marquita Stephens has been active in her Woodbury community for more than 20 years, working with victims of domestic violence and advocating for safe placements for black children up for adoption. A few months ago, in a moment of prayer, she made a promise to herself: if someone called upon her to take her work to the next level, she would.
She didn’t expect that person would be George Floyd, a man she’s never met, seen on a video crying out for his mother while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
“To have him holler for his mother at that point, you know you had to respond,” said Stephens, the mother of two black sons. “If something would happen to them, I’m putting on my shoes and I’m going. That’s what a mom does.”
Days later, Stephens filed to run for a seat in the state Senate, a 162-year-old institution that has yet to elect a black woman. And she wasn’t alone. Three other black women have filed for state Senate seats since Floyd’s death, while a half-dozen others filed to run for offices from the state House to Congress.
They’re scientists, lawyers, business owners, real estate agents and former employees of corporate America who have been organizing in their communities for years. They’re all women, and most are mothers of black children. Only a few had planned to run for office this year before Floyd cried out to his mother and took his last breath. Now they’re on the ballot, saying they’re answering his call.
“There’s never going to be a right time. There’s never going to be a time when all the stars are going to align,” said Zina Fizer, a self-described “mom first,” longtime activist and independent consultant who filed to run for an open state Senate seat in Plymouth. Before Floyd’s killing, she planned to wait until 2022 because of the pandemic. “You have to get in right now, because this is the state of emergency that we’re in. In order for things to change, it has to be while we’re in this perfect storm.”
Some are running against other Democrats in primaries. But they say their reason for running now goes beyond traditional political alliances — they want to be at the table for decisions about police reform and racial disparities.
While the number of people from communities of color serving in the Legislature has grown over the years — to 21 out of 201 members — it’s still not representative of the state as a whole. People of color make up 20% of Minnesota’s population statewide, but only 10% of the Legislature. There are six black and Somali-American legislators currently serving, or 2% of the total Legislature. Statewide, people who identify as black or African-American make up 8% of the population.
In response to Floyd’s killing, Democratic state lawmakers are pushing a wide-ranging overhaul of law enforcement. Some of their ideas have Republican support. But previous efforts over the years have been thwarted by divided government or lack of political will. Organizers say they’ve spent too long working behind the scenes to prop up other candidates who made similar promises, notably after black men like Jamar Clark and Philando Castile were killed at the hands of police.
“You know what? We don’t have time for folks to figure it out anymore,” said Anika Bowie, vice president of the Minneapolis NAACP. “We don’t have time for elected officials, no matter what side of the aisle you are on, to finally treat members of the African-American community and black community with dignity.”
During a rally for Floyd, Bowie got on Facebook Live and put out the call to other black organizers: if you’re thinking about running for office, now is the time. She teamed up on recruitment with Alberder Gillespie, a candidate in the Fourth District in Congress and co-founder of Black Women Rising.
Gillespie started the group after years of working in DFL politics helping train and coach other candidates, many of them white. But when it comes to black women running themselves, she said she’s heard it all: “It’s not our time, we shouldn’t do that, we would love it, but ... ” she said. “There’s not a system that’s supportive of us. The idea that they can represent me, but I can’t represent them.”
When Gillespie called Laverne McCartney Knighton about running for a state Senate seat in St. Paul, her first response was: “Me for Senate, are you crazy?” McCartney Knighton worked for 13 years in philanthropy at Target and now connects black students with college scholarships at the United Negro College Fund. She’d pondered running for local office before, but never imagined she’d run for the Senate.
But after discussing it with family and pondering this moment, she said it made sense. “It’s weighed on me in ways I didn’t even know it would, and I ask myself every day, what are you doing? What are you getting ready to do?” she said.
Husniyah Dent Bradley is a lawyer who works at Mitchell Hamline and ran unsuccessfully for the DFL endorsement in a south Minneapolis House seat. She was weighing whether to run in a primary when her phone started lighting up with messages about Floyd from friends across the country. She ran over to 38th and Chicago, the site where Floyd was killed, and before long she was addressing the crowd. After that, her decision became clear.
“Regardless of if I win, my community needs me and they need voices like mine to lift up their experiences and circumstances,” she said.
Aarica Coleman is running in a district represented by Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the chairman of the chamber’s judiciary committee. He’s become a target of legislative Democrats, who say he blocks everything from gun control to criminal justice reforms. That’s one reason Coleman is running. But as a real estate agent and longtime advocate for affordable housing, she’s also running to tackle the larger ecosystem of disparities for black residents from housing and education to economic opportunity.
“I’ve already been pushing for this and advocating for policy and action that follows it up. There are so many people who have gone unheard and unlistened to,” Coleman said. “What happened to George Floyd put it over the top for me.”