Latino Leaders: A new political force in Minnesota


There is a common joke in Minnesota that says that years ago a person was considered ethnically diverse in this state if they were Norwegian instead of Swedish.  Not so long ago, it was rare in Minnesota to see Latinos in positions of political power.  Not too many years ago it was rare to even see a Latino in Minnesota.  But in the past few years we have seen true progress in Latino political power in Minnesota.  Recently, this progress was symbolized in the nomination two weeks ago of State Senator Patricia Torres Ray as the running mate of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful State Senator John Marty. 

John Marty faces a difficult nomination by the Democratic Party in a race in which eight candidates will compete April 23 at the State Democratic Convention, and then a primary in August.

If John Marty were elected Governor, Patricia Torres Ray would become the second-highest ranking politician in Minnesota.  And if for some reason the Governor resigns the position, as happened recently in New York, Patricia Torres Ray, 46, would become the first Latina Governor (and first from a community of color) in Minnesota history.

Patricia also becomes the first person from a minority community in the history of the state of Minnesota to be selected as candidate for Lieutenant Governor.  For Torres Ray, making history is nothing new.  She was the first Latina to serve in the Minnesota Senate.  Patricia represents a district in which Latinos are a minority, in contrast to states such as Texas, California, or New York, or cities like Chicago in which most Latino politicians represent districts in which Latinos are the majority. 

Patricia Torres Ray

Here are some thoughts from the State Senator:

How does it feel to be selected as a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota?

I feel very proud to have been selected as the first Latina candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota.  It is the first time that a candidate for Governor has decided to choose a Latina.  I believe this decision sends a very big message to the community about the weight that the Latino community carries in Minnesota. 

What vision does your campaign with John Marty have for the future of Latinos in Minnesota?

One of the most important issues in the John Marty campaign is to create a health plan that protects all residents of the state of Minnesota, regardless of economic or legal status.  This is one of the most important issues for Latinos in the state of Minnesota, since many Latinos work temporary jobs, or jobs that do not offer health insurance.  John Marty also has a very concrete proposal on how to eliminate poverty.  In his work as Senator he has fought for very strong legislative proposals to help people with limited economic resources and the working class who do not have access to public services such as childcare, public housing, recreation programs for children and other programs that support families. 

What impact do you think your selection will have on the future of Latinos in Minnesota?

I think that this selection will have a very big impact for the future of Latinos.  The message that John Marty is sending to Latinos is that the Latino community carries a lot of weight in these elections and the future of a lot of candidates depends on the participation of communities of color, and in particular the Latino community.  I also think that Latinos can look at this selection as a symbol of hope.  Because it shows us that leaders in our community are leaders who have a political presence and can carry the Latino voice to a higher level. 

This article talks about Carlos Mariani, Rafael Ortega, Javier Morillo, Jim Llamas and Alberto Monserrate.  What do you think about these leaders?

I am very proud to be in this group of leaders, but our opportunities are still greater, and we must feel proud to be in the position that we are in today, leading the political future of Minnesota.

What must be done in order to see more Latinas on this list?

We have to work harder to exalt the Latina leaders that are already working throughout the entire state of Minnesota and are ready to participate in politics.  There are a lot of Latina women working in education, in healthcare, in housing and in social services that are heading up significant changes in all parts of the state.

Other future Latino political leaders in Minnesota?

There are many, we already have numerous Latinas leading in many areas and I think that my role is to make sure that they all have the opportunity to advance and achieve their goals.  If they achieve their goals, my work and the work of the new Governor will be much easier.

For this article, we talked with various Latino political leaders in the state of Minnesota who demonstrate the change we are seeing where more Latinos are entering political positions, fighting for the rights of Latinos and immigrants, while at the same time making decisions that affect hundreds of thousands of people who are not Latino.

Carlos Mariani, 56, has represented St. Paul’s West Side in the State House of Representatives since he was first elected twenty years ago.  Although the West Side of St. Paul has one of the largest Latino populations in Minnesota, the district that Carlos Mariani represents does not have a Latino majority and is one of the most diverse districts in Minnesota.  For the past few years, Mariani has served as the President of the powerful Education Committee in the State House of Representatives.  Mariani has been a leader in the effort to improve the education level of Latino children as well as children of other minority groups in the state.  He has also been a leader in the efforts at the State House of Representative to protect the rights of immigrants.

Rafael Ortega is the Commissioner of Ramsey County’s 5th district which also includes the West Side along with other areas of St. Paul.  Latino residents do not make up a majority in his district, either.  Many people do not understand that being a Ramsey County Commissioner is one of the most power political positions in the state, with a budget of $500 million and more than 4,200 employees.  Ortega was elected in 1994 and has been easily re-elected since then.  He is the first Latino to have been elected as Commissioner in one of the largest counties in the state.  Rafael was also the first member of a minority community to be elected to the Board of Directors of Ramsey County. 

Comments from Commissioner Rafael Ortega.

What do you think of the selection of Patricia Torres Ray as candidate for Lieutenant Governor? 

I think it is marvelous.  I support RT Rybak for Governor, but I appreciate the fact that Senator Marty would choose Senator Patricia Torres.

What impact do you think this selection will have on the future of Latinos in Minnesota?

Senator Torres Ray is a model example of what is possible.  She would be a great Lieutenant Governor.

This article highlights Latino political leaders.  How has the political environment for Latinos changed since you were first elected in the 1990s?  To what do you attribute the fact that Latinos are suddenly taking political power in Minnesota?

Since the mid-90s, the Latino population in Minnesota has doubled.  Every day more young people are completing their education and are participating in their respective communities as volunteers in their churches, being named to commissions, and helping non-profit organizations.  I hope to see a brilliant future for Latino leaders in Minnesota. 

How do you balance representing the interests of Latinos and immigrants with representing the interests of districts where Latinos are the minority?

We Latino elected officials have the duty to educate and persuade our constituents that the interests of Latinos are the same interests as all Americans – that we are an important element in maintaining the American dream for all our citizens and that the state and the nation will be stronger due to our integration into general society.

Jim Llamas, 42, is another pioneer in Minnesota politics.  In 2009, Jim was elected to the Maplewood City Council, after a very controversial election.  Again, he represents a district where Latinos are a minority.  But in Maplewood, Latinos represent only 2% of the population.  During his campaign, Jim was attacked in flyers of his anti-immigrant and homophobic opponents.  Jim sells computer software to school districts and used to be a teacher.  Jim is also a member of the DFL Latino Caucus. 

I have always focused on keeping my message of change and collective collaboration alive.  Maplewood like most typical suburbs is experiencing a period of transition.  Many families of color that are moving to this area consider it their home.  Traditionally these minority groups have been excluded from participation in the community.

The message that I simply wanted to send was my desire to represent those persons who are afraid to be a part of this process of change.  My opponents attacked me for my orientation, but this candidacy was never about what they claimed it was.  It was about a cause greater than all that.  People considered me the favorite candidate among those running and the fact that I am from a different culture and have a different sexual orientation is insignificant to what I truly aspire to achieve.

The biggest challenge is to be able to open the doors so that future generations of Latinos who decide to settle down in Maplewood can consider it their home, a place to start a family, work and own their own business.

There are many sectors where the Latino population is growing in numbers, and my mission is to ensure that they hear the message.  I am an elected public official that they can come to with any concerns they might have.  We have services available where they can get advice or assistance.

The Latino vote plays an important role for politicians today.  A perfect example of this change, the gubernatorial candidates have courted Latinos with the hope of gaining their votes, but they should make sure they can follow through on the promises the community demands. 

We have to have a different kind of candidate for Governor in order to craft a future that puts Latinos in positions of power and influence.  Senator Torres Ray together with John Marty represents a change we all long for.

Alberto Monserrate, 43, is President of LCN Media, the company that publishes this newspaper, and is running for Minneapolis School Board.  If elected, he would be the first Latino in the history of the Minneapolis School District to be elected to this post.  He would become only the second Latino elected to any political office in the city of Minneapolis. 

Monserrate would also represent a district in which Latinos are a minority.  The Minneapolis School District has more than 30,000 students, more than 90 schools, more than 5,000 employees and has an annual budget of more than $650 million. 

Alberto states:  “If elected to the Minneapolis School Board I will be fighting to improve the learning of all the children of Minneapolis.  Of course I will fight for the rights of Latinos and immigrants, but voters elect me to represent all children.”

Alberto says he is extremely proud of Patricia Torres Ray.  She is a pioneer for Latinos, immigrants and women.  “Patricia opens doors that had been impossible to open for 30 years.”  Alberto says that he sees a great future for Latinos in Minnesota politics.  Alberto thinks that once there are more Latinos in positions of political power, it will be easier to improve schools for Latinos, make life easier for immigrants, and improve our economic situation.

Monserrate states “My vision is that one day no one will think about a political candidate as being Latino or a woman.  They will only look at the qualifications that each one has.”  Alberto says Barack Obama opened the door for us.  “Some day, Minnesota will elect a Latina Governor or Senator.  Minnesota has a number of Latino politicians who represent districts that do not have a Latino majority.  If Maplewood was able to elect a Latino, Minnesota can elect a Latino Governor.”

Javier Morillo, 40, is president of SEIU Local 26 which represents janitors, security officers and window cleaners in Minneapolis.  SEIU is also one of the most powerful unions in the US and in the state.  Javier is also one of the most powerful Latino leaders in Minnesota politics and the DFL.  Morillo is a political commentator for various Minnesota television programs, representing the Democratic point of view.  Javier is also a key figure at SEIU lobbying for immigration reform in Washington, DC and has been a frequent guest on our sister radio station La Invasora 1400 and 1470 am.

Javier was one of the key people who helped Patricia Torres Ray win her first Democratic Convention endorsement.  Patricia had very strong competition at her first convention in 2006 from various opponents who were well known politicians.  Javier helped to gain the backing she needed at the convention which later assured her election to the Senate. 

Latinos are becoming an increasingly more powerful and mature political force.  In 2006 we saw more than 40,000 people, the vast majority of them Latinos, marching in St. Paul in support of immigration reform.  In 2008 Latinos voted in record numbers and Latino voters probably made the difference in the election of US Senator Al Franken.  Now we see more and more Latinos in positions of political power.  In 2010 Latinos will probably decide the election of the next Governor.

As you see from the previous list of Latino leaders, even though the highest ranking Latino political leader in Minnesota is a woman, we need more Latinas in political positions.  But the political future is very promising for Latino men and women in Minnesota.