Mere visibility or political power? Native women vie for lieutenant governor


This piece is part of Twin Cities Daily Planet’s series covering the 2018 elections season. Every year we’re moving towards a possibility of a more diverse legislature. And with it, we hope comes increased opportunities for communities historically shut out of political processes and power to imagine and enact policies to create a Minnesota that benefits all its constituents.

In this year’s Nov. 6 general election, no matter which party prevails, our lieutenant governor will be a woman. That’s nothing new to Minnesota: since 1983, all of the last eight have been women. What is new is that whether it is Republican Donna Bergstrom or DFLer Peggy Flanagan, the leading contenders in the race, we will have the first Native American woman lieutenant governor in Minnesota history.

On the surface, these choices may resemble tokenism, facile gestures on the part of the white male candidates, Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz, to attempt to curry favor with women, Native voters and voters of color. But just scratch that surface and one will find that both of these women have formidable histories as leaders in their own right.

They could well hold their own as governor in the future. First, though, they must navigate the second rung of state government and grasp how their predecessors did or didn’t bring forth power from a historically powerless position.

Being the understudy

Serving as second in command to an elected executive can seem like a thankless job in the political realm – attending ceremonies and often being kept out of the loop on important decisions, despite needing to be ready to step in should the seat become vacant. The Minnesota lieutenant governor position has usually fallen along those lines.

Starting with statehood in 1858, the lieutenant governor served as the president of the senate and held some sway. But in 1972, Minnesota’s constitution was amended and the president of the senate is now elected by its members. Now, the only constitutional responsibility for the lieutenant governor is to fill in when there is a vacancy in the office of the governor.

State Senator Sandra Pappas’ district covers a large swath of St. Paul. She’s seen lieutenant governors come and go since taking office in 1991 and explained, “Some governors have given the lieutenant governor a portfolio of some kind, whether its senior issues or small business or to be the liaison to the legislature.”

Minnesota statutes, which must not violate the state or federal constitutions or federal law, do require the lieutenant governor to fulfill certain duties like sitting on the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board and chairing the advisory committee on Capitol Area Security, among others. As far as any further power, that is up to what additional duties the governor accedes to the second-in-command. And if the governor accedes none, that could leave the lieutenant governor flapping in the wind.

Women lieutenant governors since 1983 and how they have served us

Marlene Johnson, the first woman lieutenant governor, served with the DFL’s Rudy Perpich from 1983 to 1991. In a 2015 interview for the University of Minnesota’s University Digital Conservancy, Johnson recalled, “[Perpich] told me at the beginning that I was welcome at any meeting in his office. If I looked at the calendar, and there was a meeting I thought I would like to be at, I was welcome to walk in.”

Johnson focused her time on trade, tourism, education, the arts and international education exchange and Perpich had an open door policy for Johnson. But that was not the case for some of her future peers. “It certainly didn’t happen between Dayton and Yvonne Prettner [Solon],” she said, referring to present governor Mark Dayton’s first lieutenant governor. “I mean, she wasn’t allowed in any meetings, really.”

“And I don’t think it happened with any of my successors,” she continued. “And the reason it happened with me … was because of Perpich’s experience as lieutenant governor with [Wendell] Anderson. He and Wendy didn’t have one private conversation in the six years they worked together.”

Mae Schunk from the Reform Party was a teacher for almost four decades before serving with Jesse Ventura from 1999 to 2003. Unlike Johnson, she had some friction with her boss. For example, endorsing Al Gore for president in 2000 while Ventura endorsed Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin.

Operating mainly as Ventura’s education ambassador, Schunk received criticism from other educators for not doing enough in that role, which seemed to diminish even more over time.

Republican Carol Molnau, a farmer and former state representative, was Tim Pawlenty’s second-in-command from 2003 to 2011. From the start, Pawlenty gave her a major lead role, appointing her commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

However, she eventually ran afoul of both Pawlenty and DFLers in the state senate over funding for commuter rail and transportation infrastructure. In 2008, she was ousted from the department by the state senate following the tragic I-35 bridge collapse in 2007, held responsible for what DFLers said was insufficient funding for transportation projects, like the failed bridge.

Senator Pappas said former State Senator Yvonne Prettner Solon, who served as lieutenant governor with Dayton from 2011 to 2015, had a “strong understanding” of what her role was to be. “She was going to be focused on senior issues.” But for whatever reason, Pappas continued, “they just didn’t click and [Dayton] really cut her out.” Prettner Solon declined to run again with Dayton in 2014. “I don’t know … why [Dayton] and Yvonne Prettner Solon didn’t get along.” Pappas continued, “but I know she was very unhappy.“

Tina Smith, the previous lieutenant governor and present U.S. senator, seems to have followed in Johnson’s footsteps but has made bigger footprints. Before she even accepted the role of   Dayton’s running mate in 2014, she sought counsel from Walter Mondale, formerly both U.S. Vice President under Jimmy Carter and U.S. Senator for Minnesota. Mondale has been credited for negotiating a “Veep” relationship with more access to the president and more important responsibilities, the epitome of which is the Obama-Biden “bromance.”

“I think [Smith] changed the way that office is seen and the way, frankly, that it functions,” State Representative Peggy Flanagan told the Daily Planet. “It was really clear,” the current DFL lieutenant governor candidate continued, “if Lieutenant Governor Smith was in the room and Governor Dayton was not, it was still as if Governor Dayton was in the room.”

Senator Pappas concurred, telling us that, in the last year, Smith represented Dayton around the state due to his health issues. She also recalled Smith representing Dayton during negotiations with the state legislature and with other gubernatorial advice or lobbying. “The other lieutenant governors didn’t really serve that role,” she said.

The odd couple

The current lieutenant governor, Republican Michelle Fischbach, never expected the job, much less to join a DFL administration but the law is the law. The state constitution says that ‘[t]he last elected presiding officer of the senate shall become lieutenant governor in case a vacancy occurs in that office.” And since Fischbach was the elected president of the senate it was her turn when Dayton chose Smith in 2018 to take over Al Franken’s U.S. Senate after he resigned. Smith is running in a special election on Nov. 6 to complete the rest of Franken’s term.

This has created an unconventional executive branch, with a governor from one party and a lieutenant governor from the opposing party.

One possible point of contention was that Fischbach also tried to hold on to both her senate seat and her new post – and ensure the Republicans held onto their one-seat senate majority. She even went so far as to refuse taking her oath of office. Fischbach eventually resigned from the senate, leaving the body with a 33-33 tie, but not before getting sued by a constituent who was contesting her dual roles.

Fischbach later became the running mate in Pawlenty’s unsuccessful bid for a third term as governor in the 2018 primary.  Our request to interview Fischbach was declined.

Bergstrom and Flanagan differ on policy and plans for governing

Donna Bergstrom, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is a Red Lake Nation member and stated after the primary election that she is “really appreciative of being on the top of the ticket, knowing that I’m making … history … I’m proud of my heritage.”

Her mother grew up on the Red Lake reservation and Bergstrom was raised in Carlton and currently lives in Duluth. She holds a master of jurisprudence from Loyola University-Chicago School of Law and is studying for a Minnesota teaching license.

“She will be the most active and impressive lieutenant governor we’ve ever had,” said Jeff Johnson in a Republican Roundtable MN video and that she “has a much more impressive background” than him and that’s why he picked her. But the Daily Planet has been unable to discern on what issues or projects in which Bergstrom will be active if she and Johnson are elected.

Johnson has said Bergstrom has no government experience and that’s a strength. His reasoning was that she “is not part of the broken system that is failing Minnesota.” However, she ran as Republican for state senate two years in district 7 and lost to DFLer Rep. Erik Simonson.

She served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corp Reserve, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and serving mostly as a signals intelligence officer before retiring. Bergstrom also graduated from the Marines Basic School, Amphibious School, Cryptologic Division Officer Course, Joint Military Intelligence College and Information Warfare. Bergstrom has also been a guardian ad litem in Minnesota’s sixth judicial district.

As to her reason for joining the ticket? “Jeff is really a person of principal and character,” Bergstrom said in Lakeland PBS interview in August. “And that was one of the reasons that I said yes when he asked me to run is because those are two rare qualities in politics today.” She continued that Johnson, “is the true conservative,” and has “this laser focused vision of bringing to Minnesota change …  just overthrowing the status quo.”

Bergstrom and Flanagan differ on a number of points. Flanagan has called out Bergstrom to respond to President Trump’s treatment of Native peoples, saying, “I think there is a very clear contrast in how we view that kind of leadership.” Considering the president has endorsed the Johnson campaign, Bergstrom, though she is retired, adheres to the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s prohibition of disparaging the president. She cited Trump’s signing of federal legislation recognizing several Virginia Indian tribes and felt she cannot judge the president’s comments unless she’s been able to “walk in his shoes or moccasins.”

Peggy Flanagan is a member of the White Earth Nation, of the Ojibwe Wolf Clan. “The role of the Wolf Clan,” she explained in a 2014 TEDx talk, “is to be the protectors of the community, and to ensure we’ve left no one behind.” She is currently a Minnesota House of Representatives member from St. Louis Park.

Tim Walz often acknowledges Flanagan on the campaign trail, in debates and in interviews. As a former Wellstone Action staffer, Flanagan was one of Walz’s trainers when he attended Camp Wellstone, a Wellstone Action offshoot, that educates candidates on the nuts and bolts of election campaigns.

Also, Flanagan’s chops as a progressive – she was executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota and was the first Native American elected to the Minneapolis School Board – makes choosing her as a running mate a no-brainer for Walz, who ran as a moderate in the primary. This could curry favor with Minnesota’s more progressive factions.

“Tim and I have been running together as a ticket for a year,” Flanagan told the Daily Planet. “It was literally a year, as of Indigenous Peoples Day essentially. And so we were very intentional in launching our campaign at the Minneapolis American Indian Center and we’re conscious the time of when we were making our announcement.”

“Tina Smith and Gov. Dayton were really intentional,” Flanagan continued, “about their partnership and they built a really solid foundation that Tim and I want to build upon.” Flanagan said she and Walz run their campaign the same way and feels that the way they campaign together is a good indication of how they will govern together should they be elected.

“We will be making decisions in consultation with one another,” she said. And while Flanagan acknowledged the responsibilities of lieutenant governor are vague, if elected she said one of her roles will be “to make sure that everyone who is affected by a policy decision has a seat at the table and that’s really what I’m committed to doing. This includes indigenous folks, people of color, other marginalized communities.”

A historic election

The fact that Minnesota will soon have its first Native woman as lieutenant governor is not lost on some in the Native community. Robert Lilligren was the first Native American elected to the Minneapolis city council member and served for 12 years. “It’s huge,” he said. He feels that the election should have similar parallels to his own tenure. “The fact that there was a tribal citizen sitting on the city council that could not just understand [the] nuances of Native issues but create access for the Native community changed things.”

Now CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute in Minneapolis, Lilligren recalled that during his time on the council, the city passed resolutions “that acknowledged this was stolen Native land,” and called for reconciliation and truth on the 1862 U.S.-Dakota war, among others.

But just as important, “was when I’d go into the community and people would see that a tribal citizen was in this elected position … it allowed other people to see themselves in that office.” He continued, “I was the first tribal citizen elected to any office in the city of Minneapolis, so if you don’t have the first one you can’t have the second. And now there’s been five.”

Flanagan said she has a 5-year-old daughter, Siobhan, and wants “her to live in a community and live in a state where she is seen, heard and valued … to see Native women as leaders in their communities.” She continued, “I think it’s important that our government reflects the community that it seeks to represent. And this is one of those important steps, I think, in making our government more reflective of the people that it serves.”

“A large factor in my consideration last year was the death of Savanna Greywind,” Flanagan acknowledged. “She was a young Native woman in North Dakota who was murdered and tragically just had her baby stolen, ripped from her womb and she was left in a river. And when I think about how little news coverage that got,” she said, “it was just one of those moments where I think we need to do everything we can to increase the visibility of our people and of our communities.”

With at least 54 Native women running for state offices around the country, plus others in national races, Flanagan feels this is the result of “groundwork that’s been laid over the last couple of decades of Native people registering to vote and turning out to vote.” That electorate has been making a difference, she said, often swinging elections. “Now it’s time for us to step up and be these actual leaders who are running for office,’ she continued. “So I think it’s just a really exciting time and I am grateful to be on the ballot and know that so many of my sisters from Indian country are running at the same time.”

“I’m certainly very proud of my Red Lake heritage, and of what my mom and her community went through to be able to still be able to be here and survive,” Bergstrom said at the State Fair.

When Bergstrom remembers back to when she learned that Flanagan was picked for the DFL ticket and then she, Bergstrom, was asked to run as well, she said that she was “honored to represent our Native values too.”

Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers made a statement demonstrating her enthusiasm, pride and optimism, “I would like to comment by just saying how I am extremely proud and excited to not only see our two Lt. Governor candidates who have ties to the Native American community but to all candidates in all areas of government, local, state and national who have taken the path to become leaders. We all can work and lead side by side and accomplish great things together. We have made great strides to get where we are today.”