New lawmakers see gains despite grueling session


Reps. Hayden and Champion reflect on their freshman year at the Capitol

MSR had the opportunity recently to speak with Minneapolis’ two African American freshman state representatives — Bobby Joe Champion of district 58B, and Jeff Hayden of district 61B — about their first legislative sessions. While Champion was optimistic about creating legislation during the state’s effort to deal with a $6.4 billion deficit and Hayden was still humbled by having been elected, both say they are proud of their accomplishments despite Governor Pawlenty’s rejection of the proposed budgets.

Representative Champion was most proud of his work on Second Chance legislation, guaranteeing that those convicted of a felony are notified when their civil rights have been restored, including their right to vote. This legislation included specifics on when an employer should be notified that a person applying for a job has a felony record.

Currently, a person is asked to indicate their criminal record on the job application. Though Champion believes an employer has a right to know if they are hiring someone with a criminal record, he said, “If [prospective employees] have to check the box [on the job application], the employer would just throw the application away.”

Asking the question after the application process, Champion said, increases the chances that someone with a criminal record will be successful in reentering society by securing a job.

Champion was also involved in conversations around the green economy. “I wanted to make sure we got training dollars into our community — roughly $2.5 million…not just for weatherization, but for training around the green economy, and another $500,000 for outreach.”

Hayden is most proud of legislation he worked on regarding housing. This legislation allows the City to secure vacant houses, thereby controlling the number of foreclosed or boarded houses being used for illegal activities. It also shrinks the amount of time that passes between foreclosure and the house being put back on the market.

Hayden was also involved in legislation that extended foster care benefits for young adults through the age of 21. “It also helps us because a lot of times those kids end up in the corrections systems, or they end up on public assistance because they don’t have any real guidance after they turn 18.”

Rejected budget harms constituents

Of the proposed budget rejected by Governor Pawlenty, Hayden said, “His first cut was to veto our General Assistance medical care, which pays for medical service provided for people making under $8,000 per year — the sickest of the sick, and typically the poorest of the poor… It doesn’t mean that these folks won’t show up really sick; it just means we won’t pay for it.”

Regarding how this affects African Americans in Minnesota, Hayden said, “Because we have a disproportionate rate of people in poverty, it’s going to hurt us even more.”

Representative Champion agreed: “I don’t think it’s fair, nor do I think it is conscionable to try and balance the budget on the backs of the poor people.”

But both Champion and Hayden understand that it’s not just the poor who are affected. Champion said that although most people assume he only represents North Minneapolis, his district includes the warehouse area and half of downtown.

“If I’m living downtown in a high-priced condo because I can afford it, and I unfortunately go into cardiac arrest, we’re going need an ambulance… But if there are cuts [to first responder services] because the cities don’t have money, that’s how it can impact me,” Champion said.

Minnesota Miracle, a plan put forth almost 30 years ago, helps to equalize finances across the state through local government aid by making sure that each city has what it needs to function safely, including adequate police, public works and street lighting.

“If the cities are unable to provide services, then the cities aren’t as safe as they should be,” Hayden explained.” If the City does still provide those services but it doesn’t have the money, it has to raise your property taxes.”

Hayden says that over the past eight years, the City of Minneapolis has been very successful in keeping its debt low. But rural towns, where raises in property taxes are less likely to offset budget cuts, may face a bigger challenge.

Thoughts on the CBM

In a recent article, the MSR reported information on the Council on Black Minnesotans (CBM) that was objective but critical (see “Rochester Somalis say Council on Black Minnesotans no help,” June 4-10, 2009). We asked our Minneapolis legislators for their thoughts on the CBM.

Champion believes that whenever the goal of a group or organization is to identify, understand and articulate the concerns of a segment of the population, it’s a good thing. He added, “It’s important for those who have the mission to understand that there are going to be some unfriendly mandates — that you are going to have to go over and beyond the call of duty.”

Although Champion believes that the CBM lacks resources, he also said, “I think they still need to step up to the plate and do a little more in order to make sure that they are truly carrying out their mission.”

Hayden served as a non-voting legislative member of the CBM. Although he said that it is a much-needed entity, he also expressed a desire to better understand the terms of their charter.

“There is a question, at least in my mind, as to how much [advocacy] they can do,” Hayden said. “I think that they can be greater advocates, and I am concerned about the structure. But I do think that those things can be worked out through working closely with each other to define our roles.”

Taking advantage of the moment

Both representatives believe that now is a time for their communities to take action.

“Looking forward I think that often what happens is that people of color [and] low-income communities… are often being divided,” Hayden said. “We need to kind of band…together and figure out how to have a good dialogue, and then start to advocate on behalf of the issues that mean the most to us, like education, like affordable housing, like being able to have access to affordable health care, to jobs in the emergence of the green economy.”

Champion noted that the district that he represents is very diverse, yet they still hold common values: “The message is that we’re in it together, and we have to find ways…to sacrifice in order to really move us all forward.

“If we don’t adopt public policy that is consistent with that sort of outcome — [such as thinking] ‘I’ve got to perhaps not take as much of a profit here so someone else can have an opportunity to work’ — that’s what we should be doing for the good of us all, and not just for the good of a few,” Champion said.

“We have to stay informed,” Hayden concluded, “and we have to stay motivated. Now is the time that we have to make that transition — that transformation that the president says he wants us to make.”

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