“It matters that people see themselves reflected in the leaders that represent them,” said state Rep. Peggy Flanagan (DFL-St. Louis Park).
Joining U.S. Rep. Tim Walz’s (DFL-Mankato) bid for governor of Minnesota, Flanagan, an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, will run for lieutenant governor in next year’s gubernatorial election.
Walz and Flanagan’s campaign headquarters are situated in St. Paul right on University Avenue, where swaths of vibrant paint enveloped the walls of room. When we met, Flanagan’s warmth and attentiveness were immediate; she spoke to me in earnest with generous gestures.
“All my epiphanies happen on University Avenue,” Flanagan admitted with a smile. It’s probably not a coincidence that they are organizing near where the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s campaign office sat in 2002 – the very place where Flanagan jumped into her first political campaign.
“Campaigns are a way that we test for power and people can be heard,” Flanagan stated.
Fast forward to October 2017 when Walz announced that Flanagan would run alongside him in the gubernatorial elections. “If elected, I would be the highest ranking Native American woman in a state and federal office,” Flanagan resolutely told me.
Yet, Flanagan is quick to point out that she stands on the long legacy of Native women who have been leaders of Native nations throughout history. As Flanagan noted, “Native women often times at best are invisible, and at worst disposable. For me, I had to [run] because people need to see Native women and hear Native women. They need to value Native women.”
A record of advocacy and action
Flanagan’s two terms in the state House of Representatives have been punctuated with consistent calls to support children, especially children of color, Indigenous children and their families.
Flanagan grew up and is now raising a family in Bronx Park, a neighborhood within St. Louis Park. She represents District 46A which encompasses communities of greater St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Plymouth and Medicine Lake.
“My story is a Minnesotan story. When someone is in trouble or has a need, we step up and we help them,” she said. Flanagan elaborated by illustrating her own beginning. “My mom had a Section 8 housing voucher that allowed us to get an apartment in St. Louis Park. We were on food stamps […] and we used the Child Care Assistance Program. These programs combined with living with a really wonderful, supportive community helped lift my family out of poverty.”
Flanagan brings a history of fighting for equity in education to the governor’s race. As she said in her 2014 TEDx talk, Flanagan and her family are of the Ojibwe Wolf Clan, “The role of the Wolf Clan is to be the protectors of the community, and to ensure we’ve left no one behind.”
After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a focus on psychology and American Indian Studies, Flanagan began working for the Division of Indian work. She ran a program called Parent Plus which sought to bridge the gap between home and school for Native American children and their families. “[That experience] was my first look into how families of color and Native families were treated in Minneapolis.”
In 2005, Flanagan ran for the Minneapolis Public School Board and won. She was the youngest-ever member and the first Native American to serve on the board. During her tenure, she helped establish an agreement between the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors and the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) that works to improve outcomes for Native American students including hiring and training for cultural competency, building partnerships for additional education opportunities and engaging more deeply with the Native community.
During Flanagan’s time on the School Board, the district faced low enrollment, low funding and the shuttering of 20 schools. Minneapolis’ already low high school graduation rates lagged even further, dropping from 46.9 percent in 2007 to 42.3 percent in 2009 district-wide. Even six years after the landmark agreement between MPS and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, by 2011 the graduation rate for Native American students was only at 21.8 percent.
While graduation rates in Minneapolis are still low compared to national averages, the district has now seen increases in the past five years.
For Flanagan’s constituents like Anne Casey, a constituent of Flanagan’s in District 46A and community member of St. Louis Park, the state representative has done exceptional work. Casey shared with me that her first encounter with Flanagan was when she was running for the House in a special election in 2015.
“It was really important to her to represent this community and in particular to represent voices that had not been at the table. As a constituent, this is what I have seen her do,” Casey said. “She does not just say ‘here’s what I’m hearing from the people in my community,’ but works to empower and include people at the table who are in underrepresented groups. She has fought really hard to be inclusive by empowering people of color, Indigenous people, women, children and workers.”
During the 2017 state legislative, session Flanagan organized with other DFL legislators to form the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus. Together, they released a statement and package of bills in response to a variety of issues, including the threats to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) this year. “There is a team of us and we can rely on each other,” Flanagan explained. “We intentionally amplify one another’s voices.”
Currently, there are four women making up the Native caucus including Flanagan (White Earth Ojibwe), Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein (Standing Rock Lakota), Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (Leech Lake Ojibwe) and Rep. Susan Allen (Rosebud Lakota).
Becker-Finn explained the significance of participating in in the legislative process with her peers. “Having these caucuses are helpful because we have similar life experiences and similar things we are concerned about in our communities,” she said.
“Peggy’s from White Earth and I’m from Leech Lake. The histories of our people are very similar.” Becker-Finn added. “I think our histories that our families have struggled with are similar in a lot of ways. It’s [important] knowing that she gets where I am coming from and will always have my back.”
While having long been a champion for indigenous rights and needs, Flanagan also sees protecting immigrants and refugees in the state as a responsibility. “We’re going to have to fight back, be on the front lines and keep people safe. No one benefits when immigrants and refugees feeling as if they have to go into hiding or can’t talk to law enforcement. We need to do everything that we can to make sure people feel safe and protected. We are all residents of Minnesota and we are all community members of Minnesota. Whether or not folks are citizens, we still represent them.”
For the gubernatorial race, Flanagan and Walz stand committed to ensure driver’s licenses are an option for undocumented residents of Minnesota. “I have been very firm in that [driver’s licenses] are something we support,” Flanagan said. “We believe that is one of the first steps in just creating a space that is more welcoming and inclusive.”
“As Native people, we have a unique perspective on immigration […] we didn’t draw the lines that separate us. It is important to me to recognize that and see the full humanity in our community members and know that their success is our success.”
A team built on accountability
Flanagan and Walz met when she was leading a Wellstone Action training soon after she won the school board election in 2005. They have been friends ever since.
“It helps that we’ve known one another for more than a decade,” Walz continued. “You need to have a strong relationship and an ability to give and take with your governing partner for every voice to be heard. This is about governing, not politics.”
That does not mean that the two always agree, but Flanagan seems to think that is healthy. “There are times when I have called Tim on particular issues or for votes that are happening that affect greater Minnesota,” Flanagan explained. “We have come to rely on each other to get a difference in perspective.”
Walz echoed this philosophy, “It’s crucial to have people with different life experiences in positions of power. Peggy and I had different experiences growing up, but we share the same values. And we always approach our work with a sense of joy and optimism.”
That means holding each other as running mates accountable as they transition toward statewide office where they will be representing both urban and rural communities across Minnesota. Flanagan is candid in sharing the points where Walz and her have disagreed. For instance, in 2015 Walz voted to undermine protections and require intensive background checks for Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.
“He received a phone call from me after that vote,” Flanagan states, “I told him I was concerned.” Flanagan went on to claim that since that vote, Walz has actively traveled across the state to have conversations with people. She believes that he has since recognized the harmful impact his decision had on immigrants and refugees across that state.
Another concern for urban communities has been Walz’s lenient stand on gun control and his continued support of Second Amendment rights. Having represented Minnesota’s first congressional district since 2007, he has supported issues like concealed carry and has also voted against the enforcement of stricter gun control measures passed by Washington, D.C. These decisions, among others, have awarded him a strong backing from the National Rifle Association.
Walz has since appeared to pivot his position on guns as evidenced by his kick off to the campaign at the American Indian Center, where he touted his change in perspective and commitment to addressing gun control to the room. Last month, state Rep. Erin Murphy asked Walz to return any campaign contributions accepted from the NRA. Walz has pledged to donate any campaign contributions he received from the NRA.
Flanagan in turn has actively worked to restrict gun violence, co-authoring two bills earlier this year at the state House calling for criminal background checks for firearm transfers, as well as allowing law enforcement and family members to petition a court to prohibit people from possessing firearms if they pose a significant danger.
Despite these differences, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn was not concerned about Flanagan’s ability to lead with her values, and hold her colleagues accountable. She stated, “Peggy, she’s real, and you know a lot of people throw the word progressive down, but I think she really lives it. ‘Progressive’ is the idea of moving us all forward together. At heart, Peggy’s very connected to her community and committed to her constituents.”
A seat at the table
Flanagan remarked that what surprised her most after assuming her seat in the state House was how often legislation was introduced onto the floor without any dialogue or input with the communities most directly impacted by those bills.
“To me,” she said, “that is not what makes for good governance.”
Flanagan considers what it might look like to “co-govern with communities.” For that vision to be realized, she thinks legislators need to create spaces that bring people together and ask, “What is your vision for your own community, and how can we work together to make that happen?’”
Flanagan contended, “People are experts in their own lives and we need to be respectful of those experiences.”
Flanagan carries a record of making this a reality with her work as the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund where she created Voices and Choices for Children, a space by and for people of color to create early childhood policy initiatives for the state capitol.
At the state capitol, Flanagan pointed out, there is an expectation that people need to come to legislators with ideas. “I think that’s not right, people should expect that leaders come to them. And I think we should meet folks where they’re at and where they feel most comfortable,” she said.
“Within the capitol,” Flanagan continued, “it is incredible to me how many people are surprised that Native people even still exist and are around. Decisions are made about Native people without talking directly to the community or the tribes directly impacted by it.”
Walz confirmed this commitment to shift how the process of building solutions begins. “We also want to make sure that we’re out in communities across Minnesota. Most good ideas don’t start at the capitol. We want to meet people where they’re at, figure out what’s happening in their communities that’s working and how we can amplify the work that Minnesotans are already doing.”
Flanagan explained that Walz and her announced their campaign for the gubernatorial election this early in the race intentionally.
“We have a lot of conversations that we need to have with folks across the state. Getting started a little early felt like the right thing to do. Additionally, we need to hear from people. We need to hear what is on people’s hearts and minds so that when we are putting or moving forward and introducing policy issues that those are informed by conversations we have with the community,” she said.
“I hope that people see a place for themselves within the campaign,” she asserted. “And if we earn the ability to represent the folks in Minnesota, that they also see that there is a door that is open to them and space for them at the table.”
This story was created in partnership with The Circle News.