In the shadows of former state representatives Richard Jefferson, the Rev. Randolph Staten, Gregory Gray, Keith Ellison, and current Rep. Augustine Dominguez, Minnesota House District 58B has a legacy of strong leaders of color. Following the district convention in March, two DFL candidates and one Republican remain in the race to represent one of the most diverse districts in the state.
Regardless of the winner, the area, which is 50 percent Black and over 75 percent persons of color, will once again send leadership of color to the state capitol.
At this stage of the contest, DFL-endorsed candidate Bobby Joe Champion and Republican Party candidate Yoman Brunson are challenging incumbent Augustine “Willie” Dominguez, who is completing his first term in the district. Last week, part one of this story profiled Yoman Brunson; this week the story concludes with challenger Champion and incumbent Dominguez.
Bobby Joe Champion
Attorney Bobby Joe Champion is a North Minneapolis native who credits community organizations such as the Leo Johnson Drum Corps, The Way, Hospitality House and Phyllis Wheatley Community Center for his successful growth and development.
He is a graduate of North High School, Macalester College, and the William Mitchell College of Law. With experience in law on the state and federal levels, Champion served as assistant attorney general under Skip Humphrey and Mike Hatch and also worked for the Legal Rights Center.
Champion says he’s setting an agenda using the analogy of a person hosting a dinner. “You don’t expect certain people to just show up to eat,” he said, “but you include the entire district. So you have to consider the dietary needs of everyone at the table as well as the benefits of the meal.”
Perhaps the most immediate problem facing North Minneapolis for Champion is the foreclosure crisis. “There is no funding stream for intervention and no resources for prevention. We need to find ways to get people refinanced, galvanize key stakeholders around these issues, and make sure a true agenda is at the table,” he said.
He believes the foreclosed properties can be converted into affordable property and there should be less money for City-funded activities because [widespread foreclosures] “becomes a problem for us all.”
Speaking of a true agenda, Northsiders have also expressed some concerns over gentrification. There have been many different names over the years for this process that has historically occurred in urban, low-income neighborhoods populated with mostly communities of color, including “urban renewal” and even “Negro removal.” Champion defines it as a way to “uproot those who are poor and push them out to suburban areas or economically harsh places.”
He feels that one way to fight this process is to turn foreclosed property into affordable homes for others. “I will make sure that people in North Minneapolis have priority when those opportunities come forth,” he said.
For some Northsiders, access to housing is not the only sign of a gentrifying area. In the 2006–2007 school year, North Minneapolis witnessed five of its schools close down due to decreased enrollment. There is speculation that North High School — with a current enrollment of 400 and the capacity for 1,200 — may be next on the list.
Champion believes much of the “student flight” has to do with an unsatisfactory stigma on Northside schools. “I plan to work with the school board to regain confidence in schools. It’s a question of trust, and we need to find ways to make sure that trust is invigorated and identify where we’ve fallen short,” he said.
There is also a fiscal problem. The challenge to the education system, which is short some $18 million according to Champion, is about collaboration. “We don’t have the resources to handle the well-documented achievement gap. So why don’t we make businesses accountable to invest as well?”
“We need consistent, predictable, and sustainable revenue streams to fully fund education, instead of accepting business as usual,” said Champion. This includes investment in strong pre-kindergarten programs like Headstart as well as making college affordable for poor kids.
“I’m an example of that…of a poor kid being afforded the opportunity to go to [college]. The value [of education] is that important, and I’m up to the challenge,” he said.
On the issue of public safety, Champion says residents of the community should be safe and feel safe, but “we can’t arrest the problem away. We need to hold the police accountable for policing our community. Their job is to serve and protect, not to rule and govern.”
He says public safety dollars should go into intervention and prevention programs as well. “We can’t have kids not having things to do. I had options,” he says as he recalls the community centers that were available to him as a youth.
“Unfortunately, the philanthropic community in the late ’70s and early ’80s decided recreation and development are no longer important,” he added. Champion would like to restore some of the funding sources for youth development initiatives that have been challenged in the past 30 years. He says these are the programs that can “change minds and allow youth to see themselves outside of their circumstances.”
Champion also believes that public safety is a matter of community stabilization and self-sufficiency. “We need to re-energize and re-value our community jewels, and the community should make the case to government and the philanthropic community,” he said.
He looks forward to partnering with his constituents to identify and address those challenges, then working together on viable solutions. “That’s different from outsiders telling us what’s wrong. We can do a better job of marketing our own assets. That way, we’ll continue to get partners to see the value in our district because we’re promoting it,” he said.
As the executive director of the National Association of Minority Contractors, Midwest Chapter, Champion is concerned that the highest expense for any small business is health care. “Small businesses are the backbone of the economy. In order for businesses to grow, they need contracts and opportunities. It’s important to diversify [funding streams] to provide livable wages, or else people are threatened to become the working poor,” he said.
Champion says one can have the greatest impact by making oneself available. “You have to chart out your desired outcome, then move backward.” Through his own upbringing in the church and as co-founder and director of the Grammy-nominated Excelsior Choir, Champion knows that a major gathering place for African Americans is the church. “You have to find those places and spaces where the people are.”
Contrasting his leadership style with Dominguez’s, Champion says he’s running because “there are critical issues not being responded to or articulated, and there have to be more aggressive strategies in place. A laid-back style won’t work in our community. It requires real-time action. Don’t wait for them to call you.”
Rep. Dominguez declined to respond to the MSR’s interview requests for this story, so the following information is taken from an interview conducted before the DFL primary election.
Willie Dominguez comes from humble, traditionally Catholic beginnings on the North Side as the 18th of 19 children. He prides himself on staying in the community, remaining involved in organizations and programs that serve marginalized communities, and conducting office in an inclusive manner.
“Residents are thankful,” he said when describing his visits to senior highrise apartments and neighborhood institutions for town hall meetings. “They tell us,
‘We’ve never been included,’” he said
In Dominguez’s first term, he has managed to sit on six committees including commerce and labor; K-12 finance division; local government and metropolitan affairs; public safety finance division; the veterans’ affairs division; and he chairs the disparities in student support and services subcommittee.
Dominguez believes “seniors and children need to be safe.” He secured a $500,000 grant for the Northside Reentry Project, which helps ex-offenders find employment and housing.
Under his leadership, the Afterschool Enrichment program was reinstated, where funds are appropriated to improve academic achievement, reduce crime, improve community involvement, and increase character development. “We have to work together to have kids excel in school,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez says he will continue to seek integration funding and to support the costs of clinics and people who are struggling to pay for health care. He also plans to continue reviewing contractual obligations for veterans’ health care.
Economic development and transportation options are also very important to Dominguez. “I believe that light rail should be going through North Minneapolis,” he said. Dominguez says folks need methods of getting to work, but “we have to have infrastructure first.”
The work, he says, is to make the district marketable. “Folks are building all around us, and the business will go there, too.”
Perhaps the highlight of Dominguez’s first term was his ability to rally more than 40 legislators to the Minneapolis Urban League for a public hearing and policy discussion. This experience was reportedly an eye-opening one, especially for the legislators who were visiting the district for the first time.
“We are being paid attention to,” said Dominguez. “But we need to work on visibility of what we have done.”
When asked why he originally ran in 58B, Dominguez said, “I ran because district 58B was lacking opportunity for children, adults and seniors. I saw that we’re not getting to where we wanted to be,” he said.
Moving forward, Dominguez says he has developed focus and strong leadership skills for the betterment of the community. “I can work hard for my district.
I’m a servant trying to move District 58B as I was elected to do… I will never stray from bringing our voice to the capital.”
Lauretta Dawolo Towns welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.