In one of the city’s most stunning political stories in recent memory, Patricia Torres Ray last month captured the DFL endorsement in Senate District 62, leapfrogging over City Council Member Scott Benson and six other candidates vying to succeed retiring state Sen. Wes Skoglund. Because she is likely to face little competition from Republican or Green Party candidates in November, Torres Ray, 42, is expected to become the first Latina woman ever to serve in the state senate when she takes office in January. We talked with Torres Ray about her meteoric political ascension, her roots in rural Colombia, and her vision for Minneapolis and her adopted state.
You’ve just come from a meeting at the Midtown YMCA on light rail transit. It seems people are already treating you like a senator.
People are already seeing me as the senator and they want me to engage in this conversation. But I have a campaign to run—I think—before I get involved in these conversations. But this is such a critical legislative session coming up, that we really can’t afford to wait until January to get our act together and figure out what we really need to do in this district. So, on the one hand, I’m being kind of cautious, saying ‘I’m really not a senator yet and shouldn’t be in these conversations.’ But, on the other hand, I think I’m going to miss an opportunity if I don’t initiate these conversations. But it is too fast for me.
And you’re having to use different skills, I imagine, from those you used as a policy analyst in the Department of Human Services. Is it a difficult transition?
I’m not sure the transition is so difficult, but it’s just that I really need to build these relationships to be the candidate for the district. That is something I really want to do, and I think I should do.
In the case of light rail and working with MnDOT, we really should be bringing forward any proposals in September, because that is when all the conversations in the state are taking place. We can’t wait until January. In January, it has to be done.
But the personal part of me feels that I need to take the steps of building relationships as a candidate. So I’m going to have to start doing both: Doing the work and building the relationships, because I can’t afford to separate the two.
Everything has been moving pretty fast. It’s been only since the end of February that you quit your job and began campaigning full time. How has your life changed?
I was beginning to get a little bored at the state. This was something I used to do quite a bit a few years ago—community activism and such—and I really enjoy this.
You were a member of Longfellow Community Council.
Yes. It’s an area I feel good about. I enjoy the opportunity to engage with the community, to hear their concerns and figuring out strategies to resolve these problems. This is really what I like to do. The difficulty with all of this is trying to balance the process. I do believe there is a time and place for everything. For me, this was the time and the place to build those connections with the community, to get to know the community and for them to get to know me. And there seems to be so much work that needs to be done.
Are you finding more time at home with your family or less than you expected?
I have two kids, 12 and 9, so it’s been really a blessing for me not to have the job right now. But, on a personal level, it’s really stressful around the loss of income—it’s a huge thing for us. But, on the other hand, it’s giving me the opportunity to attend all our community meetings, to get to know the people, to visit with them personally, and I really need this.
You’re no stranger to community activism, though. Even growing up in rural Colombia, you began working for social change at an early age.
I was fortunate to have older siblings who were very involved in community work, so that was a great opportunity for me as a young woman to really be involved in a lot of initiatives, funded and initiated by the church. I had an opportunity through the church to do a lot of literacy teaching. I think I was mentored and trained early in my life to do community work and to work with low-income families.
Was it a political family?
Not really. It was mostly community work. Actually, my family is not political at all, but very involved in social work and community work through the church and other associations.
And then, in 1987, you met this guy from the University of Minnesota.
Jack was in anthropology and he went to Bogota to work with small farmers and campesinos and learn about cooperative farming, which was very important in Colombia at the time. And he found out that Bogota was really not the place to work with small farmers.
He met my brother there, and my brother encouraged him to go to the south to meet campesinos and to organize. So Jack came into our house and was introduced to a group of farmers who were working together. So he decided to stay. He lived in my house for a year.
A little bit of culture shock for him?
It was quite challenging, because at the time the situation in Colombia, politically, was getting worse and, also, the lack of support in the country for that kind of academic exchange, he really had to work on his own.
That’s how we got to know each other. I was helping to try to connect Jack with people, so we traveled together and did a lot of work together.
And then you came up here for another form of culture shock.
I think the culture shock mostly involved the perception people from outside of America have about this country. The TV and media portraits of America are just so different: You have this wonderful lifestyle and everyone’s just so beautiful and they have so much money and everything works perfectly. And then you arrive and you realize that this is just a community like any other community.
Of course, there are these incredible things that are not in your country . . . I remember the buses were so clean. The buses in Colombia, you’d find a pig or a chicken, and people are packed in. In Bogota, for instance, if you have to catch a bus during certain hours of the day, you will be lucky if you can get in.
But there are challenges here, too.
Of course. Learning about the community. And in Minnesota there’s the weather. We arrived in November and whooo! It was quite challenging. But I was young and, you know, you take more risks, and I got lost so many times taking the bus.
And the Latino community in the Twin Cities in the late 1980s was certainly not as vibrant as it is today?
Not like today. The community that was actively organized in Minnesota was in St. Paul. And this was a community that was very willing to get involved and mentor people. I met a community of predominately chicana and Puerto Rican women, who were organizing around the placement of children in foster care. And what was wonderful was the opportunity to work with some women who were trying to do something quite different. They were really trying to get the community more organized, teach parents about foster care, and recruit families. So it was building that support within the families at a time when there was an African American and white controversy around placement. So I got the opportunity to participate in a very constructive effort while all this controversy was going on, and I got an opportunity to learn.
Because there were a myriad of other issues attached to the placement question.
Exactly. So, quickly, I got an opportunity to really learn. That’s where I got excited about becoming a guardian ad litem, because there weren’t any in Hennepin County who spoke the language. Through these women, who spoke Spanish, I could learn. I didn’t feel as though I didn’t have the skills to do it. They helped me, they mentored me.
It seems every time in my life I get into these huge challenges. It’s just like right now, running for office. It’s a challenge, obviously. And I think people have these incredible expectations about having this Latina who seems to have the background and the ability to connect with people. Their expectations are way up here. My life in the United States has been like that. When I was a guardian ad litem, having to represent kids in court and not even knowing how to speak myself and having to represent a kid, and they rely totally on you. So I had to devote a lot of hours to being prepared, understanding the system, understanding the court, what’s going on with the families, understanding the social service system.
That, to me, was an incredible school. And it was painful. Many days I would think I shouldn’t be doing it, it was too much of a task for somebody like me. But I did it, and I did it successfully, and as a result of that I was hired to become the State Ombudsperson for Families, which was a great transition for all this volunteer work.
I knew the city, I knew Hennepin County, and then I’m given this task of representing children in 87 counties—including in places where they were really struggling with figuring out how to serve Latino families, dealing with undocumented people. So, again, the challenge for me was huge.
And it came to a point where I really needed to figure out how to make a difference, how to impact the system in a way that would make a difference to a larger number of people.
Rather than making a difference individual by individual, let’s look at a way to change the system?
Exactly. I was given the opportunity to connect through the legislature and figure out a way to lobby for better training for social workers and work through the Department of Human Services to get child care worker training in place, cultural competency training in place.
Each of the steps involves a greater challenge, but there’s some ambition here, as well. Where does that ambition come from?
As you move along, and you see the potential, you want to be ready to tap into that potential. It is so much a part of this American culture. You see these opportunities and you think, ‘I could do more if I prepare myself.’ Clearly, for me, that was there all the time.
This most recent challenge, of course, is now well-documented. Your campaign stunned many political observers. What was the key to your campaign’s success?
Getting out to meet delegates everyday. It was clear to me that people wanted to talk. I was highly criticized by my strategist about the time I spent with families in their homes. Camp Wellstone says, ‘Five minutes, six at the most, then move on.’ But people wanted to have 10 minutes, 20 minutes to talk about critical issues that were affecting them personally. Their kids, their grandkids, their neighbors. So it came to the point where I was learning so much about the community, and people wanted to talk, that I said I’m going to get out everyday and talk. And I think that was very important. I think people wanted to have that connection, a meaningful connection with their candidate.
Since the endorsement, you’ve been something of a political celebrity. How does that feel?
Well, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to use my energy and my background most effectively, because if I try to do everything, I may not be able to accomplish much. I think I have to be honest with myself and with my family and say ‘These are some things I can certainly do. These are some things I can do with others. And these are some things I just won’t be able to do right now.
You’ll have to focus on a few priorities at the legislature: education, which always seems to be a priority at the capitol, as well as immigration issues, health care, and others. How are you going to approach the education issue?
You know, I’m not sure that education is our priority.
I guess it’s not being funded that way, is it?
I think the war is our priority right now. And I do believe there’s a lot of room for improvement there. We need the community to come forward and to really say, ‘Kids are our priority. Health is our priority. And that is that.’ There’s no room for compromises. I’m very tired of our compromising around these issues.
Because you saw this for so many years in your policy work.
Absolutely. I believe Minnesota does not have a good model for bringing parents into this dialogue. It’s not easy. It’s expensive. There are multiple factors that prevent us from getting there. But I think we need to talk about it.
Opponents, of course, will ask how to pay for it.
You make it a priority. I have a theory that when you really invest resources in communities that have the least resources, everybody else gains. I think Minnesota is at a place where you really have to think about targeted investment.
Immigration is another hot-button issue and you’re likely to be asked to play some role in countering the demagoguery of the Republican Party. Are you anxious to play that role?
I think the recent immigration rally sent a very interesting message to people, and the message is that immigrants—and particularly Latino immigrants—have a real connection to the larger community. Latinos are connected to the church, Latinos are connected to business. Immigrants are part of business, immigrants are part of the church, they are our neighbors, they are our students. The only thing the governor is trying to do now is divide us.
The real challenge is between now and November. And my task is to really work with the communities—not just the Latino community, but the unions, churches, schools, everybody who’s out there—and bring them out and say, ‘This is not the message that Minnesota wants to hear.’ This is not us.
You know, the rally was just so moving to me. They asked me to be at the very front, with the unions that were organizing this, but as I was coming toward the front, many people kept coming up to me and saying hello, and all of the sudden the march began and I kept talking to people and was getting behind. And a marshall came up to us and said, ‘You’re supposed to be at the very front; you better run.’
So Jack and I were running and it took us forever to get to the front, and I thought, ‘This is beautiful. I’m just so glad I am in Minnesota.’