Candidates of color see gains in Minnesota legislative, local races

Black, Hmong and Latino women win seats in Minnesota Legislature

Two women hug and smile
Zaynab Mohamed, the first woman of Somali descent to be elected to the Minnesota Senate, is embraced by Minneapolis Ward 10 City Councilor Aisha Chughtai during the Minnesota DFL election night party at the Intercontinental Saint Paul Riverfront hotel on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 12:10 p.m.

A new generation of young, diverse Minnesota politicians will head to the Capitol next year following Election Day victories Tuesday. Twin Cities voters also elected the state’s first openly transgender person to the Minnesota Legislature, while Hennepin County elected the state’s first Black female sheriff.

Collectively, the results signal some of the biggest shifts Minnesota’s ever seen in an election cycle, with communities of color poised to reshape the state’s political and social landscape.

Here’s a look at some of the historic changes voters backed Tuesday.

Minnesota Senate

Four women of color were newly elected to seats Tuesday night to the 67-member Minnesota Senate, including the first black women ever elected to that body.

Zaynab Mohamed, Clare Oumou Verbeten, Erin Maye Quade and Susan Pha, all DFLers running in Twin Cities area districts, won their elections.

A person with brown curly hair sits on a couch and looks out the window
Clare Oumou Verbeten won her seat in the Minnesota state Senate making her one of the first Black women ever elected to that chamber.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Mohamed, 25, who took the seat of retiring state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, the first Latina elected into the state Senate, will be the first woman of Somali heritage elected to the state Senate.

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“As a young person, of course as a Muslim person and a child of an immigrant, often your parents will question your decisions. Mine never did,” she said following her victory. “They said go ahead and do it, and they let me do it on my own terms and how I wanted to do it. That’s why this campaign was so special, because it was young people doing it, young people being given a shot.”

Pha, the first person of color to serve on the Brooklyn Park City Council, is of Hmong ancestry. She won 64 percent of the vote to represent Senate District 38. Pha replaces Chris Eaton who announced she wouldn’t run for reelection in 2021.

Two other female candidates of color, Marla Helseth and Farhio Khalif, came up short in their state Senate bids Tuesday.

A woman and man embrace, the woman holds a baby
Erin Maye Quade celebrated her DFL primary win with her newborn, Harriet, and her father in August. She was elected Tuesday to the Minnesota state Senate. She will be one of the first Black women to serve in that chamber.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Minnesota House

On St. Paul’s east side, Liz Lee became the first woman ever to represent House District 67A and will become the third Hmong woman to serve in the Minnesota House.

Following her primary win, she described the wave of young, diverse politicians as a “homecoming” for many women of color who’ve returned to help lead the communities that raised them.

Lee said she decided to run the day Minnesota’s Suni Lee won her Olympic gold medal in gymnastics.

A person looks off into the distance
Liz Lee became the first woman ever to represent House District 67A and will become the third Hmong woman to serve in the Minnesota House.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Republican Walter Hudson, an Albertville City Council member, won the House District 30A seat Tuesday.

According to Minnesota Legislative Reference Library records, Hudson will be the first Black Republican man to serve in the House since Ray O'Jean Pleasant left office after the 1980 election. 

Video production company owner Leigh Finke will be Minnesota’s first openly transgender legislator after easily winning her race Tuesday night for District 66A, which includes portions of St. Paul, Roseville, Falcon Heights and Lauderdale.

The seat is reliably DFL and was open following the retirement of DFL Rep. Alice Hausman.

“I’m really excited by the support that our campaign has seen and that a lot of the campaigns around the LGBT candidates across Minnesota have seen. I think it’s really exciting,” Finke told MPR News after Tuesday’s victory.

“There’s been a really broad, supportive base of people who are looking to move forward and to protect trans kids and to protect communities that are vulnerable rather than accept division and hate. And I’ll just always be excited to remind people that Minnesota chooses love over hate.“

A woman poses for a photo at an election night party
Leigh Finke will be Minnesota’s first openly transgender legislator after easily winning her race Tuesday night for District 66A.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Elsewhere in Minnesota, Alicia Kozlowski won their race in Duluth’s House District 8B. On Twitter, they said they would be Minnesota's first nonbinary legislator.

In Northfield, Davin Sokup said his election Tuesday to the Northfield City Council made him the first transgender man elected to office in Greater Minnesota.

Hennepin County sheriff

Hennepin County sheriff candidates Dawanna Witt and Joseph Banks were destined to make history as the county’s first Black sheriff, regardless of who won.

Witt, a major in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, prevailed Tuesday, making her Minnesota’s first Black female sheriff.  

She told MPR News that voters saw her as “authentic, someone who actually has passion in doing this work, someone who can be empathetic and compassionate yet hold people accountable.”

She vowed to be a transparent leader of the department and work to recruit people to law enforcement.

She’ll take over a department still struggling to repair the damage done after a tumultuous term under Sheriff Dave Hutchinson, who chose not to seek reelection after he crashed his county-issued vehicle as he left a law enforcement conference and later pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.

Witt said earlier this year that the public shouldn’t have to choose between law enforcement agencies pursuing criminals and ensuring that police act justly.  

MPR News reporter Feven Gerezgiher contributed to this report.