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Power in the minority

As I near the conclusion of my first legislative session as a state representative, I’ve begun reflecting on what it’s like to help lead Minnesota in this particular political moment from a legislative minority.

As a freshman legislator, I came in with a new class of leaders, specifically in the House DFL caucus, that have changed the conversation in Minnesota as we speak our truth to power.

Consider a few telling facts about our caucus: This year we welcomed 10 new DFL legislators. Those changes bring our caucus to almost perfect gender parity: 28 women and 29 men. We also have more people of color and indigenous legislators in our caucus than ever before with three black legislators, four Native American legislators, one Hmong-American legislator and one Latino legislator, bringing that number to nine up from just four last year. And in general, we are also bringing more young legislators to the table with fresh ideas about how to change our government for the better.

From Rep. Rob Ecklund, a rural legislator in Minnesota’s most expansive district, to Rep. Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali-American state legislator, our newest members represent the breadth and depth of life experiences in Minnesota.

And those changes have manifested themselves in how we talk about and vote on the very real issues affecting everyday Minnesotans.

When the Republican budget seemed to go out of its way to underfund public schools serving Native American students, our indigenous legislators rose one by one to call out the disparity and reinforce each other’s points on the floor. When Republicans decided to raise tuition for college students, our young legislators got up to talk about the student debt holding young couples back from buying their first house or starting a family. And when Republicans once again voted to take away a woman’s right to decide when to have a child, the women in our caucus got up to tell their own stories about how anti-choice laws affect low-income women in Minnesota.

Truthfully, the changes toward a more representative body have made a lot of people in the House uncomfortable, even in our own caucus. But maybe that’s a good thing. Minnesota is changing and it’s been refreshing to see our march toward a more reflective democracy influence the legislation we ultimately pass in the state legislature.

Simply put, the new legislators are changing the conversation in St. Paul, even from the minority. And in so doing, we’re also changing the Democratic Party by standing up for our values and finally taking time to listen to the real people we know will be affected by the decisions we make every day.

But we are not alone in this fight. We have a governor that has our backs.

I spend much of my time in St. Paul talking to my colleagues about the good things we’re doing in Duluth. We’re proud of our public schools, we’re proud of our abundant natural resources and we’re proud of our labor tradition that props up our middle class.

But without a Gov. Dayton, we would have seen many of those good things in Duluth taken away. For example, Republicans wanted to strip away Duluth’s ability to have a conversation about earned sick and safe time for workers. They wanted to pass a state version of President Donald Trump’s health care law (complete with lost coverage for those with pre-existing conditions) in Minnesota. And they even wanted to make deep cuts to education and eliminate pre-K statewide.

Thanks to voices like mine being amplified by Gov. Dayton, we’re negotiating to get better results for the people of Minnesota. We get to lead from the minority.

In next year’s elections, we will find ourselves at a crossroads in history that will define who we are as Minnesotans for decades to come. We can allow other people to chip away at what has made Minnesota a beacon of progress and natural beauty in the Midwest. Or we can reject that cynicism, capture the energy of this particular political moment and use it for something good.

Liz Olson

Liz Olson represents District 7B in the Minnesota House. 

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