Last week, Minnesota legislators worked around-the-clock to pass an emergency funding package appropriating $200 million dollars for the state’s COVID-19 response. Given the serious failures of the Trump Administration, state legislatures are playing a critical role in fighting the pandemic. Women Winning and people across Minnesota are grateful for the strong, pro-choice women leading at the Capitol.
One of those leaders, Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, spoke with us about the unique leadership and perspective that pro-choice women bring to critical decision-making, her proudest accomplishments in the Minnesota House and current run for the Minnesota Senate, and the protections for reproductive rights that can advance with a pro-choice majority in the Minnesota Senate.
Women Winning: Thank you for connecting with us during this uncertain time and for your important work at the Capitol to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. Kunesh-Podein: When I look at the response in Minnesota, I’m thankful for our strong healthcare system and the healthcare workers who are on the frontlines of the response. I’m also thankful for the women around me and the leaders across our state who are looking at this crisis with unique perspectives. Women are asking important questions: “How will these circumstances impact domestic violence?” “How can we make sure our food banks are stocked and our communities are well fed?” “How can we support our healthcare workers?” Women are looking to work together, come together, and make the situation better for everybody. There are bumpy spots ahead, but we will persevere and come out strong.
WW: The emergency funding bill is so important and the legislature will, no doubt, continue to work hard to help Minnesotans weather the storm brought on by the novel coronavirus. This is a perfect example of how legislation tangibly impacts our everyday lives. What other legislation are you most proud of during your time in the House?
Rep. Kunesh-Podein: Last year I carried a really important bill to address sexual harassment. A constituent who had been publicly groped came to me because she had no recourse to address the assault. There was a loophole in the law that excluded non-consensual, intentional touching of another person’s clothed buttocks from the definition of criminal sexual conduct — and we were able to close that loophole. Republicans and democrats came together and my bill passed wholeheartedly, with full support. I’m also proud to work on legislation around consent education for our students. Students want to talk about and fully understand what it means to consent, and we’re making sure they have the space and guidance to do that.
I also carried legislation to increase the MFIP (Minnesota Family Investment Program) Family Grant — the cash grant for social assistance that families receive each month. Twenty-five years ago, I was a single mom raising three kids, working, and going to school on the weekends to get my degree. At that time, I received support from MFIP myself. When I came to the legislature, I learned that the amount I received 25 years ago was the same amount people were receiving in 2019. That’s unbelievable. My bill increased the grant by $100 per month — $1,200 per year — which is really significant for families.
I also carried the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and it passed in the House of Representatives for the first time ever. And of course, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force Bill is so significant. It set an important precedent not just in Minnesota, but across the country, and created greater awareness of the historic trauma that our Indian women, girls, boys, and two-spirits have had to live with forever.
Women Winning: Those are incredible accomplishments, but most of them happened during your second term. When you first joined the legislature, Donald Trump had just been elected and anti-choice legislators held majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate. What was it like to be sworn in at that time?
Rep. Kunesh-Podein: Walking into the legislature after Donald Trump was elected was surreal. There was little effort to be collaborative, which felt like a punch in the stomach. The party in the majority controls which bills are heard and will come up for a vote. When I realized that not one of my bills would be heard during the 2017 session, it was devastating. Though I had been elected, I initially felt powerless.
Despite those challenges, I learned that I needed to build relationships and trust across the aisle so that my colleagues could get to know me and learn about my work. I also learned to be selective about which legislation I would champion. Fortunately, there were still important things we could accomplish, like the creation of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force.
WW: You’ve been a member of the Minnesota House under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Hortman, and Senator Susan Kent was recently elected Minority Leader in the Minnesota Senate. What is the significance of having women in these roles and how does it impact legislative outcomes?
Rep. Kunesh-Podein: When I’m not at the legislature, I’m a teacher. I’ve authored legislation to increase the number of teachers of color and indigenous teachers in Minnesota because we know that when kids see someone that looks like them, speaks like them, and has similar life experience, they can relate and learn better. The same is true when it comes to women in the legislature.
When there is a woman in leadership, she has experienced many of the same things that I’ve experienced, whether that’s barriers to being recognized, being objectified, or having our leadership overlooked because of gender. Both Speaker Hortman and Minority Leader Kent have strong leadership qualities that I admire and I look up to them as glass ceiling breakers.
The legislature has been an old boys club and those in leadership have not always been sincerely and intentionally open and inviting to women. It’s important to have women in the places where decisions are being made, across the board, because it allows us to look at things through many different lenses. We have mothers, doctors, environmentalists — an incredible group of experts — who are women in the legislature. They are smart, well-informed, and so tenacious. The talent, knowledge, and experience we’re holding in the House is mind-blowing! That’s the leadership I’d love to see with more women in the Senate.
WW: Today, only 10 of 67 members of the Minnesota Senate are pro-choice women, so it’s no surprise that we see anti-choice, anti-woman legislation moving forward. Last year, the Senate passed a 20-week abortion ban that included criminal penalties for providers. On the other hand, the Minnesota House has a pro-choice majority and women flipped 10 anti-choice seats in 2018! What kind of legislation could we see signed into law if we protect the pro-choice majority in the House and FLIP the Senate?
Rep: Kunesh-Podein: The night we won a pro-choice majority in the Minnesota House in 2018 was unbelievably exciting. So many amazing pro-choice women and allies joined us and we’ve been able to push back against infringements on choice that gain traction in the Senate.
With access to reproductive rights threatened and attacked at the federal level, we must work at the state level to ensure the laws protecting choice can’t be chipped away. That’s why it’s so important we flip the Senate in 2020. We may not always have a pro-choice majority, so we must do everything we can right now to ensure reproductive rights for future generations.
WW: Since 2016, women have been stepping up and leading the resistance to Donald Trump — as marchers, activists, donors, voters, and candidates. What advice do you have for women who are ready to get involved?
Rep. Kunesh-Podein: If you feel even the slightest tug, step up and give it a try! Start like I did at the town or city level. You may look at someone in elected office and think, “Wow, I could never do that. How do they know what to say? How do they know what to do?” There are a few people who just have that natural talent, I’m not going to lie [laughs]… but by and large, we all learn as we go.
If we hold back, if we let our passion simmer in the background, the change that we want to see won’t happen. I’m of Native American descent and in the last several years, we’ve seen so many Native American women getting involved in decision making in their communities. We’ve made historic strides. We’re talking about things that have never been talked about. We’re considering legislation that would not have been considered even five years ago — and we’re getting it passed. In order for change to happen, someone has to be there to make it happen. That’s what has made the difference. Change might not happen overnight, it might not happen in one legislative session, but it will happen if you are there to demand it.
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