When State Representative Peggy Flanagan made history as the first Native American woman to speak at the Democratic National Convention, she talked about her young daughter, Siobhan, who dreamed of growing up to be President of the United States. Reading a heartfelt letter signed “Love, Mommy”, Rep. Flanagan promised her little girl, “someday, I’ll vote for you.” Five years later, now Lieutenant Governor Flanagan is the highest-ranking Native American woman elected official in the country and Kamala Harris is the first woman, and first Black and Asian American woman, elected Vice President of the United States. The highest, hardest glass ceilings are cracking and the face of power is changing.
For the latest in our Trailblazers & Changemakers interview series, Women Winning was honored to speak with Lt. Governor Flanagan about leading through unpredictable challenges, anti-choice legislators using the “politics of distraction” to shirk responsibility, what Minnesotans need to know about the 2022 elections and redistricting, and Siobhan’s touching reaction to Vice President Harris’ election.
Women Winning: 2020 was an incredibly trying year and, while many of us hoped that January 1st would turn the page on such a tough chapter, 2021 began with the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the pandemic continues to ravage much of the country. How do you lead through such unprecedented, unpredictable challenges? Do you have any advice for candidates concerned about leading in the face of the unknown?
Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan: 2020 was certainly not the year that we expected. It was very difficult for me, and it was a challenge to navigate while feeling a lot of personal loss. I lost my dad in January, and then lost my brother at the end of March to COVID-19. It was immediately personal, and that’s the lens I had in approaching the pandemic — as someone who lost a sibling. I had empathy, not wanting any other family to experience the loss that my family had experienced.
As an Ojibwe woman, I know that our people have been through pandemics before, we have experienced tremendous challenges and incredible loss, and still come out on the other side. We do that through staying connected and in relationship with one another, trying to figure out the best way to support our families, our communities, our neighborhoods. I remember that’s what helped us make it through.
Frankly, I don’t know if you would sign up to run for office if you knew that you were going to serve through the challenges of 2020. However, that’s what leadership is — meeting the challenges you find in your way and doing the best you can. It’s okay to be vulnerable. I think that, too often, we have expectations that don’t allow elected officials to be full human beings. Yet their humanity is oftentimes what makes people the most authentic, strongest leaders. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge and talk about the pain and emotion of going through these challenges and transitions. If we’re going to build the communities and state that we want to be part of, we have to endure the pain that comes with changing and shifting structures that have been in place for generations.
WW: Our state is facing multiple crises and the legislature has pressing, urgent work to accomplish. Yet just one week into the 2021 legislative session, an anti-choice white male senator introduced a so-called “heartbeat bill” to ban abortions and institute criminal penalties for doctors.
We know that Speaker Hortman will never bring an abortion ban for a vote, and you and Governor Walz will always stand up for reproductive rights. Nonetheless, these anti-choice legislators play political games, using women as pawns, which is on full display not only with these bills, but also with the firing of former Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry, Nancy Leppink. How do you stay focused when anti-choice legislators use such tactics to distract from pressing issues?
Lt. Gov. Flanagan: Nancy Leppink is an intelligent, strategic, strong leader who speaks her mind. As Labor Commissioner, she was speaking up and sticking up for low-wage workers, those on the frontline who put themselves at risk every day during the pandemic. [Members of the Minnesota Senate] didn’t like it — and she was absolutely used as a political pawn.
In this moment, we need to be laser focused on the pandemic and provide relief to the people most impacted — and we know COVID-19 has not impacted individuals and communities equally. That is our most important responsibility. Through the politics of distraction and by using women as political pawns, anti-choice legislators are shirking their true responsibility: protecting the health and safety of Minnesotans.
This is nothing new, and we have to keep naming it and calling it out. It is not okay. Anti-choice legislators would like to talk about anything other than their responsibility to lead during this pandemic. I’ve had it, and I know that women and Minnesotans are ready for GOP senators to take it seriously. I don’t know what more you need to see after you’ve lost a member of your own caucus due to your reckless behavior.
(State senator Jerry Relph died of complications from COVID-19 in December. He and several other Republican state senators tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a post-election party.)
WW: In 2020, we needed to flip two seats for a pro-choice majority in the Minnesota Senate. Two pro-choice women did flip seats, all pro-choice women incumbents held their seats in the Senate, and pro-choice women’s representation also increased in the Minnesota House. However, we still have an anti-choice majority in the Senate and Minnesota remains the only state in the nation with a divided legislature. What impact does that have on your ability to get things done for Minnesotans?
Lt. Gov. Flanagan: This year, we celebrate the 48th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade — that’s longer than I’ve been alive. For many of us, it has always been there. If anything, the past couple of months have shown that democracy isn’t guaranteed. We have to tend to it and care for it — we can’t take it for granted. And we can’t take our rights and our own reproductive healthcare for granted.
What would it look like to have accessible reproductive healthcare for every Minnesotan who needs it? It would mean that we’re unafraid to use the word “abortion”. We would name it and talk about it as the deeply personal decision it is. It would mean understanding that making decisions about your own body impacts economic security. It would mean passing policies like paid family and medical leave because the ability to care for yourself and the ability to care for others go hand in hand. We have to intentionally cultivate new candidates and leaders who can articulate why reproductive healthcare matters.
We need more pro-choice women to join us in this work, and we also need more men to talk about this issue. My hope is that, if we just continue to push and name what this looks like and means, we’ll have additional allies who can step up and step in to talk about this, too. I’m going to keep pushing for that regardless of whether we have a pro-choice majority in the House and Senate.
WW: We have another opportunity to elect strong partners for you and Governor Walz in 2022 when the entire Minnesota legislature will be up for re-election due to redistricting. What do you want folks to know about the redistricting process?
Lt. Gov. Flanagan: The census is one of the most important tools in our toolbox. I’m a self-proclaimed “census nerd”, and I’m proud that Minnesota turned up and turned out in the census. That is what leads us in the process of redistricting. We need to make sure new district maps truly reflect the people of Minnesota, and I am confident that we can get there.
It’s important to understand that, though there won’t be a presidential race or a U.S. Senate race, the entire legislature and all the constitutional offices are up in 2022. It is all about what happens at the state level. Folks need to be engaged now — finding those candidates who they think would make good leaders and supporting them early.
We’re still in that window before 2022 where, if there is a pro-choice woman in your life who you think is ready to lead, you should ask her to run. Let her know that you will be there to support her as she takes that step. We see example after example of pro-choice women candidates who had those conversations: “I believe in you. You can do this. Will you run?” And now we have these exceptional leaders! The face of the Minnesota legislature is changing. We have momentum. We can’t stop now — especially when we find ourselves in a place where we don’t have a pro-choice legislature. 2022 is the year to make it happen. I hope folks are ready, because I’m all in.
WW: We are still celebrating the election of Madam Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first Black and Asian American woman, to hold the second highest office in the land. As the highest-ranking Native American elected official in the country, what does this historic milestone mean to you?
Lt. Gov. Flanagan: When Vice President Harris walked across the stage in that white suit, my daughter turned to me and said, “Mommy, she looks like me.” That is everything.
Representation matters. Who is at the table, whose voices are heard — it matters tremendously. And because Vice President Harris is at the table, we also have the opportunity to bring another voice, that of Congresswoman Deb Haaland who would be the first Native American Secretary of the Interior.
With women in leadership, you get policies like paid family and medical leave. You get elected leaders who care about Black maternal health. You get leaders who understand that childcare is the backbone of the economy. You get leaders who understand that our right to make decisions about our own healthcare and our own bodies should be left to us and our doctors. 2020 was a monumental year, it was amazing, but we have a lot more work in front of us. We have to gear up for the fight and the work ahead.
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