The Minnesota Legislature is comprised of 201 individual members, each charged with representing their districts and bringing the voices of their constituents to the Capitol. When she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2010, Rep. Rena Moran was one of only 7 legislators who identified persons of color — and the only Black woman in the legislature.
Five successful campaigns, scores of committee hearings, hundreds of constituent meetings, and a decade later, Rep. Moran has been a champion for child protection, affordable and accessible healthcare, and equity and justice. She has served in her party’s leadership, founded and co-chaired the legislature’s POCI (People of Color & Indigenous) Caucus, and chaired the influential House Health and Human Services Committee. In 2020, Speaker Melissa Hortman appointed Rep. Moran Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee — the panel that oversees taxes, spending, and bonding and negotiates the state budget — making her one of the most powerful leaders at the Minnesota Capitol.
Today, the number of Black women currently serving in the legislature has increased, but is still countable on one hand. We spoke with Rep. Moran about the changing dynamics in the legislature, her leadership Co-Chairing the Special House Select Committee on Racial Justice and key takeaways from its recent report, how to advance race equity through the budget, and what she describes as her “yes moment” — the moment she decided to run for office.
Women Winning: In addition to your leadership, several powerful Black women leaders have been elected to the Minnesota House in recent years. Having served for a decade, how does it feel to see these leaders joining the legislature? Why is Black women’s representation important in the Minnesota legislature and at all levels of government?
Rep. Rena Moran: Having women present in government, and having their values and worldviews be part of the decision-making process is hugely important. I remember when Rep. Omar and Rep. Maye Quade joined the House — they brought so much knowledge, insight, and energy to that legislative body. [Their presence] was also, for me, a type of support that I had not had before. And today, with Representatives Hassan, Richardson, Agbaje, and Hollins, it is empowering to have other women around you, connecting over our shared experiences and the issues we bring forward.
WW: The current legislature is believed to be the most diverse in state history, yet only about 10% of legislators identify as people of color. That’s well below the population of Minnesotans who are people of color: 21%. Have dynamics changed in the House with a more diverse group of legislators?
Rep. Moran: Today, I believe we have 18 legislators of color in the Minnesota House and 5 in the Minnesota Senate; 23 of 201 legislators. Even so, we have come a long way from when I first came into the legislature ten years ago. And farther still from when Rep. Mary Murphy and Rep. Phyllis Kahn were the only women in the legislature. It used to be a body of white men who were making decisions for all of us through their own lens.
With diverse representation, diverse ideas and diverse leadership follow. We are able to bring our experience, our knowledge, our communities’ voices, to the legislative body in a more genuine, community-centered, engaged way.
WW: Anyone who knows you, knows that you have been laser-focused on eliminating disparities throughout your career. As Chair of the Ways and Means Committee — an incredibly powerful position in which you have broad jurisdiction over state spending — how will you work to close gaps between white Minnesotans and Minnesotans of color? What are your top priorities?
Rep. Moran: My priorities are simple. One is to make sure we end the legislative session on time with a balanced budget. The other is to ensure that our work is done through a race equity lens — that legislators have tools and processes to look at their big omnibus bills and say “I see equitable policies”. When we talk about equity, it is not the icing on the cake — something extra, something additional. It has to be the butter in the cake, embedded in how we do our work. I want to help my colleagues be intentional about doing our work through a race equity lens.
Women Winning: The Special House Select Committee on Racial Justice formed after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police, which you initiated and co-chair with Rep. Ruth Richardson, recently issued a detailed report of its findings and recommendations. What was it like working with Rep. Richardson, what are the biggest takeaways from the report, and where do we go from here?
Rep. Moran: Working with Rep. Richardson was awesome. In the POCI Caucus, we had all talked about it, but she was like, “I’m doing this!”, and crafted the resolution to declare racism a public health crisis. Talking about racism and trying to figure out what it looks like in practice can be very heavy, so co-chairing with Rep. Richardson, having someone I could talk to, really dig deep in the process, was invaluable. Still, being the Co-Chair of the Select Committee on Racial Justice was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Traditionally when we talk about disparities and inequities, we talk in terms of statistics. We can give all the statistics that we want, but at the end of the day, if we don’t have stories to go with the statistics, people make assumptions. For example, assumptions about why Black kids aren’t doing well in school, like it’s because they’ve got a single mom, or they’re from a certain community. What’s missing is that there is a history in America — a history of slavery, of Jim Crow, of redlining — and we are a product of those laws and policies. Historical trauma is real. Adverse childhood experiences are real. Institutional, systemic racism is real. Many don’t understand this history because we don’t fully share it in our school system. When Black History Month comes, we just talk about a few Black people and then move on.
The report demonstrates that systemic, institutional racism has been embedded in laws and policies. Lawmakers of the past made it possible to discriminate legally. In 2021, we as lawmakers have a responsibility and an obligation to understand how injustices happen through laws and policies. Albert Einstein said, “If I had one hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” We have to take these disparities, look at them, dig down and find the root causes. There’s a lot of work to do before we get to any solutions.
With everything that has happened over the past year — from the pandemic, to the death of George Floyd and civic unrest, to the insurrection at our nation’s Capitol — we are in a civil rights moment. With the Select Committee’s report, I hope we’re a little wiser, that we can be more intentional about how we move forward. We’re going to have to sit with some discomfort to ultimately get to a better place. The decisions we make today are not just about today, right? They are about our kids and grandkids.
WW: What strategies do you use in working toward long-term solutions? How do you approach negotiations?
Rep. Moran: When I joined the legislature in 2010, democrats were in the minority in both chambers. People told me, “you’re in the minority, you’re not going to have any of your bills heard, it’s not going to happen.” I took that time to hold one-on-one meetings with both my democratic and republican colleagues because it’s important to me to be able to understand people. If we disagree, I’m curious. I want to better understand what drives people because then I can find common spaces and things to build on. That’s how I go into negotiations. It’s a tool I use if I’m going into a negotiation with the Minnesota Association of Police Chiefs, Minnesota Association of Sheriffs, or Minnesota Association of Police and Peace Officers. A lot of times it’s done through stories. Stories are powerful. No one can negate your story — what happened to you, what happened to your children, or your community.
WW: It can be easy to distance yourself from facts and figures on a page, but when you hear someone’s personal experience firsthand, it brings an issue to life.
Rep. Moran: If we’re sitting in a committee hearing, and someone shares testimony about their experience — child abuse, or opioid addiction, or pain treatment through medical marijuana — that’s so powerful. We’ve passed bills because of those moving stories.
WW: What advice do you have for women, especially Black women, who see themselves reflected in leadership in new ways — from an increasingly more diverse state legislature to the first Black woman Vice President of the United States — and are thinking about running for office?
Rep. Moran: Sometimes, as Black women, we may believe that government is not for us — it’s a bad thing that only impacts our lives in bad ways. There’s a history there. But the reality is that government is made up of people, and we need you — your voice, your insight, your experience, your worldview — to be a part of the decision-making process. For all the young, old, or middle-aged girls and women who are thinking about running, but don’t think they have enough experience or aren’t ready, know that you can do it. Women usually think they need more, another degree or more experience — men never think like that!
I was one of those women. Quite frankly, it took my 16-year-old daughter to say to me, “Mom, you’re out in the community, you’re engaged, you like people, you like to be helpful. You should run!” That was my “yes moment”. I finally thought, “She’s right! She’s so right!”
WW: She was right!
Rep. Moran: I got into my campaign late, there was another person running, and I knew I had an uphill battle. And then what happened? Women Winning endorsed me — and I was like, “I’m legit! I can do this! You know? It’s Women Winning!” Women Winning showed up, you door knocked for me, you helped me tap into other support. That was the moment I really felt like “this is possible, I can do this.”
Step into it. Don’t be afraid. Take a chance. I’ve taken risks my whole life — in running, in joining the legislature, in chairing a committee, in representing my district… now look! Here I am, Chair of the Ways and Means Committee. All we can do is bring what we know and have good conversations that help us learn, grow, and develop. Run! Just Run! Know that it is about making other peoples’ lives better — and as women, we can do it.
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