Peggy Flanagan, running unopposed, won a House seat in a special election in District 46A Tuesday with 96 percent of the vote. She will complete the term of Ryan Winkler, whose resignation, announced in May, took effect July 1.
Winkler left the legislature in his fifth term to move to Belgium when his wife took a job there, but he has joined Flanagan on the campaign trail on return trips to Minnesota. In her campaign, Flanagan vowed “not to put the cart before the horse“ by taking even an unopposed race for granted.
Flanagan, 36, is executive director at the Children’s Defense Fund–Minnesota. Previously she worked as a trainer with Wellstone Action. She will be one of only a few Native Americans to have served in the Legislature.
Capitol Report spoke with Flanagan midway through Election Day. Questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Capitol Report: How would you characterize your campaign? I’m sure people think it’s a walk in the park.
Flanagan: From the very beginning this campaign has been about building relationships with folks in the district and creating a shared vision with people in 46A. So while I don’t have an opponent, I have certainly been running as if that’s the case.
I was part of the Paul Wellstone/Wellstone Action school of organizing so it was important to me, if you had an opponent or not, to work, to earn everybody’s vote. For some folks it’s been funny when I knock on their door, and they’re like, “Wait, you don’t have an opponent? Why are you here?” And I’m like, “Well, I want to know what you think.”
And the fact is I’m going to have to run again in 2016, and in many ways this is an 18-month campaign. But we’ve got a really amazing team of folks, and I’m a big fan of [field work] and having conversations on the phone and [at] the doors, and so we’ve had a really good time. I think of Paul Wellstone — “You need to run like you’re 10 points behind, all the time.” That’s sort of what we’ve been doing.
CR: How did it happened that you ran unopposed?
Flanagan: I pressed the refresh button on the secretary of state’s Website for like an hour or so after filing closed. There were a few folks who were in [the race] in the beginning and eventually threw their support behind me, for which I’m really grateful. The top priority was making sure this remains a DFL seat. We’ve been working together, and I feel really good about that. But no one expects to not have an opponent, I’ll say that.
CR: Are you keeping your day job?
Flanagan: I am going to stay with the Children’s Defense Fund but I am leaving the Minnesota office to work directly for the Washington, D.C., office. Which is bittersweet for me because I love my job and I love my team. I’m going to continue to advocate on behalf of children and families of Minnesota. I’ll work from home in a national position that looks at training, curriculum design for community organizing work that we’re doing nationally; civic engagement; and then working to expand our Native American Freedom Schools throughout Indian Country. The transition [will happen] by the end of the year or the beginning of next year. I will likely be sworn [into office at the House] next week, because it’s an open seat.
CR: Can you tell me anything about the transition from Ryan Winkler to yourself in that office? Is he around to do a handoff?
Flanagan: I’m sure you’ve seen Ryan has continued to have a presence on social media. He’s been around, he’s been knocking doors for me, and we actually talk fairly often. If he’s not here in person — he comes home fairly regularly — we’ll be able to talk by phone. And his legislative aide, Kaying [Thao], is amazing. So I expect that transition to be fairly smooth, although I’ll be coming in in a class of one.
CR: Do you have your eye on certain committees?
Flanagan: There are the committees that Ryan sits on currently [Education Innovation Policy, Higher Education Policy and Finance, and Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance]. I’m certainly interested in staying on Education Innovation. That’s really in my wheelhouse, so I’ve asked to continue in that role. Clearly, to speak from my background, Health and Human Services is something that’s really important to me. And the environment is another big issue here. But I’ll be the new kid and I know that I may just sort of get put where I’m put. I’m excited to serve and to help [with] moving the issues that I’ve been working on the last couple years [for] working families. I worked really closely with Ryan on raising the minimum wage and then most recently on paid family leave. So that’s something I really want to make sure we get some traction on this session, moving forward.
CR: Are there specific legislators of both parties who you are looking forward to working with?
Flanagan: Even before I came to CDF, [I’d been] working for Wellstone Action and on campaigns for over the last decade, so I have relationships with people … [Rep.] Erin Murphy is a very good friend, [Reps.] Rena Moran, Susan Allen, and clearly [House Minority Leader] Paul Thissen. There’s a bunch of folks that we work with at Children’s Defense Fund that are good allies.
Even today, Rep. Mary Franson [R-Alexandria] had a tweet [“@peggyflanagan good luck today as the election is a real nail biter. Looking forward to working with you on childcare issues. #highfive“]! Clearly we both care passionately about increasing funding for the Child Care Assistance Program. And I hope we can continue to work together [with] me in this new role. That’s something that we both have shared values around. [At CDF] we do work with folks on both sides of the aisle for children and families, and that’s important.
CR: Ryan Winkler’s advice is to “learn fast and dive in.” Are you ready to do that?
Flanagan: Absolutely. I think the best way to learn is by doing. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the backs of people’s heads in committee hearings, so I’m really excited to be at the table, helping to make policy and make the decisions. I certainly have a lot to learn. I know that there will be a lot of folks at the Capitol who are willing to help me learn the ropes. But I’ll have some experience coming in. Mostly I want to make sure that I’m hearing from folks in my district, and that I’m moving things forward that are shared priorities.
CR: Anything else about your approach?
Flanagan: As a child advocate, I have a lot of experience in data, research, policy and the stuff I work on currently. So I’m bringing that experience. But also, as a kid who grew up in this district, as a child of a single mom, we were low-income, and she worked really, really hard. I was lucky to be in a community that gave me a lot. A lot of times we have folks who don’t necessarily have the same experience with the decisions they’re making on behalf of other people. And so that is a perspective that I hope to bring. [When I was growing up] we needed some support at times from work-support programs, but those same programs helped my family out of poverty. I know that there’s investments in children and families that work. I feel that I am where I am because of many of those investments.
‘Learn fast, dive in’
Capitol Report also talked to former Rep. Ryan Winkler.
Capitol Report: Thoughts on your successor?
Winkler: Peggy Flanagan is a star, she’s going to be a terrific legislator. But more importantly I think she’s going to be the kind of leader Minnesota needs, to be a state that includes all of us, that has economic justice at its core, and that will help to organize and raise up the next generation of workers and average Minnesotans to believe that they can have a say in the future of our state.
CR: Her election wasn’t engineered?
Winkler: She is the only candidate who filed for office. I have no influence over the Republican Party, and I have no influence over anybody else.
CR: Any recommendations on committee assignments?
Winkler: I would recommend she make her own decision. There are areas where she maybe feels she wants to learn more and have more of a role. She may have areas she feels she knows a lot about [and can use] her knowledge and her relationships to advance her agenda. I think [areas] like early childhood and health and human services would be [related] to her work with the Children’s Defense Fund. But if you look at our district, issues like higher education and K-12 are vitally important, so really she can’t go wrong, in my mind. And I would also add public safety is an important area and I know she’s got a point of view on a lot of issues there. It might be valuable for her to serve in that capacity too.
CR: How about being a DFLer in the Republican-controlled House? Should she play the kind of role on the floor you did?
Winkler: I think it’s important to learn your way around, but to do it quickly. So if Peggy feels she’s got important issues on the floor or in committee … I think she should raise her voice. That’s what I tried to do. In the minority [that’s what] you can do … I would encourage Peggy to learn fast and dive in.
Home: St. Louis Park
Education: B.A. in child psychology, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, with a minor in American Indian Studies
Previous electoral experience: Ran unsuccessfully for state House of Representatives (District 58A) in 2008; served two non-sequential terms on the Minneapolis School Board.