Athena Hollins had quit the race and packed away all her campaign materials. Her opponent, House Judiciary Chair John Lesch, narrowly won the DFL endorsement at the party caucuses and Hollins pledged to abide by it.
Then, on May 25, George Floyd died. Hollins, a young St. Paul attorney and the Minnesota State Bar Association’s diversity and inclusion director, said people started asking her questions about how it could happen.
“I had to do a lot of explaining of systemic racism, what that looks like and how systems are built to proportionately advantage some people and disadvantage other people,” she said. “As I continuously explained this, I realized: That’s a lot like our current system in politics.”
She changed her mind about honoring that endorsement. Just before deadline, she filed to run her against Lesch in the Aug. 11 primary.
“It was important that my voice and my experience were present in this race so that, at the very least, we could push politicians who are already elected to address these issues a little more proactively,” she said.
“That was my bare minimum goal in all of this,” added Hollins, who grew up in rural Hawaii as the daughter of a serviceman father and social worker mother. “Obviously, my ultimate goal is to win so that I can represent those issues at the Capitol.”
In her safe DFL district, that is now a virtual certainty.
In a result that many saw as a surprise, Hollins won the Aug. 11 primary against 18-year incumbent Lesch, by 60% to 40% margin. She did it, she said, by running a low-budget, “people-powered campaign” that reached out to constituents personally and on multiple occasions.
Her reason for rejoining the race, she said, wasn’t because Lesch was a bad legislator. His progressive voting record was fine, she said, though his occasional clashes inside his own caucus and the defamation suit brought against him by St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson raise question about whether he was “a team player.”
“To me this is less about John Lesch and more about what the community is interested in and wants to see,” she said. “What our district is looking for is somebody who is willing to push on some of these issues. Like, voting the right way is just not enough.”
Hollins was one of four young DFL upstarts to unseat longtime progressive DFL Capitol incumbents.
In Minneapolis, lawyer and negotiator Esther Agbaje, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, beat Rep. Ray Dehn, the fourth-term incumbent and chair of the House Elections subcommittee.
Omar Fateh, a son of Somali immigrants, beat Sen. Jeff Hayden, a 12-year incumbent whose Minneapolis district includes the intersection where George Floyd died in police custody.
In Duluth, one-term Sen. Erik Simonson lost to DFL-endorsed plaintiff’s attorney Jen McEwan by a 73%-27% margin. Simonson lost despite backing from Gov. Tim Walz.
“When you see incumbency turnover, that’s a good sign,” Walz said during an Aug. 12 press conference. “I trust voters. They’re maybe not going to necessarily agree with me.”
Because they are all in solid DFL district, chances are strong that all four will win their seats in the November general election. So, likely, will John Thompson, a close friend of Philando Castile and a powerful advocate for racial justice at the Capitol. He easily won his primary to replace the retiring Tim Mahoney in St. Paul’s District 67A.
“Incumbents are being replaced by people who are probably to their left and who reflect the fact that there is a growing wave of left-wing activism within the DFL in these areas,” said Steve Schier, the Carleton College political science professor.
“I think you’re also seeing ethnic change and generational change,” he added. “You’re seeing more established members being moved out and new fresh faces coming in.”
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan on Wednesday said that the primary results mean that the legislative People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, which she co-founded as a House member, will grow by “leaps and bounds.”
“To see the Legislature more accurately reflect the entire state of Minnesota is something that should be celebrated and that I feel a tremendous amount of energy around,” Flanagan said. “I think that will serve us well going into November.”
“I think the lieutenant governor is right,” Walz said. “When our representatives look like and have life experience of the people they are representing, that tends to work out best.”
Several other observers, including Schier, saw in the results a progressive mirror image of 2010’s takeover of the national GOP by the Tea Party Caucus, which swept a wave of feisty — and eventually frustrated — freshman Republicans into the U.S. Congress.
“I think it’s pretty obvious, with the four incumbents being taken down, that the Minnesota DFL Party had their Tea Party moment,” said former Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, one of Lesch’s best friends in the Legislature. “The far left got beat by the über-far-left.”
Brian McDaniel, a lobbyist and GOP pundit, agreed. And just as Republicans experienced under former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, he expects tensions within House and Senate DFL caucuses will mount as a direct result of the new progressives’ ascendancy. The infighting, he said, will only intensify if Donald Trump loses his re-election bid and Democrats lose their main common target.
“There is a difference between being an activist and being a legislator,” he said. “We have definitely seen that many new legislators don’t understand that.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, speaking to reporters during a Zoom session Wednesday, disagreed that the primary results were at all reminiscent of the Tea Party wave.
“I think what we are seeing is not change that’s driven by ideology,” she said. “I think we are seeing change that’s driven by demography. You know, these seats don’t belong to us — they belong to the people who live in the districts.”
That’s how Hollins sees it. Speaking on the “Renegade Feminists” podcast on June 29, she said that while Lesch was in office, it was easy to focus time and energy on the wealthier and whiter Como Lake end of her district. But that happened at the expense of the district’s more demographically diverse, lower income areas.
“Our people need a representative at the Capitol that looks like them, shares their experience and knows where they are coming from when say they are afraid of the police,” she said. “That experience has to be lived.”
Asked after the primary how she interprets Tuesday’s results, Hollins said she sees them as marking a sea change in Minnesota politics.
“I think for too long we have looked at incumbency and said, ‘That’s good enough,’” she said. “There is movement in the air that is saying, ‘It’s not good enough.’ Just being an incumbent, just having experience, isn’t enough. You aren’t owed a seat in the Legislature simply because of that.”
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