She credits her district’s support for progressive candidates
By Vickie Evans-Nash
When former state representative Jeff Hayden was sworn in last October as State Senator Jeff Hayden, his vacant District 61B seat attracted several candidates. One prevailed in the January 10 special election, and on January 20, 2012, Susan Allen, a member of the LGBT community, became the first American Indian woman elected as a state representative in Minnesota.
Allen spoke with the MSR recently on the challenges of people of color in the electoral process and on upcoming legislation that will affect low-income people and communities of color.
Allen has lived in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood for 14 years after moving across the country in her youth due to her parents’ work for a national organization. Her parents developed a new model for working in the Indian community through their church. By the eighth grade, Allen says, she had already attended over 20 different schools across the nation.
She became a single parent in her early 20s and at age 25 returned to school, going first to Augsburg, then to the University of New Mexico for law school. During the 1970s her family settled in Minneapolis, and she obtained her first job there in 1975.
Currently, Allen faces a strong Republican legislature. MSR asked how she will deal with the fact that she will be working with legislators who don’t come from districts with strong representation from people of color or the LGBT community.
She says that since the Republican views are so far right, there is very little middle ground. Their current legislation framework for low-income people focuses on welfare reform, referring to it in what she says is an outdated term: welfare fraud.
“Seven out of 10 recipients on MFIP [Minnesota Family Investment Program] are children,” Allen says, but Republican legislators focus on whether recipients possess multiple Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (with which recipients access monthly benefits), reducing the term for benefits from 60 to 36 months, and requiring drug testing as a part of eligibility. “I am outspoken against that legislation,” says Allen. “It’s mean-spirited.”
Asked how she plans to work on public health issues, in particular in communities of color and LGBT communities regarding HIV and substance abuse, Allen says that the Affordable Care Act will issue in major healthcare reform starting with the benefits exchange. Each state will have to decide whether to create their own exchange or participate in the federal exchange.
“That’s something that…we’ll advocate for, to make sure that the plans are providing benefits to those with HIV/AIDS and that there are adequate benefits for addressing mental health issues… If we can start talking about access, that’s where we’ll take a look at serving low-income [people], because then they will have to be included.”
Allen says that Republicans tend to promote exclusion when it relates to low-income people and health care. Forty-five hundred low-income people without children who receive public assistance were moved to programs that require them to purchase private medical insurance with state vouchers.
“They are working poor, but they are still poor, and to expect them to be able to compete in the private insurance market with a voucher is just not realistic,” Allen says. “People with middle- and upper-middle class [incomes], they can’t afford to have health insurance. So I don’t know how they expect the working poor to do that.”
She also says that there is legislation now in committee that will add another 4,500 to the rolls of the working poor with limited or no access to health care.
The seat that Allen currently holds, formerly that of Senator Hayden, was previously held by Representative Neva Walker, the first African American woman state representative. How does Allen plan to keep a connection with her African American constituents?
“That’s something I’m working hard to create,” Allen says. “I believe that the office that I hold here should be an extension of the community. I didn’t come here with an agenda other than to make sure that I’m working for social and economic justice.”
Allen says keeping ties with African American constituents will mean being out in the community, whether through community organizations or public forums, “giving African Americans and other minorities in the community a voice, a forum, so that they can participate however they are comfortable participating.”
When dealing with issues that affect low-income people, Allen says Republicans tend to look at people living in poverty as dependent, and that charities — not government — should be charged with meeting their needs. When talking about the day-to-day issues those in poverty face, Allen says, “You can see them [Republicans] get defensive, and it’s kind of disturbing and sad to watch.
“They…start talking about how much they love the poor…apologetic almost about being privileged. But at the same time, they think that they are acting in the best interest of the poor…and somehow they are [an] authority on what’s best for people of color or low-income people.”
On the Voter ID amendment, Allen says that she is concerned that those who have a current ID will not understand the impact of the legislation. It stands to impact over 200,000 people with transient housing conditions, such as students, seniors or disabled individuals as well as those who live in rural communities where the nearest polling place may be many miles away.
“It’s something that basically eliminates same-day registration, so it’s going to further disenfranchise voters,” Allen says. And though there are only .05 percent of reported incidents of voter fraud, an estimated 11 percent of the voters will become ineligible to vote due to the voter ID legislation. The challenge, Allen says, is that information is hard to relay to voters.
“The Republicans can make these inflammatory statements, misleading statements, and they get a lot of press coverage for it. But to be able to talk about the impact of some of these amendments is not something that you can do in a sound bite,” she says.
The Democrats’ most effective message, says Allen, is to advise constituents to vote no on all of the constitutional amendments, including at present banning gay marriage and voter ID.
As the first American Indian woman member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, the MSR asked Allen what she feels are the challenges for American Indians and women to becoming state representatives.
“We have yet to establish the strong presence here for legislators of color. I believe there are five of us out of 201,” Allen says.
Since Whites currently make up 87 percent of the state’s population, Allen surmises that we may not see a large increase in the number of representatives of color any time soon.
But five among 201 should be cause for legislators’ concern.
“What are we doing to help leaders in our communities of color to get involved in politics?” she asks, suggesting that people of color and women prepare themselves for when open seats appear. “It often takes a lot of organizing and support for women and minority candidates before they even say yes to running, and oftentimes that means that the White males tend to jump at the chance much sooner. So we start from behind…
“In the African American, American Indian and Latino communities…we really need to start getting candidates ready so that when there is an opportunity, we’re ready from the first day to take advantage of it.
“In my case, that’s really reflective of the district, that we were the first district to elect an African American woman. Even in the Congress, to have the first Muslim congressperson, and then my candidacy. And it really says something about our district. I really don’t believe we’re at the point where I could have been realistically elected in any other district.
“[This district] is progressive, and that’s because the people that live here are committed to working for social and economic justice, and those are the ones that are voting and that are serving as delegates. So we are fortunate that that is the case, but going forward my hope is that we will have more people of color and women participating in that process.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to vnash@spokes man-recorder.com.