State Representative and Ojibwe Mother Runs for Lieutenant Governor.
By Erica Rivera
Photo provided by the Walz-Flanagan campaign
Peggy Flanagan stood in the bedroom doorway and watched her one-year-old daughter Siobhan sleep. It was 2014, and as the executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, Flanagan and her team played a prominent role on the Raise the Wage campaign. After an intense fight, it looked like they were going to lose. Flanagan felt defeated.
“I became really overwhelmed thinking about how difficult it is to be a parent in general, but also if you don’t know how your children are going to have food in their belly or clothes on their backs or where you’re going to stay the next night. Being a parent is hard enough without having to worry about all of these additional things,” she says.
Flanagan called her mother, the woman who birthed her in Minneapolis and moved the twosome to St. Louis Park, Minn. where the single mother rented an apartment with a Section 8 housing voucher. Flanagan’s mother said she wished she had someone like Flanagan to fight for families when they were struggling to make ends meet.
“I don’t care what you have to do,” Flanagan’s mother said to her, “but you’ve got to win this for families like ours.”
Flanagan attended a coalition meeting the next day and refused to back down or settle. Eventually, the minimum wage raise was adopted. Supporting legislation was signed into law by Governor Mark Dayton on April 14, 2014 that required businesses with gross sales exceeding $500,000 to raise their employees’ minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2016.
“That was one of those moments where, for me, it was so clear: This is who you are, this is where you come from, this is why you’re at that table—to make sure that families who feel like they don’t have a voice have a voice in that space,” she says.
Flanagan, now 38 years old and representing district 46A in the Minnesota House of Representatives, is still fighting the good fight.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Rep. Flanagan—a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe—is a trailblazer. Last year she became the first Native American woman to address a convention of any major party when she took the podium at the Democratic National Convention. This year she’s made headlines by joining Rep. Tim Walz’s ticket for 2018. If elected she will be the highest ranking Native American woman ever in government office, as well as Minnesota’s first Native American in statewide office.
Flanagan has served in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2015. She is a staunch advocate for indigenous communities, people of color, low-income families, women and children. She’s also a prolific selfie-taker, and the rare politician that makes legislature look like fun.
I meet Flanagan on a snowy morning in the sparse Walz-Flanangan campaign headquarters overlooking University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn. Her shoulder-length brown hair is layered with bronze color. Big black glasses frame her dark eyes, a patterned scarf coils around her neck and she crosses each side of a black cardigan over her chest. She’s a self-proclaimed “nerd” which seems at odds with her nose ring.
No one—not even Flanagan herself—would have guessed she was destined for politics. Her high school GPA was 1.75. She attended St. Cloud State University, 70 miles north of the Twin Cities, but after her freshman year she transferred to the University of Minnesota, in the heart of the Twin Cities. Brenda Child taught Flanagan’s intro to American Indian studies course.
“It was the first time that I ever had a teacher who looked like me and a classroom full of other Native students,” Flanagan says. “It was like a switch. All of a sudden I was hungry to learn.”
Flanagan majored in child psychology and minored in American Indian studies. After graduation she ran a program called Parent Plus at the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis. Her job involved bridging the gap between home and school for Native families. Flanagan did everything from attending parent-teacher conferences to helping a mother flee her batterer in the middle of the night.
To develop a relationship between the Division of Indian Work and the public schools, Flanagan reached out to Carol Johnson, then superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Johnson put her on two committees for the district, where Flanagan met Judy Farmer, the longest-serving MPS school board member. Farmer suggested Flanagan run for school board. Flanagan brushed off the notion but offered to find someone; six months passed and she still hadn’t found a willing candidate. In 2003 at an education rally at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis, Flanagan stood up and said, “I’m sick and tired of people making decisions for our community and what’s best for us. We need a voice at the table. Talk to me if you want to run for school board.”
No one took her up on the offer, but several community leaders suggested that she run. Driving down University Avenue at 10:30 p.m., Flanagan called Marcia Avner, the communications director for the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, and said, “Maybe I’m going to run for the school board.” They fleshed out Flanagan’s campaign plan right then and there over the phone.
Though some advised Flanagan not to waste her time door-knocking in neighborhoods that historically had not voted for school board, she did. She spoke openly about challenges that families of color, indigenous families and low-income families faced. “I remember a very prominent elected official pulled me aside and was like, ‘Peggy, can I give you some advice? You really got to stop talking about poverty. It really makes people uncomfortable,’” she says.
Flanagan didn’t stop, and that year, around 72,000 people voted in the school board election. Flanagan won. She served on the school board from 2005–2009 and was appointed to finish Pam Costain’s term in 2010.
A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
After the birth of her daughter in 2013, Flanagan became the executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota. During the Raise the Wage campaign, Rep. Ryan Winkler suggest Flanagan consider running for his seat. It seemed feasible, if far off in the distant future. But when Winkler dropped the news that he was moving to Belgium and would soon resign, Flanagan knew she had to run. She registered voters, knocked on doors, raised money and won the seat unopposed.
“It’s pretty cool to represent the community that raised you,” she says, reflecting.
When Flanagan first arrived at the legislature in 2015, there were only three other people of color in her caucus: Reps. Rena Moran, Carlos Mariani and Susan Allen.
“She’s a natural leader. She’s a natural organizer. She’s a natural at building strong, healthy relationships with all people and finding commonalities within those relationships to move an agenda for the benefit of the people of the state of Minnesota,” says Rep. Moran of Flanagan. “She was so full of energy and life,” Rep. Moran says of the first time she heard Flanagan speak. “To see this young, energized woman who was passionate about family, about children, about her Native American culture, about equity, was inspiring for me.”
Now there are nine people of color in the House DFL caucus and five in the Senate DFL caucus. It is the most diverse legislature Minnesota has ever seen, though it lags behind the national average. According to the New American Leaders project, 14 percent of state legislators across the country identify as people of color or indigenous people; in Minnesota it’s 8 percent.
A BIGGER VISION
Now Flanagan has her sights set on lieutenant governor as the running mate of Rep. Tim Walz.
“Having a congressman from greater Minnesota who knows agriculture [forward] and [backward] and is deeply connected to the folks that he represents and a Native woman who has represented the city of Minneapolis and now the community that raised me—I think our experiences really reflect the state. My hope, and what we’re trying to do, is to make sure that people see themselves reflected in us,” Flanagan says.
One wonders, though, if Walz saw an opportunity to appeal to women, indigenous communities and those living in urban areas all wrapped up in Flanagan. Could she be seen as a pawn? “Being an American Indian woman involved in electoral politics and politics in general, I know what that feels like, and this is not what this feels like at all,” Flanagan says. “I am not a wallflower. I am not a pushover, and I would not have joined this ticket unless I believed there was real opportunity and power here.”
Flanagan says she’s called out Walz on his votes that she disagreed with and that the running mates have talked “seriously” about co-governing. She isn’t afraid of what she dubs “Who wants pie?” moments—times when conflict-averse Minnesotans try to steer away from tough conversations.
Among the pillars of the Walz-Flanagan campaign are access to and funding for education, childcare, healthcare, paid family leave and equity. “We talk about it through the lens that kids from Lake Wobegon and kids on Lake Street [should] have the same opportunity,” she says.
“From a political perspective, it seems symbiotic. They’re both really good people,” says Zach Rodvold, a seasoned campaign manager and political insider who met Flanagan through former Sen. Wellstone’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2002. “I think she would be a fantastic leader for the state. She already is in the house of representatives. She is an organizer. She’s compassionate. She’s friendly. She’s funny, and she brings a perspective that I think is missing in government. I can’t say enough good things about her. I’m excited to see what happens for her.”
A LEGACY OF ACTIVISM
Flanagan is a trailblazer for Native women in politics, but she’s a humble one. “In many Native communities there are many women who lead nations,” she says. “In my community and the way that I’ve been taught by leaders in my community, no one is more important than anybody else. We all have leadership and gifts that we’ve been given, and our job is to figure out: How do we use that gift to build community, to give back to community? In some ways, leadership is a circle and you step into the middle of the circle when it’s your time to serve and then you step back out and allow someone else to step in.”
It’s Flanagan’s turn to clear a path so others can follow—others including her daughter. “I want her to feel like she can be her whole self all the time,” she says of her dreams for Siobhan. Flanagan wants her daughter to have stability, confidence, opportunity, choices. She wants her daughter to see herself reflected in her teachers and in her school’s curriculum.
“I would like her to be the first American Indian supreme court justice,” Flanagan says. Then, with a laugh, “If that isn’t on her path, that’s okay. But [I want her to feel] that she has real choices and that the fact that she’s a Native woman is something that she can be proud of and that she fully expands into and doesn’t shrink away from.”
In 2017, Flanagan—along with Reps. Mary Kunesh-Podein, Jamie Becker-Finn, Erin Maye Quade, Fue Lee, Ilhan Omar, Susan Allen, Rena Moran and Carlos Mariani—formed the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus.
“Often legislators who are not legislators of color have been making decisions about our communities for us,” Rep. Moran says. “It just made sense that we come together collectively to talk things through, to lead for our communities ourselves. And we want to be a political block. It is about wielding collective power, too.”
“We amplify each other,” Flanagan says of the POCI Caucus. “I’m not just on the floor talking about Native issues. I can tag-team with Rep. Omar and talk about the need for additional funding regarding the measles outbreak in the Somali community, and she can speak to issues facing the American Indian community.”
The Native American Caucus, of which Flanagan is a part with Rep. Susan Allen, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn and Mary Kunesh-Podein, all Democrats, also goes through the list of bills introduced every floor session and highlights the ones that refer to indigenous people and tribal communities. They converse with the authors of the bills.
“They’re planful. They’re strategic, and they are relentless,” Rep. Moran says of the Native American Caucus. “They are willing to fight for the issues impacting their community.”
“The conversations we have at the capitol—a lot of times I’ll hear some of my colleagues talk about ‘those people.’ ‘Those people’ who use Section 8 or ‘those people’ who need SNAP or food stamps or MFIP or the childcare assistance program. I am those people. That’s been an important part of my identity,” she says.
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer, book author, and award-winning poet. She has written several cover stories for the Star Tribune newspaper, alt-weekly City Pages, and Minnesota Business magazine. Among her beats are art, books, business, home design, food and drinks. Her byline has appeared in New York magazine, USA Today, Minnesota Meetings + Events magazine, and on sites such as Crave Online, Metromix, The Daily Meal, and Vita.mn. Follow her on Twitter @ericaerivera.