Four candidates are currently vying to represent a strongly DFL Southwest Minneapolis district at the state Capitol.
Veteran Rep. Paul Thissen announced in June that he planned to run for governor. That opened up a seat the former DFL House Speaker, now in his eighth term, has held since 2003.
District 61B includes the East Calhoun, CARAG, East Harriet, Lynnhurst, Kenny, Armatage, Windom and Page neighborhoods, as well as portions of Tangletown, Fulton, Diamond Lake and Field. It’s a relatively wealthy district, with a median family income of $117,480, and nearly 86 percent of its 40,686 residents are white, according to the most recent Census estimates.
All four candidates who have announced their intention to run for the seat — Sara Freeman, Tim Laughinghouse, Jamie Long and Meggie Wittorf — were invited to a Jan. 3 forum at First Universalist Church. All four plan to seek the DFL endorsement later in the year.
The official filing period for state offices runs May 22–June 5. Caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 6.
Sara Freeman is transforming trauma into fuel for a first-ever run for public office.
“I’m a rape and gun violence survivor, and the conversations and revelations of misconduct at our state capitol, all of the Harvey Weinstein stuff, the fact that I would categorize our president as a repeated sexual predator, all of these conversations have compelled me not just to pay more attention but to note with concern and consternation that survivors aren’t being represented in these conversations,” Freeman said.
A part-time healthcare industry consultant who previously worked on Wall Street and for Medtronic, Freeman chairs the board of the Domestic Abuse Project, a Minneapolis nonprofit that works to end domestic violence. She also volunteers at Burroughs Community School, the school attended by two of her three children, and started a finance club at North High School.
The Lynnhurst resident said her support for universal pre-kindergarten and increased education funding, including wrap-around social services for students, was inspired by her work in schools. She said she has seen the effects of the opportunity gap up close. She also noted that Burroughs, with the support of a relatively wealthy family base, is better able to weather funding cuts, while other schools lack essential resources for students.
Freeman said she supports raising the minimum wage statewide. While she initially advocated for $15, she said conversations with business owners in her small, southeast Minnesota hometown Eyota convinced her there should be a metro minimum of $15 and a lower outstate minimum “in the $10–$12 range.”
Freeman said she is also interested in pursuing universal healthcare. She said Minnesota’s well-developed and profitable healthcare industry provides the opportunity to take “baby steps” toward that ultimate goal.
“I know my way around an income statement and balance sheet and feel confident those levers are available for us to pull if we have the political will to do so,” she said.
One of Tim Laughinghouse’s early political experiences was as a door-to-door canvasser for the Minnesota Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. Then a student at Grinell College in Iowa, Laughinghouse was inspired by the political activism of his father, a Vietnam War veteran who joined protests against the fighting in Southeast Asia shortly after returning home.
“I was raised in a family that, through their actions, taught us to stand up for what is right and to serve the public through public service,” he said.
Laughinghouse later worked on a re-election campaign for Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and then joined former Minnesota Rep. Martin Sabo’s Washington, D.C. staff for a year. He returned to Minnesota and began his career as a teacher in Minneapolis before joining the Minnetonka district, where he has taught for 17 years.
Laughinghouse said teaching has given him a ground-level view of the effects of education policy as well as the needs of students, some of who struggle in the classroom because of challenges they face outside of school. Among his top priorities are universal pre-kindergarten, education funding and expanding access to MinnesotaCare, the subsidized healthcare program for low-income Minnesotans, “to meet the needs of more families,” he said.
“I think the winning formula that makes Minnesota a special place is the willingness to invest in education and helping those who are struggling,” he said.
Laughinghouse, a resident of the Hale-Page-Diamond Lake area, would also bring a focus on the environment to St. Paul, and said he would support policies that “encourage and incentivize alternative forms of energy.”
“I think that 30 or 50 years from now, people will agree the most important issue today is climate change,” he said.
As deputy chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Jamie Long manages the congressman’s Minnesota office. Now the Armatage neighborhood resident is launching his own campaign to “champion Southwest Minneapolis progressive values” in St. Paul.
“I’ve spent my career in public service trying to do what I can to improve people’s lives, and I have found that the federal government is pretty stuck right now, but I think there is still an opportunity to make a difference at the state level,” Long said.
Having previously worked as an environmental attorney and energy and transportation aide in Congress, Long would make clean energy and clean transportation two of his top policy priorities. Currently active in an effort to start a community solar project, Long said he’d like to see the state reach 85 percent renewable energy by 2035 while transitioning transit fleets to all-electric from diesel vehicles.
But at the top of his list, if elected, would be equity.
“I believe the most critical policy issue facing our state is the equity gaps facing people of color,” Long said, adding that the solution touches on a wide range of policy issues, from healthcare to education to the criminal justice system.
Long said he ultimately wants a single-payer healthcare system and would support expanding access to MinnesotaCare as a bridge to get there.
“In the education space, I strongly believe that we need to reinvest from cradle through post-grad,” he said. “We have huge needs for childcare and early childhood education in the district. It’s something I’ve heard a lot about from neighbors as I’ve been knocking on their doors.”
Long said the state’s K–12 funding formulas are “broken” and contributing to the Minneapolis school district’s budget struggles. At the post-secondary level, he’d seek out options for “debt-free college,” he said.
Meggie Wittorf traces the decision to make her first run for public office to the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores, could refuse to offer employees healthcare coverage of certain contraceptives on religious grounds.
“The structures in place holding people back, whether that’s access to health care or quality education, these structures ensure that women and people of color experience economic uncertainty,” Wittorf said. “And those structures are the outcome of biases spoken or unspoken that exists in the halls of our institutions.”
A Fulton neighborhood resident, Wittorf is a brand manager at General Mills. She said she brings to the race a background that blends experience in both finance and advocacy; she serves on the board of directors for OutFront Minnesota and led the Women’s Mentorship Program at the Carlson School of Management, where she earned an MBA.
“I speak a lot about providing an economic equation for all Minnesota families,” she said. That includes access to affordable, quality healthcare for all — starting with an expansion of MinnesotaCare — and closing the pay gap for women and people of color.
“These are not women’s issues,” she said. “When you are paid less and charged more for your healthcare, your family has a harder time saving for retirement or your kids’ education.”
Wittorf, whose mother and mother-in-law both work in education, said the state must accelerate its efforts to close the achievement gap, both through developing a “more sustainable funding solution” for schools and making all forms of post-secondary education accessible to a wider range of students.
Wittorf said another policy priority is criminal justice reform, which could include incentives for police departments to recruit local officers, expanded de-escalation training and approaching drug and gun crimes “through the lens of prevention.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misquoted Sara Freeman, who said she’d seen the opportunity gap in her work in schools. She did not mention a reading gap. (She volunteers as a math and reading tutor.)
Also in an earlier version, Tim Laughinghouse’s name was misspelled in two instances.