Democrats in District 59B will choose between an experienced incumbent and a new challenger who secured the party endorsement on Aug. 11.
Rep. Raymond Dehn, a four-term incumbent, is facing DFL-endorsed attorney Esther Agbaje to represent the district that includes Bryn Mawr, Harrison, Near North, Willard-Hay, North Loop and Downtown.
Agbaje, 35, bested Dehn, 62, on the third ballot of the District 59 DFL convention. She said housing, environmental justice, public safety reform and transit are her high-priority issues.
“Housing really is a human right; it’s the stability that makes things work for families,” she said.
Agbaje said she wants to bring a sense of urgency to St. Paul and that even if Republicans continue to hold the Senate, the DFL caucus needs to work to get smaller wins, like preventing evictions from being put on renters’ records instantly when filed, regardless of the outcomes of their cases.
“If we keep waiting, we’re going to be in the same situation 10 years from now,” Agbaje said.
Dehn said he is focusing on equity issues, meaningful police reform and housing legislation that improves affordability and provides shelter for all.
“All of this stuff is interconnected,” he said.
Dehn said he was a bit surprised to lose the party nomination but said he felt transitioning to a digital convention due to COVID-19 altered the way the process played out, so he decided to run in the primary.
“I believe I have a strong record of representing the people in the district on the issues that are critical for them,” Dehn said.
Agbaje said the main differences between her and Dehn come from different life experiences and perspectives. Her experience as a lawyer, she said, has given her the ability to work with and against people who have different goals. If Republicans don’t want to act, she said, the DFL caucus should let them own the failure.
Dehn believes his experience working with people in various state departments and other elected officials sets him apart and he can reap dividends for residents. With the state budget being strained due to COVID-19, he said, he can work to ensure the district isn’t harmed by any financial cuts.
“Those are critical relationships when it comes to serving the district,” Dehn said.
When it comes to developing the Upper Harbor Terminal site, Agbaje said current plans do not benefit North Side residents.
“When we do this project, we need to start with the community,” she said.
The Upper Harbor Terminal project has been improved by community concerns, Dehn said, and while he knows many are skeptical of the project, he believes it can continue to be made better and pay off for the area in the long run if there are strong requirements for affordable housing.
“I think it could have a huge positive impact,” he said.
Dehn was first elected to the Legislature in 2012 and was a candidate for mayor of Minneapolis in 2017, coming in second to Mayor Jacob Frey. He is an architect by trade.
Agbaje represents patients as a medical malpractice lawyer and volunteers with tenants in eviction court. This is her first race as a candidate, though she has previously volunteered and been involved with campaigns. The daughter of an Episcopal priest, Agbaje grew up all across the state in cities like Brainerd and Faribault. She spent time working for the State Department and attended Harvard Law School before returning to Minnesota. She is a first-generation Nigerian-American.
Jeffery Strand, chair for DFL Senate District 59, said Agbaje’s team worked hard for the party endorsement and that she is a “great spokesperson for DFL values.” He said 2020 has been an “extraordinary” year to have an election and that the party has transitioned to phone and text banking and direct mail pieces, to remind residents there is an active primary and increase turnout. The party, he said, will support whoever wins the primary.