The DFL Party legislators from Senate District 46 are in the minority in the Legislature this year, but their views on refugees and diverse representation were in the majority among constituents at a Jan. 31 forum.
Speakers and audience members at the forum filled more than 100 chairs in the Council Chambers of St. Louis Park City Hall, took over the council dais and spilled out into a lobby, where some watched the forum during a live-feed on a television.
Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins, thanked residents of the district for attending. The district includes all or parts of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Golden Valley, Plymouth and Medicine Lake.
“It warms my heart to see this room so filled up,” Youakim said. “It’s really important for us to hear your voice.”
Speakers at the forum often brought up national politics as well as state policies. Republicans control Congress and the presidency as well as the Minnesota Legislature.
“I think one the number one lessons we’ve all learned this year is elections do matter, and we are living in an environment right now with the House and Senate in Republican control,” Youakim said of the state Legislature.
The audience clapped after she informed them that the House DFL caucus includes 28 women and 29 men, with the potential for another woman to join the group after a special election Feb. 14 in North Branch. Youakim led a bipartisan women’s happy hour for DFL and Republican women in the Minnesota House of Representatives the night before the forum.
The House DFL caucus also includes nine representatives of color, Youakim added.
“It’s just been just an amazing difference in our caucus to have more voices heard,” she said.
Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, added, “We doubled our number of people of color and Native Americans in our caucus, which is very exciting. We’re up to nine. It’s still exciting.”
Flanagan said she has worked with Youakim and other members of a work group on issues relating to racial and economic disparities.
“We’ve had people say, ‘Oh, we talked about racial and economic disparities last year,’” said Flanagan, drawing laughter from the audience. “But we’ve got more work to do.”
St. Louis Park resident Michael Hindin thanked District 46 legislators for mentioning diversity at the Legislature. He said he hoped they would also highlight statistics relating to the benefit of Somali-Minnesotans who pay taxes and rent, buy real estate and start businesses in the state in light of President Donald Trump’s criticism of Somali refugees.
“There’s a huge amount of misinformation and hate speech flying around about our neighbors, and I challenge everybody here, take a moment and greet somebody who looks different than you,” Hindin said, advising audience members to begin conversations with people at the grocery store, neighbors and others, regardless of religion.
To applause, Hindin said, “I’m challenging our legislators, get the economic benefits and contributions of our neighbors out in public. Get real facts of usage of public services out in public. Stop some of the information or at least give us the tools to say: ‘That’s not true.’”
The Minnesota Department of Human Services is compiling information about refugees in the state, Flanagan said.
“There’s lots of misinformation out there and a real effort to divide us,” Flanagan said. “We live in a district and community that is diverse and I believe is welcoming, and we as leaders in this community have a responsibility to model that.”
Flanagan alluded to her participation in the Women’s March Minnesota Jan. 21 at the state Capitol.
“I was proud with many of my colleagues to stand up and say all are welcome here and that is really our commitment,” Flanagan said.
To more audience laughter, she added, “As a Native American person, I care about immigration and just know the value of welcoming a stranger.”
Youakim challenged audience members to watch for misinformation and people who need help or protection.
“Please help be our eyes and ears, too,” Youakim said.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said his wife is an immigrant.
“Her whole family came through as political refugees from Russia,” Latz said. “There are lots of people now who are trying to escape persecution of one form or another.”
He echoed Hindin’s summary of the impact of refugees on Minnesota’s economy.
“The statistics don’t lie on this: Immigrant communities have lower crime rates and higher rates of starting businesses than people who are born in the United States,” Latz said to applause.
Minnesota is facing a workforce shortage within the next 20 years as Baby Boomers retire, Latz said.
“We don’t have the American-born population in Minnesota to be able to fill those jobs, so the only way we’re able to keep up right now is with an inflow of people, and that inflow is not coming from other states in the United States,” Latz said. “It’s coming from people born outside the United States who are coming to Minnesota for the jobs and the lifestyle.”
Beyond the self-interested reasons, Latz said faith-based references provide a moral dimension to welcoming people who want to live peacefully in the community.
Vigorous vetting should take place, but the country should accept the people who are deemed safe to come to the United States, Latz said.
To further applause, he said, “That’s the kind of country that we were founded to be, and that’s the very essence of who we are.”
Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]