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Racial tensions erupt in Legislature

Sunday June 21, 2020
By Briana Bierschbach

DFL state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray traded barbs with GOP Sen. Paul Gazelka over not being consulted on police reforms. © Star Tribune/Star Tribune/ANTHONY SOUFFLE

Tensions were rising in a late-night debate in the Minnesota Senate last week when Sen. Patricia Torres Ray turned to each member of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (aka "POCI") and asked if they'd been consulted on a pending GOP police reform measure.

When each one replied no, the Democrat from Minneapolis turned to the Republican leader of the chamber, Sen. Paul Gazelka: Do "our opinions and the work that we do here, with you, actually matter to you?"

The question triggered a stunning exchange in the usually staid Senate, one of several confrontations during a short special session overshadowed by racial tensions sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

Floyd's death, and the ensuing calls to tackle racial inequities in policing, brought to the surface the Legislature's own institutional challenges with diversity in representation. While the number of people from communities of color serving in the Legislature has grown over the years — to 21 out of 201 members — it's still not representative of the state as a whole. People of color make up 20% of Minnesota's population statewide but only 10% of the Legislature.

Gazelka, who hails from rural East Gull Lake in north-central Minnesota, told Torres Ray he had consulted directly with people from communities of color in her district and others in the "inner city" of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both cities faced extensive damage from rioting after Floyd's death.

"We went to talk to a dozen or so people from the black community to ask them directly, and I was surprised that they said they hadn't really talked much to their own senators," he said, returning the jibe.

Torres Ray, the first Latina woman to serve in the Senate, fired back: "That is [like] if I said: 'If something happens in rural Minnesota, I will selectively go to some places in rural Minnesota and ask people. I won't consult with the rural members here, because why would I?'?"

Twitter lit up with criticism of Gazelka's repeated allusion to neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul as "inner city," a political dog whistle often used by President Donald Trump. Adding to the friction, Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, one of two Somali-American legislators in the chamber, took offense that members of a House committee degraded the Twin Cities by suggesting that they start an online fundraiser to repair damages caused by riots.

But at the center of the frustration was the feeling within the POCI caucus that they weren't being heard by their mostly white colleagues.

"Don't do things to us unless you talk to us," pleaded Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who is black. "That's all that we're asking."

On Friday, as DFL and GOP leaders debated deals on policing reforms inside the chambers of a secured Capitol complex, a crowd gathered on the front lawn to commemorate Juneteenth and the end of slavery in the United States.


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