Chief priority for new Senate DFL leader: Win back majority

Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen became the first Latina, person of color to lead a legislative caucus

By: - October 11, 2021 8:41 am

Minnesota Senate Minority leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, and her son Arthur, 4, watch her 6-year-old son Philip play soccer in Edina on Sept. 26, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

State Sen. Melisa López Franzen has been updating her letterhead and campaign signs after reclaiming her López surname. Now her placards need another update: Senate minority leader.

The Edina Democratic lawmaker took over the Senate DFL caucus after Sen. Susan Kent’s surprise announcement that she would step down as caucus leader and would also not run again for her Senate seat. 

López Franzen beat out two other candidates for the job, and in turn, became the first Latina and person of color to lead a Minnesota legislative caucus. 

For years, however, her Puerto Rican heritage was not reflected in her professional name, after she took her husband’s last name when they married in 2006. But now others will have to learn to use it, she said, reminding reporters during her first press conference as minority leader that it has no hyphen and there’s an accent mark in López. 

“I’ve been going by Franzen, honestly, because it’s easier for people,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m sorry, I made it easy for you for 10 years, and now I’m going back to what I was used to, which is my two last names … it’s part of my identity, and I should be proud of it and not hide it anymore.”

(In Latin naming convention, a last name includes the father’s last name, and mother’s last name. Previously, she was Melisa López Aquino.”)

Stationary changes aside, López Franzen has a lot of work ahead of her, chief among them: Winning back a majority in the Minnesota Senate next fall under newly-drawn legislative maps. 

Democratic legislators are facing fierce headwinds in the midterm elections, which are traditionally not favorable to the party of the incumbent president. In Minnesota, Republicans are hyper focused on tying progressive proposals of defunding the police to the rise in violent crime in the Twin Cities. They are also pushing back on COVID-19 health restrictions, promising to drop vaccine and mask mandates.

She and Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, among the youngest senators to serve as caucus leaders, were both elected within days of one another to lead their members into the upcoming legislative session. Both are parents of young children. She and her husband, Nathan, have two young boys. (Miller has three young boys.)

Moreover, López Franzen and Miller’s working relationship will be tested, having developed during their time as members of the Purple Caucus, an informal bipartisan group Miller co-founded.

López Franzen also takes over the caucus after a sexual harassment complaint against a DFL operative from a Senate DFL staffer roiled the caucus, sparking an outside review that is now underway. 

She rankled some of her DFL colleagues for her criticism of how Kent had handled the complaint, resigning from her role as assistant leader hours after the Reformer first reported on Kent’s handling of the harassment complaint

“I’m excited for the work and I also was very humbled about the feedback I got in the last few weeks about my resignation,” she said. “That’s part of growth and part of being a leader to be open to feedback.”

Minnesotan by way of Puerto Rico

López Franzen grew up in a middle class family in the town of Aguadilla on Puerto Rico’s northwest coast, the middle of three daughters. Her father was a police officer in Puerto Rico before he went back to school and shifted into managerial corporate jobs. Her mother is the academic of the family, she said, completing her doctorate in her 50s. 

She grew up very attuned to civic and political life, she said. “Politics is our national sport,” she joked. “We’ve always talked about politics at the dinner table. That’s part of the culture and I saw that as part of how politics and government influences daily lives because at that point the government was the biggest employer in Puerto Rico.” 

Minnesota Senate minority leader Melisa Lopez Franzen, DFL-Edina, visits with community members while they make Puerto Rican food at a mural unveiling at El Colegio Charter School in Minneapolis on Sep. 26, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

She was also very studious, working hard to get good grades. She attended a private, bilingual school. She later attended college at Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, where she completed her undergraduate degree in three years because of the Advanced Placement classes she took in high school. She served as student body president. 

She then received a scholarship for a summer public policy program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before she was recruited to the University of Minnesota by professor Samuel L. Myers, Jr. at the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. 

Myers’ research focuses on race and inequality, exposing López Franzen to some of Minnesota’s long-simmering tensions around racial inequality in housing, jobs, health, policing and other facets of life. She received a master’s in public policy from the Humphrey school. Later, she attended law school at Hamline University and currently has a public relations and consulting business, New Publica, which is based in Minneapolis.

Some of her most formative professional work was as an attorney for eight years for Target Corp., a top employer and lobbying force in Minnesota. She worked in a few divisions, notably government affairs, labor and employee relations.

Running for the Senate

Her background in public policy and law, she said, served her well when she first landed in the Minnesota Senate at the age of 32, significantly younger than many of her Senate colleagues whose average age is closer to retirement. 

“I’ll be honest: When I got there in 2012, it seemed like a very old school institution and I was an outsider because I was 32, at that point one of the youngest ones there,” she said. “(While) I didn’t feel out of place, I felt like I had to prove myself to my elders.” 

Her election to the Edina Senate seat at the time was heralded as a massive shift for the district, which had been solidly Republican. She flipped the district, beating former state Rep. Keith Downey, who would later serve as Minnesota GOP party chairman. At the time, it was also the most expensive state Senate race, a foreshadowing of how pivotal the suburbs are for control of the Minnesota Legislature. 

She quickly gained a reputation for her ability to work with both Democratic colleagues and Republicans, becoming known as a business-friendly Democrat. 

That makes it more notable that her profile as a moderate Democrat hasn’t attracted more criticism from progressives, said DFL operative and former SEIU labor leader, Javier Morillo. 

López Franzen has been a vocal supporter of progressive goals including drivers licenses for immigrants, an issue that has percolated at the Capitol for several years but has remained out of reach for advocates. 

“The fact that she has been there on some key progressive issues at very key moments is recognized by many of us who, you know, who work on progressive policy,” Morillo said. “To have someone from Edina who votes with us most of the time and disappoints us occasionally is pretty good, so we’re pretty happy with that.”

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, who supported López Franzen for caucus leader, said she appreciates her ability to listen to progressives on issues even if she doesn’t ultimately agree with some of their positions. 

“Melisa Franzen is a very reasonable, pragmatic leader,” Torres Ray said. “What I have learned from her is that when we bring some things to her attention where she has had a different perspective that we don’t share, like on business for instance or health care, she will hear me out and will sit down and think about it.”

Some of those progressive issues will force López Franzen to stake out a position for the Senate DFL caucus, most pointedly on public safety. 

Democratic leaders are nervous about voters who want to see public safety restored amid a dramatic rise in violent crime, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. The rise in crime has proved something of a setback for police reform measures since George Floyd’s murder, as Minneapolis voters weigh the proper response to gun violence and violent crimes like carjackings. 

U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, of the 2nd Congressional District, created a litmus test for her fellow Minnesota Democrats by stating her opposition to the Minneapolis ballot initiative that would change the city’s charter to strike a minimum police staff number and create a new department of public safety. 

Since Craig’s Aug. 24 statement, Democratic officials like Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and others have been pushed to take public positions on the ballot initiative

López Franzen, however, said she would not be publicly weighing in on the ballot measure, despite owning a business on Minneapolis’ Lake Street. 

“I don’t live there so I don’t have to make a decision and I’d rather not because I don’t live there,” she said. “ I have plenty of friends who are divided on the issue who are staunch Democrats and they have to figure out what they want for their communities. … I will support them regardless and I will do what I can at the state level to support public safety.”

On other issues, Franzen said a Senate DFL majority would be solidly in support of paid family leave, legalizing recreational marijuana and additional police accountability measures. 

Higher office in her future?

In the early days of Biden’s presidency, before control of the U.S. Senate was decided, Klobuchar was widely seen as a potential Biden appointee — touching off a frenzy in Minnesota for whom the governor would appoint to the seat if Klobuchar was confirmed in a new Biden administration. 

López Franzen’s name immediately shot to the top of the list. But it wasn’t mere speculation: She was making it known she would seek such an appointment. “I always have my résumé ready,” she said, adding that since a recent rollover car accident she was involved in with the state auditor, she learned “life is fragile and it can change in the blink of an eye and I’m gonna live it.” 

If she runs for higher office, she’d have the support of a long list of notable people. 

For now, there aren’t any seats readily open: Walz is expected to run for a second term as governor, Klobuchar chairs the powerful U.S. Senate Rules Committee, and Sen. Tina Smith handily won a six-year term last fall. 

Still, the rolodex of a former Target attorney and Latina leader, whose network includes district court judges, top academics and donors, would be vast and instrumental in any future political race.

A likely supporter would include Klobuchar, for whom López Franzen campaigned as a surrogate in Nevada when Klobuchar was running for president. 

“When I endorsed her in her first race for the Senate, I knew she had what it took to reach across the aisle and win in a conservative district,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “And when I ran for president, she was an invaluable asset to my campaign, traveling around the country to get our message out to all Americans. She is a trailblazer and is only the second woman and first person of color to lead the caucus. I look forward to continuing to work with her as she takes on this new, exciting challenge.” 

Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David L. Lillehaug worked with López Franzen briefly before he was appointed to the court, helping her prepare for her early Minnesota Senate debates. He was impressed with her smarts and debate skills. 

“If you had asked me in November 2012 whether it was possible that Melisa Franzen would become a caucus leader someday, I would not have hesitated to say, ‘Yeah, it could happen,’ ” he said.

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