A generational split: Sen. Sandy Pappas faces challenger Sheigh Freeberg in DFL primary

By: - August 3, 2022 6:00 am

Sen. Sandy Pappas sits for a portrait in the Minnesota State Capitol. Photo by Baylor Spears/Minnesota Reformer

Sen. Sandy Pappas was doing one of her daily door-knocking sessions recently when she recalled her first run for the Minnesota Senate District 65 seat in 1990. She was running against then-state Sen. Don Moe, who was out of touch, Pappas said. 

“He was a pretty arrogant guy and didn’t really pay attention to the issues in the district and kind of had his own agenda,” Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said. “And you can’t do that. You’ve got to represent your district.”

Since her election 32 years ago, Pappas has been a reliable workhorse for abortion rights, workers’ rights and reforming the criminal justice system. She served as Senate president between 2013-16, the last time the DFL controlled the upper chamber. She won her party’s endorsement in March. 

Her opponent in the August 9 DFL primary, however, is making an argument that may remind Pappas of her pitch to voters three decades ago: The incumbent is out of touch. 

Sheigh Freeberg, whose day job is union organizer, said Pappas isn’t showing up where and when her constituents need her. 

“I am incredibly frustrated by this old school understanding of what politics is,” Freeberg said. “That politics is going to the Capitol and taking a vote and then going home.”

Pappas responds that if and when the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party takes over the Senate majority, she’ll be well positioned — given her seniority and deep political network — to help the district, while Freeberg would be a first term lawmaker without much ability get anything passed. 

The district — downtown St. Paul, Frogtown, Rondo, West Seventh and the West Side and parts of the Midway, North End and Cathedral Hill — has changed, however. 

After 2020 redistricting, District 65 now includes more of West St. Paul, where residents may be less likely to recognize the longtime incumbent.

The district is also increasingly diverse, with voting age population that is 20% Black, 14% Asian, Latino, 12% and 49% white, according to 2020 American Community Survey data. And, the district skews younger. The most recent availalble data show that 50% of the district is under the age of 33.*

The race poses a question to district voters that’s dominated Democratic primaries across the country over the past few years, while bedeviling Democrats on Capitol Hill: With more millennials and Gen Z’ers entering politics, how will a new generation of leadership be nurtured in a system that rewards seniority above almost all else? 

Freeberg: Setting a new agenda

Sheigh Freeberg at a meet-and-greet event in the Midway. Photo by Baylor Spears/Minnesota Reformer.

Sheigh Freeberg, 34, “basically swore off politics” after an unpaid internship with the Kansas Democratic Party and his work on the ultimately futile effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2012. Politicians, he found, cared more about power than working class people. 

The Wichita-native instead found voice through union organizing after moving to the Twin Cities in 2012. 

While working at the Radisson Blu, a hotel at the Mall of America, Freeberg said he saw workers underpaid and mistreated by management. He and his coworkers organized a union, and employees now have a collective bargaining agreement there.

Freeberg then joined Unite Here! Local 17, Minnesota’s local hospitality union, where he’s worked for almost 10 years. He said his work on campaigns to pass a $15 minimum wage in St. Paul in 2018 and for employees at the Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport in 2020 helped him see new power in politics. 

“I’ve started drifting closer to, maybe in the right circumstances, politics is a thing that can help working class people,” Freeberg said. 

Freeberg charges that not enough is being done to help working families in District 65, where the median household income is approximately $52,000, and 34% of the district makes under $35,000 a year. 

Freeberg said Pappas wasn’t around for  the city minimum wage fight and was a johnny-come-lately on the 2021 St. Paul rent stabilization effort.

“Over the last few years, I have been continually frustrated that we don’t have someone who’s leading the way and fighting for working families,” Freeberg said. 

Freeberg is focused on the lack of affordable housing and underfunded schools, he said. 

During a recent meet-and-greet event in his neighbor’s living room, Freeberg sat in a rocking chair and explained some of his ideas. He proposed Minnesota purchase land for the purpose of building public housing modeled after the Capitol Area Development Association in California. 

“If you ever just hop on the light rail and go towards Frogtown, you’ll see dozens of empty lots,” Freeberg said. “We need density and right now, the free market is not doing it, so the government should step in, and let’s build density and make sure it’s affordable and mixed income, and like, spend money on maintaining it.” 

Freeberg said he also wants to do more for unions by passing legislation that would help gig workers — like Uber drivers — to unionize by reclassifying them as employees rather than contractors. And banning anti-union practices like so-called captive audience meetings, where employers force workers to sit through anti-union presentations. The federal board that regulates labor practices issued a memo restricting the latter practice nationally in June. 

“We can make Minnesota the most union-friendly state in the nation. Not only can we, but we should,” Freeberg said. “And I’m gonna lead the way on it.” 

If Republicans keep control of the Senate, they’ll likely stymie those policies, but Freeberg is optimistic. He said his organizing skills will help get his agenda passed. 

Pappas’ unfinished business

Minnesota remains one of few divided state legislatures in the country, alongside Virginia and Alaska, with a DFL-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate. But Democrats like their chances in the Senate this election cycle given that President Joe Biden won 37 of the 67 districts. 

The DFL must flip at least two seats for a majority, and Pappas, 73, is confident in their chances.  

“After being in the minority for six years, I’m really anxious to complete and continue agendas that I’ve been working on for many, many years,” she said.   

If the DFL wins the majority and Pappas wins reelection, she said she’ll use her seniority and experience to build on previous work protecting women and workers.

She wants to pass statewide paid sick leave and paid family leave, expanding on the work she did with the 2014 Women’s Economic Security Act. This law, which Pappas co-authored with former state Rep. Carly Melin, focused on reducing the gender pay gap, expanding women’s employment opportunities and strengthening workplace protections, especially for pregnant women. 

Democratic lawmakers have pursued paid leave for years, but Senate Republicans have blocked it at the behest of the business lobby. 

Pappas said she also wants to develop a pension plan that would target low-wage workers, whose employers may not offer a 401(k). 

Pappas’ focus on these issues comes from her personal experience with financial insecurity, and her observations of what’s happening in her district.

Pappas grew up in the Iron Range city of Hibbing, raised by a single mother. When her father stopped paying child support as a result of losing his job, she got her first job at age 16 to help fight her family’s housing and food insecurity. 

Pappas said these days it’s even more difficult for people facing similar issues. 

“I also see it in my district,” Pappas said. “I have a lot of low-income people who are struggling, who certainly have to go to work every day. They were first responders during COVID and didn’t always have paid sick days or paid medical leave.”

Pappas said if the DFL wins control of the Senate she’ll seek to become the chair of the capital investment committee. That will give her immense influence to decide which public infrastructure projects get funding. She said she would advocate for road and bridge construction in the district, which would also mean good union jobs. 

And if Republicans keep the majority? “Move to Canada? I don’t know. That’s a really, really good question. I tend not to think about that,” Pappas said. 

Pappas said she probably wouldn’t have run again if she thought that the DFL would be in the minority for another four years. 

“It would be too frustrating,” Pappas said. 

Zuki Ellis, who is on the St. Paul School Board, will also be on district 65 DFL primary ballot, but did not respond to a request for comment.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. A Tennessee-native, she recently graduated from Northwestern University.