The Potluck

POCI caucus expands power with election of López Franzen as Senate DFL leader

By: - September 14, 2021 3:57 pm

Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, speaks with reporters on Sep. 14, 2022. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Newly elected Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina, became the first member of the People of Color and Indigenous caucus to lead a legislative caucus, further expanding the power of a group of lawmakers formed just four years ago. 

“It’s about time,” López Franzen, 41, said in her first press conference as leader of the Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus. “There’s a lot of us (in the POCI caucus) who are wanting to step up and have the opportunity to do so.”

The POCI caucus was formed in 2017 as a way for lawmakers of color to expand their power in a majority-white legislature. 

She joins other POCI caucus members who have ascended to top leadership positions in government, including Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan who was part of the caucus when she was a state representative. Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, now chairs the powerful House Ways and Means committee. 

The third-term senator will now be in charge of helping Democratic senators win back a majority in 2022 after redistricting and during a midterm election that generally is challenging for the party of the incumbent U.S. president. 

First on her agenda will be helping craft a blueprint for a special legislative session focused on paying out $250 million in pandemic bonus pay for essential workers. A legislative committee is currently deadlocked on a plan. She also said she will work to prevent the firing of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm after some Senate Republicans have indicated they want to hold a confirmation vote after criticizing the Walz’s administration push to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for state government employees.

López Franzen also takes the helm of the Senate DFL caucus as it moves past the turmoil caused by a sexual harassment complaint reported by the Reformer. She had resigned her position as assistant minority leader after the story was published, saying she was kept out of the loop in how the complaint was handled by former Minority Leader Susan Kent of Woodbury. 

A former Senate DFL staffer said the harassment came from Kent’s former campaign manager, Clay Schwartzwalter, who has denied the harassment claims.

López Franzen said harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated in the Legislature, and an outside review in the complaint would be completed by the end of the year. In the meantime, “there are steps we can take now with recommendations from staff,” she said.

López Franzen will now work with and in opposition to Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who days ago was elected leader of the Senate GOP. The two were once members of the bipartisan Purple Caucus in the legislature, which could bode well for resetting relationships between Senate leadership and DFL Gov. Tim Walz.  

She is also the first Latina elected as a top Senate leader; she is a native of Puerto Rico and is fluent in Spanish. She is also an attorney and owns a Minneapolis consulting and public affairs firm.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.