This ongoing series of conversations with Minnesota women about their engagement in politics was created as a collaboration between Amra Avdic, journalist and project director of the Contemporary Women’s Festival in Bosnia, and Minnesota Women’s Press, thanks to support from the Global Solutions Program in Community in the fall. 2021.
Amra interviewed Minnesota women engaged in politics to share conversations with her television audience in Bosnia about how to engage and support women candidates and voters in what is perceived as a patriarchal society.
Can you tell me how your story began that led you to become a politician in the Minnesota House of Representatives?
I joined a group called the League of Women Voters in the United States. It began after women gained the right to vote with the 19th amendment. They wanted to educate women about these issues. So I joined that group here in my local area and got interested in attending political meetings, the school board, the city council, the state legislature, and then I was recruited by one of my friends at the League of Women Voters. who was at the local boarding school. I did this for several terms. Then, I was recruited to the state legislature. When I got involved, I was always careful to recruit other women, realizing that often men run for political office and women are more reserved. I never would have entered politics without the League of Women Voters and strong women pushing me forward. I try to do this for other women as well.
You’ve said earlier that it’s important to give women more encouragement to run. What in your experience has proven to be an effective way to encourage women to run?
Women don’t like to do things themselves. They need a lot of people to support them and a lot of help. So I actually gave this advice to the men and women I was recruiting, but women are the ones who actually do it often. Don’t decide to run until you have your helpers. You need a cashier or someone to collect the money and put it in the bank and get the thank you notes ready. You need a volunteer coordinator who will recruit people to knock on doors with you, who will help. You need someone to direct you to do your social media. I tell women to do this. They feel comforted and empowered and that they are not alone in the race, because the races can be tough, especially in this day and age with all the negative campaigns.
I usually see women always thinking if they are ready to enter politics. Are we ever ready or should we be brave and just try even if we don’t think we have everything ready?
Just jump in. Because we are never ready. You are right. We are always learning if we are lucky; we’re lifelong learners, I’m always reading books and listening to documentaries, or podcasts and stuff. We are never done learning. The best place to learn is in the chosen office. So when you’re on the school board, you can talk to the school superintendent every day if you want. If a problem arises about how to manage the bus ride, how to get the kids to and from school, or what is the best curriculum for reading or math, you have people to ask right there in your school district. I came from the League of Women Voters, as I said, where we studied issues to death because we just felt we always needed to know more. But still, when I ran for the Legislature, everybody said, Forget the issues, you know, just get in there.
In my country it is so discouraging that even women do not want to vote for a woman, because on the pretext that men have been in politics longer, they know better, etc., etc. But how can we change deeply ingrained attitudes? What can we do to change those things?
I think success breeds success. Those of us who support more women in office should continue to do so and continue to introduce them. They just need to be encouraged and brave, as you said, put their hat in the ring and run, and then they will win. It’s when they don’t run, we don’t have the number of women in office we need; the higher up the food chain we go, the more criticism. We think that governors and presidents and people who are in high-level positions should be really strong and that it’s really good to have a male voice and a strong man or something like that. So these are the places where it’s even harder to get women to run or succeed. We know that women study and work hard, and generally, you know, they do very well. So I think it’s more patterns.
What are you still working to achieve through a political game engagement? How challenging was it to fully expose your throat? How have you coped with your private and public situation at the same time?
That was a luxury for me to be a legislator when Jim got sick. He was 21 and I had been in the legislature for six years. I was already a public figure, both our children and my husband. It was a natural progression, then, when Jim got sick, for me to continue talking about our family. When newspapers, television and radio find out that a lawmaker has a personal story, that’s a good story for them; they may not cover the issue at all, especially something like mental illness when Jim got sick in 1999. When you’re an elected public official, then you have an opportunity and an obligation to share. Although it was very difficult, because you are in personal anxiety, it was still a luxury. Whenever our family ran into trouble, like the hospital wouldn’t talk to us because they didn’t ask about a medical release for information, or the police wouldn’t take him to the hospital even though he was very sick and out of control, I could throw a tantrum big. They didn’t want to be the ones who didn’t take proper care of Rep. Greiling’s son. This gave me power and I felt I should use it for other people.
The first legislation I passed was the first problem we encountered; they wouldn’t talk to me because Jim hadn’t signed an information release. Indeed, they had not asked him to sign one. They didn’t think it was their job to ask him because he was very disturbed and psychotic when he went to the hospital, but they didn’t ask him and they didn’t tell me. I have reviewed it with the lawyers in the legislature. We just wrote a simple bill that said hospitals must explain to families about the need to sign releases. I thought it was just common sense. That’s often what politics is, there’s just common sense written down that people aren’t using their common sense for. So all things like that. It also made me feel better.
I need to know after 20 years in the legislature, what are the results that make you most proud?
I would have been mostly proud of this major education finance reform that I developed by working with all the education groups in the state and everyone eventually agreed to it. We have different areas of the state that need different types of funding, and they’ve always fought with each other, but then we had this plan that would be fair to everyone. That would be my crowning achievement. We didn’t make it to the end. We passed it in the House of Representatives where I served and I think the governor would have signed it. But the rural Democrats in the Senate, actually my party, killed it because they were afraid they were doing better under the old system, where they had been able to advocate for certain things in the education finance bill. So it didn’t end up going through. This was my biggest regret.
What I am most proud of is my mental health legislation. We ended up with a large, better-funded mental health system, a much more robust set of services, and made many policy improvements. I think that’s what I’m most remembered for, even though I spent most of my time working in education.
How does everyday life, being a wife, sister, mother, daughter, play an important role in political action? How do you see this?
Well, I think women are good at multitasking. So I think it’s a natural thing. We can knit anything. I just think it improves all the relationships in your life. You don’t have that much time, but my family has always been proud of me. Our daughter, like you, is a journalist and became interested in public policy, but she was smart enough not to get into trouble herself. She works for POLITICO, if you’re familiar with that organization.
Jim, our son, helped me write the book. Many parents I know want to write about their children with schizophrenia or some other mental illness, but family members don’t want them to. They are used to this culture of silence, that it is a shameful thing. It just compounds your sadness and grief. So everyone benefits when you speak publicly and I, who am always speaking publicly, helped my family and you helped me write the book, I can help my son participate.
Did you know?
Deaths from drugs: 1,286 people died from accidental overdoses in Minnesota in 2021 — a 22 percent increase from 2020. Most of them are related to fentanyl. Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “An important step is expanding programs that make it easier for people to access naloxone — a drug that can reverse overdoses and save lives.”