Who is behind the Minnesota Miracle? Meet ISAIAH

Loyal Lede Readers,

While the rest of the world is fixated on the latest Trump indictment, we wanted to bring you a behind-the-scenes look at a progressive powerhouse that has helped shape Minnesota politics over the last decade.

Below, you are getting first peek at a piece that will be published shortly on HeartlandSignal.com by Richard Eberwein. How do Democrats make a difference and pass laws that help working people? The story below helps answer that question.

Minnesota's historic state legislative session saw a slew of progressive policies make their way to Gov. Tim Walz’s (DFL) desk, and it was possible after a decade-long grassroots movement throughout the state.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party policies passed in Minnesota in 2023 include recreational marijuana, paid family and medical leave, a “100% clean energy” bill, an infrastructure funding package, a gun reform package and the expansion of voting rights, among others.

The passage of these laws was a result of organizations getting communities involved at the local level and identifying what their needs were. One of these organizations is ISAIAH, a state-wide coalition of connected community organizations and constituencies that advocates for racial and economic justice, according to its website. ISAIAH has been scaling its operations for the past decade and even getting some of its members elected to the Minnesota Legislature.

One of these lawmakers is state Rep. Liz Olson (DFL-Duluth). She is a former community organizer for ISAIAH who has served in the Minnesota House of Representatives since 2017 and is the current chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the House.

“I think, obviously, we had a lot of success this session, and it was really great for Minnesotans, and that doesn’t come without years of hard work,” Olson explained. “It’s not just that one election cycle can create the environment that’s now friendly to move these kinds of policies, but it’s years’ worth of organizing that get us to actually be clear when we have this political opportunity, what are we going to do with it.”

The fact that the DFL secured its first trifecta in a decade last November certainly paved a way for the transformative 2023 session. Minnesotans elected Walz to his second term while the DFL kept its majority in the House and flipped the Senate by taking a one-seat majority. With such a thin hold on the Senate, an organized and concerted effort was needed to push legislation through, and the DFL executed to near perfection thanks to the work conducted by groups like ISAIAH. Alexa Howart, ISAIAH’s lead organizer, listed three crucial components to the trifecta’s ability to pass groundbreaking legislation in 2023, the first being vigorous organizing.

“What the organizing did, is it created a shared agenda across an ecosystem of organizations in Minnesota and the legislatures,” Howart explained. “We had spent years together building the kind of coalition and policy ideas and people power behind them, that when the trifecta was won, we all knew exactly what the agenda was. And we had hundreds to thousands of people behind each of those wins who had been organizing for that win for years and, in some cases, over a decade.”

The sheer number of unified people made it nearly impossible for there to be infighting within the DFL on how to go about certain policies. This solidarity also prevented lawmakers from stopping short of passing as many policies as they could.

Howart also praised the unified message from the DFL’s leadership in the governor’s office and both state chambers of the legislature. There was a lack of timidness that was present in the previous DFL trifecta in 2012, which she says was overly concerned about going too far with its policies.

“They were clear, they were aligned and they were casting a vision that would have an impact on generations,” Howart continued. “They were not cautious. In the previous trifecta, the number one word that we heard over and over again was overreach. In this trifecta, the vision was ‘we’re going to eliminate childhood poverty and make Minnesota the best place to raise a kid.’ That kind of message was crucial, and none of this could have happened without that.”

Howart’s third reason for the DFL’s success is the backlog of policies that have been getting passed in the Democratic-controlled House for years only to get shot down in the GOP-controlled Senate. Bills like paid family and medical leave, driver’s licenses for all and restore the vote were moving in and out of Congress for years. Even though they weren’t passed until 2023, all that time allowed for more refined versions of the bills.

Paid family and medical leave in particular had been popular for a long time in Minnesota. Through community outreach, ISAHIAH says the coalition knew the of importance economic relief to most Minnesotans, and it became a priority to help relieve financial strife.

“Stories of people losing their home when their husband got a cancer diagnosis,” Howart said. “Of somebody who had to work when her son was dying, of medical bills that were stacking up. Having to make impossible choices between work and care over and over again. When we dug into the conversations, 85% of the people we talked to have some sort of pain or hardship around caregiving. And then that led to the paid family leave campaign. But it came from relationship building, deep listening work, a set of people deciding to act.”

The failure of 2012’s short-lived Democratic trifecta that was lost in two years served as a turning point for ISAIAH, who recognized they needed to do more to help secure wins in the state government. It says the answer was accelerating growth into a state-wide, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-faith organization made of regular people who want to improve their lives through the government.

Now, ISAIAH has several of its members inside the state House and Senate chambers, which allows them to have a direct line of communication between constituents. Rep. Olson is one of several ISAIAH members currently serving in the state legislature with more slated to run in 2024.

“I think about our work at the Capitol, we do it best when we do it with one foot out one foot in,” Olson said. “One foot in the Capitol, one foot in the community. I think ISAIAH helped to make that a more permeable way to legislate and to be together. We’re doing this work together, and by bringing voices that need to be in the Capitol and connecting legislatures through town halls, community work through contacts. It just makes a more connected and engaged process.

“I think for us as legislators, it can be easy just to be in our bubble and listen to our constituents through our emails and voicemails and connecting in our own communities. But I think there is so much more of a robust, fruitful conversation that ISAIAH is able to help facilitate through their work and community organizing.”

Now that ISAIAH won 95% of their legislative agenda earlier this year, Howart and Olson say there is still the work of implementing and ensuring smooth facilitation of the policies to be done. Many of the benefits from the bills that were passed will not be seen by Minnesotans for years; cannabis stores not set to open until 2025, and paid family and medical leave benefits not coming until 2026.

There will also be a new agenda that needs to be set for the next legislative session in January. Howart said a brand-new campaign to identify the next agenda is already in motion, with hundreds of ISAIAH members returning to communities to hear the needs of working-class citizens so it can be relayed to lawmakers.

Minnesota’s ability to pass progressive policies on thin margins could be a template for other purple states. ISAIAH says the formula starts and relies on rigorous organizing from the bottom up and direct lines of communication between community leaders and state legislatures.

“I think without strong organizing, there still would have been victories this year. But they would have been fewer, and they would have been much harder fought,” Howart said. “We wouldn’t have the kind of deeply transformational session we had this year without organizing at the center.”

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Jamie Larson