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Minnesota’s first Latina mayor will not seek re-election

CATHY WURZER: The town of Richfield is looking for a new mayor. Its current leader, Maria Regan Gonzalez, is Minnesota’s first Latina mayor and the youngest mayor Richfield has had. And she pulls away. Before she left office, we thought we’d catch up with Mayor Gonzalez. Welcome to Minnesota now.

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Thank you very much. Can you hear me?

CATHY WURZER: I can. Thanks a lot. You sound good. Say, it sounds like you’re making changes in your life and have another big job to do. So talk about your decision to step down as mayor.

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Well, I never thought I would be elected. It was never something that crossed my mind. But as I started to learn a little more about the influence you can have in your own community to bring about improvements in health and connectivity, I decided to run for office.

But I knew that was not my aspiration to stay and do politics. And so I’m ready to continue this journey of making a difference in my community in a way that allows me space to start a family, get married, have children, and serve my community as well. And when you are elected at the local level, these are part-time paid positions. But in reality, the mayor’s role is 24/7. And so, maintaining a full-time job, having a family, and getting elected becomes nearly impossible.

CATHY WURZER: So you’re going to try to have a work-life balance – it’s good for you.

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Yes.

CATHY WURZER: Yes. Say, when you made the decision to run for mayor, was there ever a moment when you thought, what did I do?

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Absolutely, always. And I would say that sometimes I think it’s good that you don’t know what you’re getting into, because maybe you haven’t made up your mind to do it. And I’m very grateful for my time as mayor. I believe we have been able to bring about transformational and generational change that is advancing equity in the town of Richfield and has modeled that for other towns. But definitely, I feel like I got a doctorate in human relations in the last few years.

CATHY WURZER: I can only imagine. Michael Nutter, he was the former mayor of Philadelphia, once said that being mayor is the best job in politics. He figured you could get things done. You can get things done, even if it’s just clearing the streets quickly, which is a key job here in Minnesota. So you seem to agree with him.

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Absolutely. I love the role of mayor. I would like to be mayor and mom. And the thing is, if I’m not retired, I’m not independently wealthy, I need to have a full-time job. And that’s just not possible.

But being mayor is absolutely the best job. It is the level of government closest to the people. We are literally at the grocery store. People can tell me what they think and what needs to be changed. And often we can make those changes immediately. And you affect the things that affect everyone’s quality of life – everyday things that matter like water, do you feel safe and connected in your community, do you have access to green space and housing quality. This is what we work on every day as mayors.

CATHY WURZER: What’s the hardest part of the job?

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: The hardest part of the job. To be honest, I call it the Obama effect. But when Obama became president, we thought, oh my God, that all structural racism was gone. We have a black man as president. And people are kind of feeling this Obama effect, there’s a person in this role of mayor, and that means this whole long history of structural racism and inequality is going to go away – and people really have these outrageous expectations of a person , but not willing to take responsibility and ownership.

We all have a role to play in solving these problems. And it’s not just about the mayor. It’s not just about a piece of our community. We all have to contribute. And people really think, in some ways, it’s your job, you have to do it, and why didn’t you fix those years and those generations of structural inequality because you became mayor?

CATHY WURZER: Do you think you’ve made at least a small foray into trying to rectify some of the inequities at Richfield?

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Absolutely. I actually think we had a huge impact. So we’ve made equity a core part of all our work across the town of Richfield. Our staff examines what this means at every level of what they do.

We were able to work with tenants to secure affordable housing and maintain affordable housing in Richfield. Our inclusive housing policy is not only focused on affordable housing, but it is also focused on accessible housing for people with disabilities. There are not many inclusive housing policies that emphasize this.

We have worked with tenants and the MNDOT to say that we need a pedestrian bridge to connect some of our affordable housing neighborhoods to the direct source of the pharmacy and grocery store with a pedestrian bridge over the highway. And so I feel like I’ve had no small impact, we’ve together at Richfield made huge generational improvements to concretely improve the lives of all of our residents. And I’m very proud of it.

CATHY WURZER: So I’m curious, Mayor Gonzalez – at the state level, and maybe because of where you’re sitting, you might have some interesting things to say about that – Senator Patricia Torres Ray , Rep. Carlos Mariamne, they’re retiring — gosh, DFL Senate Caucus Leader Melissa Lopez Frandsen is stepping down over redistricting issues.

I think there’s only one Latina vying for a seat at Minnesota House. So I’m curious– what’s the future of Latino political engagement in Minnesota?

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Yes. And I’ve connected with all of those, and they’re all mentors and friends of mine. And it’s hard to see many of us retiring at the same time. And they’ve all had much longer years of political service.

I will say that we have a great group of community members who are growing in their political engagement and advocacy. We have people on other city councils, Latinas like in Shakopee and other areas, who are currently running for office. And so there is a lot of interest.

And we have the largest growing constituency base of voters and new voters, and a lot of political and social power in Minnesota’s Latino community. And there is a lot of interest and engagement. And even if you look at Richfield, 40% of our students are Latino students. You look at cities like Wilmer and Worthington, and cities across greater Minnesota, you see Latinos fueling the revival of their downtown neighborhoods, their schools.

Thus, our influence and ability to bring about change in our community increases. And, although four of us are retiring, we have a strong group of people who are very politically engaged and engaging more of our residents and community members in the political process.

CATHY WURZER: Do you think you’ll get back into the political process once you maybe get out of it a bit, relax, have some life, start a family, and then you can come back backward ?

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Well, I will always be connected — and in the sense that one of my biggest passions is supporting and mentoring other young women of color to take ownership of their leadership. And so, that it helped people to be political candidates, to start their own organizations and nonprofits – that’s something I will always do. Future interests in being a candidate again, perhaps.

I will say that as mayor I can be non-partisan and I love that. I can put the community above a political platform. And that’s what I like to do: put the community above partisan politics.

And so I can participate in so many different ways. So I will always work to advance the community first. And we will see all the different ways that look like. Running for a higher position… I don’t know. We will see.

CATHY WURZER: Okay. Its good. I appreciate your time. Thanks. I wish you the best. And thank you for what you’ve done for Richfield.

MARIA REGAN GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

CATHY WURZER: Maria Regan Gonzalez is the mayor of Richfield.

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