Leigh Finke has worked in politics and activism for years – volunteering for campaigns, organizing and most recently working for the ACLU. But being a candidate herself is new.
Finke, a single mother who lives in a rented house in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, will be on the August primary ballot to be the DFL candidate to represent District 66A – covering parts of St. Paul, Lauderdale, Falcon Heights and Roseville – in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
In the DFL primary, she will face David Thomas, government teacher and veteran of the Iraq War. The winner of the primary in the Deep Blue District is expected to struggle to win the November election.
If she wins, Finke would make history as the first trans legislator in the Minnesota capitol.
She began thinking about running for office as she became increasingly concerned about proposed anti-trans legislation in Minnesota and across the country. An opportunity presented itself when Rep. Alice Hausman, who has represented the district since 1989, announced her retirement.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you say you are showing up in response to attacks on the trans community, are you referring to attacks specifically here in Minnesota or nationally?
This was largely in response to the creation of an anti-trans movement and the fact that bills were introduced and laws started to be passed last year. It has suddenly become a top priority for Republicans at the state level to attack trans communities and not just make them a talking point, but to actively take away the rights of trans people and trans youth.
We have seen the most aggressive anti-trans bill in the country introduced in Minnesota, and it didn’t work. But the only difference between our state and other states is that our government is divided. We would do that in Minnesota if the Republicans could. And that really shook me up and made me realize that someone had to be in the room. Someone has to come to the Capitol and make sure we have a voice.
What would it mean to you to be Minnesota’s first trans representative if you win?
My identity is an important part of my campaign because I’m a trans person, and when trans people walk into a room – not all of us, but a lot of us – it’s there. My transit is always present. It’s always in front of me, it’s always in front of the person I’m talking to. So even though I’m not the trans candidate for me, it’s very hard not to be the trans candidate for others, especially those I’m meeting for the first time. So it’s not something I run away from.
I don’t really think about the historicity of being the first person to do it as much as the importance on an individual level for trans youth and trans people to have someone representing them in government. For me, that’s really where I get emotional.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I had no idea the idea of being transgender. I did not know anyone. It was the suburbs. I did not know homosexuals. I didn’t know any trans people. I never met a trans person before I started my own transition. And I don’t want that to be the case for the next generation of young gay men. I want them to know that there are trans people, that we are successful, that we are happy and that we live in all parts of the world.
Your website says you’re running “to prevent legislation from harming LGBTQIA individuals, workers and families.” Are there any current or potential policies that you believe are harming this Minnesota community?
Four anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in the state legislature last year. …And while it is true that we have a Democratic Governor, and these things are unlikely to come into effect as long as they are true, the fact of their introduction and debate is in itself bad for my community . Listening to lawmakers and seeing video of individuals in the Minnesota House making truly demeaning and dehumanizing speeches about what it means to be trans – it really hurts.
We must also ban conversion therapy. We must not only fight legislative attacks, but also ensure that we proactively protect people and expand rights. Senator Scott Dibble and Rep. Athena Hollins tried to ban conversion therapy. I want to join them. We need to reduce barriers to accessing transitional health care, understand that we are who we say we are and can be counted on to defend ourselves. The level of difficulty in accessing transitional health care is a problem, and it must be solved. I am a middle-class trans person with good health care and find myself in a constant struggle to access insurance coverage for health care related to my transition. I can’t imagine how hard it is for young people or people of color, or other people who don’t have health coverage.
Is there a specific policy you would like to see put in place to help trans people access health care?
I need to learn the inner workings of health care politics. I know there have been previous attempts to limit the amount of referral sources required for transitional health care, in terms of psychological assessments and therapists. I had surgery last summer and had to come in and be assessed by someone who had never met me and who spent an hour with me and decided whether or not I was fit to undergo a surgical intervention. It was a waste of time. It was a waste of that person’s time. There are only barriers put in place for transgender people who shouldn’t be there.
It’s the same with reproductive rights. I work with the Unrestrict coalition and in my daily work I am a reproductive rights organizer. We have legal abortion, but we have restricted it in many ways, making it almost impossible for some Minnesotans to access it. We have limited it in such a way that despite its legality, it becomes so difficult to achieve that it doesn’t matter to some people if it’s legal. They will still have to go elsewhere. We have to protect what we have. We need to expand access.
You also have personal experience with the upbringing and mental health of children, especially during the pandemic. Is there something politically you advocate or something you think school systems should do to help you?
I am a parent. I have two elementary students who attend the St. Paul public school system. They’ve been through it for the past two years like all of us. The system was not working before COVID. And if anything good can come from COVID in terms of our education, it’s that we realized that maybe we need to pursue something else. Going back to what we were doing before COVID has led to so many gaps in our education in Minnesota. Like so many parents, I want to see school funding that actually funds teachers, gives teachers a decent salary, puts teaching assistants in the room, has special education in every school, therapists in every school, a mental health specialist, nurses. You don’t learn if you have undiagnosed ADHD or undiagnosed autism or behavioral issues that stem from family trauma.
One thing that really impressed me about the St. Paul public school system was when they decided to feed every child (during the pandemic) while they were at home. I want to explore doing this all the time, because if you’re hungry, you can’t learn. We now have a system in place to deliver food to each child. We’ve done it for a year or more, and we can do it again.
In a GOP-controlled house, which is a likely scenario, is there anything you can work out with the other side and find a compromise?
It is a question of values. There is an elected leader that I learned a lot from and had conversations with, and she recently told me that compromise is not a value. It’s a tool. We use it to achieve our values, so I’m more than willing to work with anyone on Capitol Hill, from any political party, to achieve goals that align with my values. I understand this is a team sport and we need to take small steps, and I’m not going to show up on Capitol Hill and suddenly resolve long-standing political divisions. I am not naive. I know who I am and what I can do. I can offer hope to my community and a voice to my community. And I will seriously work with anyone who wants to help me achieve any of the many goals I have.
I think there is room for compromise on public transit, which is something close to my heart. I think there is room for a compromise regarding school funding. I think there are issues that really concern both parties, and there are ways for us to achieve results that matter to Minnesota, but we have to do this not to compromise, but to what we believe.
On your Ballotpedia questionnaire, there was a question about what book, essay or film you would recommend to someone who wants to understand your political philosophy, and you chose the documentary “How to Survive the Plague”, on the AIDS epidemic and the activist groups ACT UP and TAG. Can you explain your reasoning behind this? Is there a story there?
ACT UP as a protest movement, as a movement for LGBTQ lives, is exactly what I want to get involved in. fascist white movement of Americans backed by a Supreme Court and a political party, and we need the kind of conviction and strength that the ACT UP movement had. What we see in this documentary is that in the face of death, in the face of very difficult circumstances, to put it mildly, there is incredible strength and incredible determination, a community of resilience.