On paper, the Minnesota lieutenant governor is basically a backup.
Aside from chairing a few boards and commissions as required by law, the lieutenant governor’s only duty under the state Constitution is to take over if the governor can’t do the job.
But that’s changed over the years, and Peggy Flanagan, who was elected with Gov. Tim Walz in 2018, can’t be described as a mere backup.
Instead, according to Flanagan and those who’ve worked with her, the 43-year-old former state lawmaker is more of an insider advocate — critics say activist — for issues she’s spent most of her career supporting: public aid to poor parents and children, especially racial and ethnic minorities.
Now, she’s seeking a second term along with Walz, who will face the Republican ticket of former state Sen. Scott Jensen and his pick for lieutenant governor, former NFL star Matt Birk, in November’s general election.
Flanagan is married to former Minnesota Public Radio host Tom Weber, who now is assistant director of marketing at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and has a 9-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
Here are some things to know about Flanagan and how she’s spent her first term.
GREW UP ON WELFARE
Flanagan grew up in St. Louis Park, raised primarily by her mother. And, as she frequently points out in speeches and interviews, they were poor. She says it was only because of taxpayer-funded programs, including federal Section 8 housing vouchers, welfare payments and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — then called food stamps — that her mother was able to live in the suburb.
As a welfare recipient and member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, Flanagan says she understands the experience of feeling marginalized. “There’s a lot of people around the Capitol who talk about ‘those people.’ I am one of ‘those people,’ ” she said in a recent interview with the Pioneer Press.
With some influence from her father, American Indian rights activist Marvin Manypenny, Flanagan set out to change what she saw as a system of public aid that needed improving.
“I was really intentional in building a career that allowed me to advocate,” she said, referring to a course steeped in left-wing activism.
BACKGROUND IN ADVOCACY
Flanagan served on the Minneapolis school board from 2005 to 2009 and worked at Wellstone Action — now called Re:Power — training progressives to organize. That’s where she first met Walz, who at the time was less experienced in politics and considered Flanagan a mentor.
In 2013, she was hired as executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund, which often lobbies the Legislature to fund programs that help poor kids. In 2015, she was elected to the Minnesota House, where she was a founding member of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus.
When Flanagan speaks about her American Indian identity, she’s direct.
“It’s hard to be a Native woman in a system that was not created by us or for us, and in many ways was created to eliminate us,” she said.
That sort of language, as well as her focus on racial justice and equity, have led some Republicans to keep Flanagan at arm’s length. More than a legislator or lieutenant governor, they see her as an activist who views everything through the lens of race.
Several Republicans who have worked with Flanagan on issues declined to speak on the record for this story, citing the charged atmosphere of the election season.
As for Jensen and Birk, their central campaign messages of improving public safety and the economy often target Flanagan and Walz as a unit for their response to the riots following George Floyd’s murder, spikes in violent crime and for what many Republicans viewed as a heavy-handed response to the coronavirus pandemic.
As for her identity as an American Indian, Flanagan — the first tribal member elected to statewide office in Minnesota and at one point the highest serving elected Indigenous person in America — has leaned into it from day one.
FLYING THE WHITE EARTH FLAG
Inside the ornate Governor’s Reception Room of the Minnesota Capitol, three flags hang: the American flag, the Minnesota state flag and — since Walz and Flanagan assumed office — the flag of the White Earth Nation.
“We’re in this office, and I’m a citizen of White Earth and I’m a citizen of Minnesota, so why not have both flags?” she said.
The move never was publicly questioned, but it’s made some conservatives and Capitol observers uneasy; after all, tribal policy and state policy sometimes are in opposition. Flanagan brushes off the concern.
“Of course, there’s tension when we’re interpreting tribal and state and federal law, but the quality of the relationships has been improving,” she said.
Indeed, formal relations between the state and the tribes arguably is at a high point. An early executive order by Walz bolstered the state’s recognition of tribal sovereignty by, among other things, requiring state agencies to consult with tribal officials on policy and procedures. Earlier this year, that stand was approved by the bipartisan Legislature and now is codified in state law.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Aside from the at times all-encompassing task of navigating the pandemic alongside Walz, Flanagan has grown into the role of behind-the-scenes policy advocate for her cherished causes.
The self-described “policy nerd” has been integral in working with the governor’s Cabinet formulating his budget proposals. She keeps a “hot sheet” to track bills relating to those issues, and she’s the primary liaison with the wider community of government and nonprofit providers — many of whom she’s known for years.
That level of access and understanding has been eye-opening, some say.
“The difference is that when Lt. Gov. Flanagan gets into that role, I don’t have to explain or educate people on that policy,” said Jessica Webster, a veteran lobbyist and staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which advocates for programs for the poor. “She feels it. She knows it. And she’s experienced it. In the three administrations I’ve worked with — those include Republicans and Democrats — this is the first time that someone with an election certificate in that office really understands these programs.”
Webster credits Flanagan for an early victory for advocates of anti-poverty spending: a $100 increase in monthly payments from the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s welfare program for low-income families with children.
“That was huge,” Webster said. “I personally had been running an uphill battle on that for 17 years.”
The increase, approved in 2019, was the first in 33 years. “It hadn’t seen an increase since I was in eighth grade,” said Flanagan, who benefited from the program in her childhood. “It’s always been on my radar. I lobbied for it at Children’s Defense, I worked on it in the Legislature, and frankly, it matters who’s in the room where it happens.”
Despite her unapologetic posture as a progressive, Flanagan underscores that the MFIP increase and subsequent legislation that indexed future increases to inflation were approved by a politically divided House and Senate.
“Relationships matter, and I build those relationships,” she said.
Flanagan said she’s also helped secure state investments in affordable housing and the creation of a state office dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The latter was created with what amounts to lightning speed for the Capitol: In 2019, a task force was formed to study the problem — homicide rates for Native women are seven times higher than for white women — and earlier this year, the state office was up and running.
While Flanagan is quick to note that the plan had numerous supporters — from tribal advocates to fellow American Indian lawmakers and white Republicans — she has no doubt her presence as the No. 2 in the executive branch was critical when it came to approving funding in the public safety bill.
“For the first time ever in the history of Minnesota,” she said, “there was an Indigenous woman at the negotiating table.”
Coming soon: A report on Republican lieutenant governor candidate Matt Birk.