Meet Stephanie Gasca, the Bold Latina Taking on a 20-Year Incumbent for City Council in Minneapolis

Meet Stephanie Gasca, the Bold Latina Taking on a 20-Year Incumbent for City Council in Minnesota
Ryan Stopera

Stephanie Gasca is shaking up politics in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Mexican-Puerto Rican community organizer is running for City Council in the fourth ward, which represents North Minneapolis. Prioritizing police accountability, living wages for all Minneapolis residents as well as safe and affordable housing, the 31-year-old mother of two hopes to create progressive policy for and with the people.

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It’s an untraditional approach for the ward, which Barbara Johnson, the council president, and her family has run since 1971, but the bold Latina is up for the challenges.

“Running against a 20-year incumbent, whose family has controlled one seat for close to 50 years, could be a scary prospect for your typical politician, but in relation to what ordinary people have to deal daily with to survive, it is just another institutional barrier to overcome,” she told us.

On April 22, during the DFL Endorsement Convention, Gasca hopes to unseat Johnson. If she succeeds, she’ll become the first woman of color to represent the fourth ward, a minority-majority district.

We spoke with Gasca about her run, her support of Black Lives Matter, what bold leadership looks like to her and why we need more Latinas in all levels of government.

Why are you running for City Council in Minneapolis?

I am running for Minneapolis City Council because my life experiences and my work in community organizing have taught me that we need representation in our local government that reflects the values of our entire community. If we don’t have this representation, the institutional barriers that keep us down will never change. I'm here to build power with and for our most marginalized communities, those of us who have been historically and systemically left out of the decision-making processes that impact our daily lives.

You're going after a 20-year incumbent. That takes a level of fearlessness. Where do you think you get that from?

In Minneapolis politics, the incumbent is treated like an unstoppable force. Running against a 20-year incumbent, whose family has controlled one seat for close to 50 years, could be a scary prospect for your typical politician, but in relation to what ordinary people have to deal daily with to survive, it is just another institutional barrier to overcome. In my initial conversations with people about running for city council, a lot of political insiders suggested that I should, “wait my turn.” But from my perspective, waiting is not an option.  As a woman of color, born into a life of struggle, I can’t wait for the right moment. I don’t have the privilege of waiting and neither does my community.  We can’t wait, and we shouldn’t wait. What is fearlessness in the eyes of the typical career politician is ordinariness for most people in the real world.  

"What is fearlessness in the eyes of the typical career politician is ordinariness for most people in the real world."  

You're a supporter of Black Lives Matter. Why is the issue of police accountability important to you and your community?

North Minneapolis has a higher crime rate than the rest of the city.  However, our community members are often as afraid of the police as they are of criminals.  This is unacceptable. We all want to feel safe in our neighborhoods and community.

As a woman of color, I certainly identify with the need to call attention to the ways the police mistreat communities of color in the United States. The work of BLM has even greater significance to me because my two children, Alejandro and Kennedy, are half Black. The Trayvon Martin murder surfaced the reality that my own son could be killed because of the way he looks. Tamir Rice was only a year older than Alejandro, another reminder of what could happen to my son at the hands of those who are sworn to protect and serve us. This became clearer in 2015, when my son was being tutored next door to the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct Police Department, which would soon become infamous as the Fourth Precinct Occupation after police murdered Jamar Clark a few blocks down from the police station.

All lives are not going to matter until Black lives matter. When you look at the history of our country, Black lives have never mattered in the United States. We support BLM and the sacrifices that have been made and continue to be made to bring visibility to the harsh realities we still face as a nation in 2017.

What are some other key issues important to you and why?

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed in Minneapolis.  At the top of the list of issues that I would like to work on are: Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour with no tip penalty for the city of Minneapolis; Ensuring safe and affordable housing for all residents and making sure that renters have a seat at the table when housing policies are being made; Environmental justice and divestment from local high pollutants; Engaging the community in the process.

You've said that politics as usual does not work, and propose a more united, nonhierarchical path. How do you intend on making policy with the people, for the people?

Right now, the incumbent connects with a fairly small percentage of Ward 4 constituents. The policies that the incumbent advocates for reflect her friends, family and donors. These policies have created and perpetuated some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. Current City Council Leadership is not focused on being accessible for working people who are the most impacted by the policies she’s supporting. When the incumbent says that her doors are open and people should come to her, that’s in no way the same as meeting people where they are. I believe that government needs to meet people where they are at and educate folks about the process and mobilize them to increase engagement. Our organizing model centers the folks who are taking the risks, going on strike and challenging injustice in the workplace and broader economy. They are the folks making something out of nothing, surviving every day. But policy discussions intentionally leave these folks out of the conversation. Policy is being made without the people who are most impacted.

You've stated it's time for bold leadership. What does this look like to you?

For me, being bold means continuing to fight and speaking my truth. I have always had to be bold. I had to be decisive at 21 and navigate the court system to protect my younger siblings by becoming their legal guardian. This campaign is bold because most aspiring politicians go in wondering what the rules are and how to bend themselves to the system. They aspire to be perceived as respectable. What’s bold for my campaign is that we don't want to play conventional rules. My life experience informs how I want to think about policy. You can learn policy, but you can't learn life experiences.

"You can learn policy, but you can't learn life experiences."

You're a single mother of two. What do your little ones say about your run?

They are excited and supportive. My son has always seen me step up and be a leader. For him, it's what he expects from me. My eight-year-old daughter Kennedy has always been with me as I have become more involved and devoted more of my life to political engagement and advocacy. She is a constant presence at community meetings, rallies, interviews and more. She loves being involved. I often call her my campaign manager because of her enthusiasm and contributions. She has her own ambitions for public office and has policy ideas.

Why do you think it's necessary to have more women of color, particularly Latinas, in politics, from state & local to the federal government?

Women of color are resilient and natural-born warriors for justice, and we need people in office who are representative of our community. As the Trump administration seemingly encourages hate, we need people of color to defend against an agnostic federal government and Minnesota legislature. In Minnesota, our voting base is shifting toward more people of color. If we don't carry these victories now, the path to success for our children will be daunting. When you look at the history of our country, the role of powerful women of color holding it down is often downplayed or even erased. Our work needs to be elevated.

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What would representing the 4th ward mean to you?

We have had the same family running the fourth ward since 1971, so representing it would mean that we get to shape and create policy that’s different. We can convey a new vision for North Minneapolis that will be shaped by many more voices of the ward than what has previously been allowed, all the people that our political system ignores, pushes out and discourages. Being elected to represent the 4th ward would deal an enormous blow to this narrative that people who live here do not care about their community, that they don’t care enough to invest the time and energy in good governance.