STRANGERS TO COLLABORATORS
By Mary-Margaret Zindren, CAE, EVP/Executive Director
There’s a lot that’s unpredictable about policymaking at the state level. There are always twists and turns related to which legislative proposals get traction, whose arguments will prove most persuasive, and what will actually become law.
One thing that you can always count on is change; in particular, change in the cast of characters who make up the Minnesota State Legislature. Turnover creates the regular challenge for AIA Minnesota’s government affairs team of getting to know a new crop of legislators every two years. Turnover results in loss of institutional knowledge while at the same time opening up opportunities for new leaders, with new perspectives, to take on positions of power and influence.
One of those next-gen leaders is Rep. Fue Lee. Rep. Lee (DFL) represents District 59A of Minneapolis. He is the first Hmong American to represent Minneapolis in the Legislature, having immigrated to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Thailand as a toddler in 1992. After attending Carleton College, he worked alongside former state Senator Mee Moua and Secretary of State Steve Simon. Rep. Lee was first elected to the Legislature in 2016 and has risen rapidly through the ranks, serving as an assistant majority leader for the House DFL Caucus from 2019-2020. Of particular interest to Minnesota’s architecture community, Rep. Lee has served as chair of the Capital Investment Committee since 2021 and sits on the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.
Over the past few years, our architecture community has moved from being strangers to Rep. Lee to being valued collaborators. This is thanks to AIA Minnesota’s four-pronged approach to legislative advocacy: dedicated staff time, contracted lobbyists, our political action committee (MAPAC), and most importantly, volunteer member engagement – from service on AIA Minnesota’s Government Affairs Committee and Board of Directors, to meeting with legislators from their districts, to testifying at legislative committee meetings.
The relationship built with Rep. Lee is a case study of the power of this four-pronged approach, and the importance of operating from our core values of authenticity, equity, collaboration, and integrity.
Within the same month that Rep. Lee began his term at the legislature (January 2017), Sheri Hansen joined AIA Minnesota as our first Director of Advocacy, Communications, and Public Outreach, significantly increasing the amount of staff time put toward legislative advocacy and bringing to bear her previous government affairs experience and strategic communications expertise.
Accompanied by member representatives, Sheri first connected with Rep. Lee at a House DFL Caucus event, our attendance made possible due to members’ contributions to MAPAC. Then, as part of a strategic outreach effort at the recommendation of our invaluable contract lobbyist, Sarah Strong-Belisle, and her colleagues at Cook Strong Sellwood, we met one-on-one with Rep. Lee. Our purpose was simply to introduce Rep. Lee to AIA Minnesota as an organization, share the organization’s legislative priorities, and offer to be a resource to him.
Rep. Lee was genuinely curious to gain a deeper understanding of architecture, the AEC industry, and how policy solutions can further the best of what’s possible for communities who have been harmed by or left out of decisions related to land use. His priorities for legislative action – including the importance of strong, consistent bonding bills – and his overall approach were deeply aligned with AIA Minnesota’s legislative agenda and core values. He asked for follow up, and Sheri worked with members to provide what was asked for and beyond.
Over time, AIA Minnesota has become the kind of resource we hope to be in all relationships. What had been built over the previous few years became the foundation for more intensive, strategic conversations this year about the bonding process itself. Sheri and Richard Graves, FAIA, from the Center for Sustainable Building Research, have worked closely with Rep. Lee on ways to streamline the bonding process and make it easier and more equitable for cities and nonprofits that don’t do bonding all the time — from adding staff at the Minnesota Department of Management & Budget, to creating more tools for SB 2030 compliance.
As these conversations have progressed, we are now providing insights related to establishing an interim working group to work through ways to make bonding work for everyone. We’ll also be talking more with Rep. Lee about his idea for a pilot project, where an entity in the very earliest stages of capital project planning can receive a variety of supports to be able to put forward a solid, well thought through proposal that reflects how SB 2030 will be incorporated in the project. Rep. Lee also spent time with our Leadership Forum cohort in 2022, sharing his perspective about ways to be an effective advocate.
While Rep. Lee is a unique person and unique leader, we believe that there are more legislators like Rep. Lee out there; legislators who could move from strangers to collaborators. Keeping our staff capacity strong and retaining our relationship with Cook Strong Sellwood are critical – especially in the midst of the most active legislative session in generations. Your membership dues make these supports possible.
You can also help to grow our impact by contributing dollars to MAPAC – truly, any amount is welcomed – and by contributing as much time as you are able, either to regular engagement in the Government Affairs Committee or in micro-volunteering opportunities to meet with legislators or share your expertise through testimony. As our growing group of member volunteers can attest, Sheri and Sarah will make it easy for you to get comfortable with getting involved, at a level that works for the time you have available.
Thank you for all the ways you support this work. It is work that is never done, always changing, and deeply important to the profession of architecture and the future of the built environment.
View the April 2023 edition of Matrix.