Profiling Senator Bobby Joe Champion

By: Cirien Saadeh, Journalist & Executive Director

As we head into the 2023 legislative session, here in Minnesota, The UpTake is going to be sitting down with legislators, and specifically BIPOC and QT legislators. These personal profiles aim to introduce all of us to these returning and new leaders, and help us understand this incredibly diverse Minnesota State Legislature. 

We begin our first profile with Senator Bobby Joe Champion, a DFLer representing North Minneapolis, Northloop, Parts of Downtown Minneapolis, and a portion of Southeast Minneapolis. Champion is also the first-ever Black Senate President, first elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2012, after two terms in the Minnesota House of Representative. A graduate of Macalester College and the former William Mitchell Law School (and North High, too), Champion is a lawyer and is known for his legislative work around job creation, affordable housing, etc. 

Here’s what Senator Champion had to say in our interview. 

This interview has been edited for length.

Why did you get into politics in the first place and what was your first role in politics?

Sen. Champion: Being someone who was born and raised in North Minneapolis, I had always told myself that I would never, ever run for office. But I had helped now-Attorney General Keith Ellison with his campaign for state representative, and we were friends, and we were out and going to churches and community events and Keith would always say, “You should run for office.” And I would always say, “Absolutely not.” But later, I felt like the folks who were representing us were nice and kind people, but I just didn’t feel like they were doing all that they could do in order to make sure that our interests were truly represented. And as I was looking around, I didn’t find anyone who could or would run for office. And then I was at church and before I made that decision, as I was looking around, it was a Sunday and my minister at that time was like, “Hey, as Christians are always complaining about what’s going on with the government and everything else, when are you going to run for office?” And because I am someone who likes being part of a solution, not just glorifying a problem, I ended up running. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t in politics right now?

Sen. Champion: Well, I would still be doing what I’m doing, which is practicing law. I like to remind people that I have my own boutique firm, okay? And so it’s business, entertainment, criminal defense, both state and federal cases, and some family law, which I don’t always like doing, but I know how to do it. I ended up dabbling in all those different things because when I first came out of law school, I wanted to just be an entertainment attorney, which I am. But my clients who were football players and musicians and all the other things, they were always finding themselves in a little trouble. And so that sort of made me transition to including and adding on some other things that I find quite interesting even to this day.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned that you would not have learned if you had not been elected? 

Sen. Champion: Well, the first thing that you learn is that you don’t know everything. There’s always interesting issues and things that other people are experiencing that may be similar to but different from your reality. So while I have a history of growing up in North Minneapolis with parents who migrated from the south to the north, there are people who have always lived on the Iron Range, who grew up as farmers and are dealing with their own issues. So the first thing that you learn is that you don’t know everything.

Number two is that you have to have an open mind to really think about other people’s reality, right? There’s a saying “seek to understand then to be understood.” Usually whenever we discuss issues, we always want to talk about things from our perspective. But I think we should flip that and say, well, let me understand what you think or what you see and to be open-minded enough. Where I’m not just trying to figure out a way to debate the issue, but to find a way for there to be common ground.

And the third thing that you learn is the importance of compromise. Either you want to get things done or you don’t. There are people who say everything has to be my way and only my way, and those people usually don’t fare well in this arena. It doesn’t mean you don’t push people. You should push as far as you can in order to get your desired outcomes. But you have to understand that if you don’t compromise, you’re not going to get anything done, no matter how well intentioned you are. You just have to find a place to find agreement and I think whenever there are disagreements that those are just opportunities to find agreement. 

And I also learned that even though I’m from North Minneapolis, that I have the same if not better intellectual capacity as other people. People sometimes come to this place and space with certain worldviews, certain stereotypes. But I’m proud to be from North Minneapolis because it’s such a rich and vibrant community. Do we have challenges? Yeah, like any other community has challenges. But do we have assets? Absolutely. And so those are things that I’ve learned about myself.

We’re going into a really, let’s say, interesting legislative session. What do you think this legislative session might look like given all of your years of experience with all sorts of legislative sessions?

Sen. Champion: Number one, I think it’s going to be a really interesting opportunity because we’ll have a trifecta [EDITOR’S NOTE: the trifecta refers to the DFL Governor, as well as the DFL majorities in the Minnesota House & Senate).. But with that also comes challenges because you can’t be everything to everyone. It’s just impossible. 

And even though we’ll have that surplus, $17 billion, people hear that number and they go, “oh my God, that’s a lot of money.” It is, but it isn’t because it is never enough in order to do and make all the important investments that we believe to be important, whether it’s education, whether it is technology, broadband, teachers of color. How do we make sure that teachers are not paying all of their resources in order to make sure that they get the supplies and other things that their kids need? How do we make sure that teaching is an honorable profession where we invest in it. How do we make sure that the curriculum is robust and rigorous so our kids are being prepared, whether they want to go to vo-tech or college? How do we do that while at the same time making sure every family has an affordable housing choice? And that we have enough affordable housing units and that we have affordable housing units that have been rehabilitated? 

I could just keep going on and on and on and show you how these things are connected because they’re not siloed and we try to silo them. But it presents a challenge for us to say, “what do we do?” And I think what we have to do is make sure that we have a robust budget that makes the necessary investments. We know that $17 billion, a lot of that is one time. How do we make sure that we avoid having a structural deficit? How do we make sure that we have an ongoing way by which to make the contributions that we need to make? I say it’s going to be interesting, but I think it’s also an opportunity. 

Our first responsibility this year is to our budget then, not to all the other policy things that we sometimes want to do right away. 

It’s going to force us even as Democrats to understand that we all don’t think alike. We’re not monolithic. We have a big tent in the DFL. But with a big tent comes a variety of ideas. People come from different geographical locations, and have different interests, but I recognize that it’s all coming from a perspective of wanting to improve our quality of life. So if we remember that first, even if we don’t agree on the things that we need to do in order to get to that, I think just understanding that it is still a reflection of our values.

Is there anything this session you’re particularly excited about or nervous for? 

Sen. Champion: What I’m excited about is the opportunity. What I’m nervous about is managing our expectations and making sure that we’re being sound and thoughtful. We have a number of people who are what I call advocates who are advocating for things. And it’s really interesting because everyone says, “we’re really responsible for you all getting in the majority.” Then somebody else comes and says, “no, no, no, really we’re responsible for you all getting in the majority.” And I think that starts from the wrong place because we wouldn’t be here but for everyone pulling together. I have the saying, “if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”  How do we make sure all these different thoughts are at the table so we can truly wrestle with them and we can truly consider them and we can truly work towards improving our work? So I think that’s going to be an interesting dynamic because we have to manage some expectations, but also push us to make sure our values are reflected even when we don’t get everything we want.

You are the first Black person to be elected to be Senate President. That is boundary-breaking. What is that like? 

Sen. Champion: It is really mind blowing, right? I’m honored, but yet I don’t want me to be the only Black person who has been in that position, right? But you’ve got to start somewhere. 

If you think about it, since statehood, we’ve never had any Black legislator, not in the House or the Senate, lead the legislative body or preside over a legislative body. It really makes you think about it when you understand that the first African-American senator was not elected until 1972 and his name is Dr. Robert Louis. And guess where he came from? 

He was from St. Louis Park and he went to the University of Minnesota. That’s why there’s a building on-campus named after him. 

But now look, we’re going to have the most diverse Senate this year. 

It’s wonderful because they have that diversity of thought. And, God willing, to be elected formally on January 3rd to become President of this important body, I remember that whenever we are televised, that’s the angle that people will see. What will little Black kids and brown kids think to see me in that position? Because I want them to see themselves and see beyond me to say, “hey, if he can do this, I can do it.” 

It also helps our majority-kids for them to say, “hey, Black people are groundbreaking. They’ve always had a history of contributing.”  Sometimes they don’t always see that in their history books or even on television. 

Who is your hero? 

Sen. Champion: Oh, my dad. My dad came from Hope, Arkansas. He migrated from the South to the North, experiencing Jim Crow and everything else that the South did, he came here and made a life for him and my mom and the rest of us. He never was able to  graduate from high school, but he understood and pushed us to understand the importance of education and opportunity and hard work. He would get up every single day to work for Soo Line Railroad to really make sure that he could put food on the table because he didn’t just want a handout, he wanted to make sure that he could provide for us. And he wouldn’t let us just sleep the day away because if he had to get up and go to work, he was making sure you were awake and you were doing something.

And every year if you come from a southern family, you have to go back home and we would stay for two weeks and see the rest of your family that lived in the South. My dad would always show us the same route every single year. “Here’s where I had to walk from here to there to go to school.” Until he passed, he was working. He started a business, lawn care and snow removal business after retiring from Soo Line. He always understood the importance of faith in God. He didn’t always have that thought, but he evolved to understand how important it was to hand that down to us and to be someone that the community celebrated as well.

When his home going service happened, people came from all over because sometimes you can make someone’s day by just giving a smile and saying “hello.” My dad was always known to say hello. It was like he was in a parade,”hey, hey,” but he was recognizing that he saw you. Not only did he see you, but he appreciated who you are because you are fearfully and wonderfully made no matter who you are. He understood that we were all in his mind and in mine, all God’s children.

But I also recognize other community folks who’ve been in my life and who have made some contribution. When I was at Macalester, I could not afford to live on-campus my first year and there were people who allowed me to still live at home so I could go to school. I don’t know how I talked them into it, but thank God I did. Someone had to open the doors, to say “let’s do it.” 

And I also recognize that there are other people who help shape our thinking, or at least forced us to be critical thinkers. There’s all sorts of people from The Way, from Hospitality House and, Jerry Gamble’s Boys Club and Ruth Hawkins, or just the older woman down the street who just makes sure that we are doing the right thing. So those are all heroes, but my biggest hero will always be my dad and my mom.

What would you tell yourself as a child and yourself 50 years from now? 

Sen. Champion: What I would tell myself is that every day there’s an opportunity to be better, and if you take advantage of the opportunity to be better, you do not ever know where you will end up. But what is clear is that you’ll end up improving not just your own personal life, but the lives of people around you. My job is to be a conduit so that I can do the very best I can in order to make sure that someone else’s life is improved, even if I don’t know them by name.

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