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Senate Candidate Profile: Rebecca Yanisch
By Michael Khoo
August 7, 2000
Part of MPR's coverage of Campaign 2000
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Minnesota has never elected a woman to the United States Senate, but that could change this year, if Rebecca Yanisch has her way. The Minneapolis DFLer is the only female major-party candidate seeking to challenge incumbent Republican Rod Grams. Although she's never held elected office, Yanisch is counting on her experiences growing up in the Red River Valley and her time as Minneapolis' top development official to propel her through the DFL primary to a match-up with Grams in November

THE YANISCH CAMPAIGN operates out of a converted, canary-yellow Victorian mansion just south and east of Minneapolis' downtown skyscrapers. It's open, it's airy, it's a little creaky and Rebecca Yanisch seems as happy to discuss her choice of headquarters and her candidacy.

"We're in the old Hinckel-Murphy House on the edge of downtown in the Eliot Park neighborhood," she says. "My very first job was in the Eliot Park neighborhood in Minneapolis and I certainly wanted to bring our campaign team to this headquarters to continue to have roots in the neighborhoods."

That "very first job" was as a temporary finance clerk with the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority. About 26 years later, Yanisch would return as the executive director of that institution, renamed the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. Her development background and quirky headquarters choice are not the only things to distinguish Yanisch. Most notably, she's the only "her" in a crowd of "hims."

"Gender is an obvious difference," she says. "But I do believe it is my other life experiences that will, again, give me the perspective on education, health care, affordable housing."

Yanisch downplays the gender card, but it's subtly woven throughout her campaign. She married early and divorced early. The story of the candidate giving birth without the benefit of health insurance and, as a single mother, working her way through the University of North Dakota, has proven too potent for the campaign to resist. At nearly every public appearance, Yanisch reminds potential voters she has not just studied their problems, she has lived them.

Meanwhile, the campaign de-emphasizes other aspects of her past. She was born on a family farm, but a fairly prosperous one which, by her own reckoning, covered more than 3,000 acres in the fertile Red River Valley. She says, however, she didn't lean on her family for support in the years after her daughter was born.

"The reality still was I had six siblings still at home. I knew I needed to do this on my own," Yanisch said.

On the Fourth of July, Yanisch, along with the other DFL candidates, worked the crowd during a parade in Forest Lake. She moved along the route asking for votes, shaking hands and drawing the attention of supportive women and men along the way.

Gustavus Adolphus political science professor, Chris Gilbert says Yanisch has really begun to pick up steam since she announced her candidacy last February.

"I think she was really struggling to find her voice, to figure out how to say what she wanted to say," Gilbert stated. "The fact that she's the only woman and the DFL party for years has wanted to put a woman back in Washington. That appeals to a lot of people inside the party."

On the campaign trail, Yanisch emphasizes family and social issues. She's presented detailed proposals for reducing prescription drug prices, called for expanding children's health care coverage and participated in the Million Mom March against gun violence in Washington, DC, last spring. Her area of professional expertise is urban development and finance and as head of the MCDA, Yanisch said her first priority was to set clear goals for the agency.

"To increase the affordable housing options, to remediate more of the old industrial polluted lands actually to triple the production of cleanup on those lands and also to concentrate on good, quality job opportunities for Minneapolis residents," Yanisch said.

Yanisch proudly says she hit all her targets. Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton and most city council members give Yanisch high marks for her tenure with the MCDA. Sayles-Belton was an early supporter of Yanisch's campaign, although she followed the party endorsement when it went to rival DFLer Jerry Janezich.

Despite the nearly unanimous praise for her competence and skill, at least a couple of Minneapolis officials believe Yanisch came down on the wrong side of several political questions. Council member Jim Niland chairs the council's Community Development Committee. He says despite Yanisch's claims, affordable housing initiatives fared poorly under her watch.

"We had a coalition of affordable housing activists that put forward a bunch of realistic proposals about what we could do to address the affordable crisis in the city," Niland said. "And the MCDA was not supportive of those proposals or strong affordable housing policy. In fact, during her administration at the MCDA, we actually lost more affordable housing units rather than gained them as we should be doing to deal with the crisis."

Yanisch supporters say it's unfair to blame her for a slide in affordable housing. They say a tangle of federal and state agencies often frustrated city efforts. Niland, who supports Janezich, says Yanisch also obstructed union organizing efforts while negotiating development deals. Former Congressman Tim Penny, however, doesn't see any flaw in her DFL credentials.

"You can have people on both extremes that will shout at the top of their lungs that 'it's my way or no way,'" Penny said. "And we usually end up going nowhere. Clearly she's a good Democrat in terms of her inclinations to work with and get the best deal she can for those constituencies that our party always fights for. In the final analysis, you've got to work out the best deal you can and move ahead."

Penny was considered a front-runner for the U.S. Senate race before his abrupt departure from the contest last winter. He has since come aboard the Yanisch campaign as a co-chairman. Yanisch has also picked up the endorsement of former Secretary of State Joan Growe and has attracted national support from Emily's List, an organization providing financial help to female candidates who favor abortion rights. All of which could make her a serious match for Grams if she survives the DFL primary.