When will we see the last of firsts?

Mike KnaakColumn, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. Joseph0 Comments

After a 150 years, you’d think we would have lost our fascination with firsts.

In its Jan. 28, 1869 edition, the St. Cloud Journal reported Carl Christian Schurz was the first German elected to the United States Senate. The good people of Missouri elected Schurz, described as a German revolutionary and American statesman and journalist. After emigrating from Germany, he served as a Union general during the Civil War and became a prominent member of the new Republican Party.

I’ve always been bothered by “firsts” when they describe someone who fills a position or occupation that doesn’t fit a stereotype or prejudice. Most of the time the “first” is a person who is not white, male, Protestant, straight or of northern European heritage. This obsession affects all walks of life, but especially politics: first black president, first female presidential candidate, first Catholic president and on and on.

Last week’s election produced more than the usual number of firsts starting with, for the first time, more than 100 women will be members of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives.

We had several firsts right here in Minnesota, conveniently compiled the day after the election by Minnesota Public Radio News.

In the Nov. 6 election, Ilhan Omar scored her second first. Two years ago, she became the first Somali-American elected to a state legislature. In a heavily DFL district of south Minneapolis, she defeated Phyllis Kahn in a primary. Kahn had held the seat for 44 years.

When another “first,” 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison decided to run for Minnesota attorney general, Omar filed for his seat. Ellison himself scored first status as the first Muslim elected to Congress. And I guess he’s now the first Muslim to serve as Minnesota’s AG.

Omar easily won the election in the 5th, which is essentially Minneapolis and a few inner ring suburbs, with 78 percent of the vote.

At a time when Donald Trump has gone out of his way to demonize Somali refugees, Omar said this in her victory speech: “When people were selling the politics of fear and division and destruction, we were talking about hope. We were talking about the politics of joy.”

Minnesota’s firsts didn’t stop with Omar.

Also on the list, Peggy Flanagan will be the nation’s first Native American elected lieutenant governor. She’ll serve with Tim Walz.

In Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, Angie Craig defeated Republican incumbent and Minnesota’s own Trump Jr., Jason Lewis. Craig is the first openly LGBTQ person from the state elected to Congress.

MPR’s story went on to chronicle the state’s first gay sheriff, first women-of-color county commissioners and the first nonwhite, nonmale mayors in Rochester, Richfield and Moorhead.

When will we tire of tagging people with first? You’d think we have passed the point of amazement when someone who isn’t white, male, Protestant and straight could break into that world.

When you listen to Omar, Craig or Flanagan, listen to their words, even if you don’t agree with them politically. Put aside the “first” frame and see them for who they are – intelligent, articulate leaders.

Carl Schurz


Author: Mike Knaak

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