By Laura Billings Coleman / Photo by David J. Turner

North Minneapolis and Macalester College are about ten miles apart, but when Bobby Joe Champion ’87 was a student, the distance felt much greater.

The fifth of six kids, and the first in his family to go to college, Champion spent his first year at Macalester rising at dawn to board three different buses on his way to campus, setting himself up at the old student union’s piano as classmates streamed out of the cafeteria after breakfast. “I did not have enough money to live on campus and I didn’t want other students to know,” Champion remembers. “Coming to this elite kind of school, with white folks who’d traveled all over the world, there were times when I wondered, ‘What am I doing here?’ But the silver lining was that that ride gave me time to read the books I heard people talking about in class, and to get mentally prepared to make that transition between North Minneapolis and Macalester. I knew I had to figure out a way to get from where I was to where I wanted to be.”

Champion has been reflecting on that journey since becoming president of the Minnesota Senate, one of the most visible leadership positions at the state Capitol. When he first won elected office in 2008, he was one of only two Black lawmakers in the House of Representatives. Today, as a senator serving the 59th district, which includes North Minneapolis, Champion has become one of the body’s elder statesmen, presiding over the most diverse cohort of lawmakers Minnesota voters have ever elected. “I’m very excited about the diversity in both the House and the Senate,” Champion says. Gaveling the most important debates in the state, and leading fellow lawmakers in the Pledge of Allegiance “is really surreal. Not only because there’s never been a person of color who has presided over a legislative body in this state, but also because I’m someone who never, ever thought I would run for office.”

In fact, when he enrolled at Mac at the urging of Mahmoud El-Kati, a legendary Macalester history professor and activist, Champion was leaning toward working in the music industry. The leader of an award-winning gospel choir he co-founded at the age of thirteen, and a serious Perry Mason fan, Champion grew up “hearing those horrendous stories about Black artists who were in the music industry but poor because they didn’t understand the business, so I thought I would combine those two things that I loved—law and music.” After graduating from Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Champion served as a staff lawyer at Flyte Tyme, the recording studio run by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. A talented musician with a church-trained tenor voice, he even earned a Grammy nomination in 2003 as the director of the Excelsior Ensemble Choir.

But after starting a family with his wife, Angela, a pharmacist; serving in the attorney general’s office; and helping his friend Keith Ellison get elected to Congress in 2006, Champion decided it was time to be part of solving Minnesota’s growing racial disparities. In 2008, the first-time candidate lined up the delegates he needed to unseat an incumbent by hosting “Breakfast with Bobby” events where he served up eggs, bacon, and grits and developed one of his signature talking points: “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

“Minnesota is really a progressive place, but it’s like a tale of two states based on your socioeconomic background as well as your race,” Champion says. He thinks the problem stems from having too few people of color in public service, which leads to policies that are well-intentioned but often wrong-headed. “You can’t tell me you care about me, and you want to make decisions for me, but you don’t include me in the decision-making,” he says.

With the state’s Democrats holding power in the House, Senate, and the Governor’s office, Champion began the session as the chief author on a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday. He took the lead on allowing undocumented residents to apply for driver’s licenses, restoring voting rights for the roughly 50,000 Minnesotans on parole or probation, and passing the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and texture. He also earned high marks from both sides of the aisle for managing a respectful fourteen-hour floor debate on abortion access. “I’m motivated by the Scripture that says, ‘I don’t do things in order to get the rewards of men—I must do what is pleasing to God,’” he says. “I see that as my ability to see other people’s humanity, so when I’m presiding, I’m always looking for ways to create space for you to speak on behalf of your constituents with a sound and respectful argument.”

Still an early riser, Champion gets up every day at 3:30 a.m. to fit in a workout, manage his own part-time law practice as a contract public defender for Ramsey County, and take on new assignments, like his post on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Advisory Board. The board helps guide the economic growth of northeastern Minnesota, and Champion is its first Black member. “I know about our workforce, and I look at it as an opportunity to listen and to learn and grow,” he says, before adding that he expects to bring his own ideas to the table. “When you’ve been dealing with the same issues for a long time, it helps to have a set of fresh eyes.”

St. Paul writer Laura Billings Coleman is a frequent contributor to Macalester Today.

July 17 2023

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