In fairly short order, the four leading caucuses in Minnesota’s legislature have come together to produce two bi-partisan, bi-cameral bills that would divest an estimated $53 million of state pension money from Russia, as well as terminate contracts with Russian entities.
Ethan Roberts, the government affairs director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, has been working with the house and senate DFL and Republican caucuses and its leaders on the bills, which were introduced at a press conference Thursday afternoon, March 11.
“I’ve worked at this for 14 years at the legislature and I’ve never been had the privilege of being part of such an important bill,” Roberts said.
Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-60-A) is the lead author of the House bill and State Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-60) is sponsoring the Senate bill, whose lead author is Sen. Karin Housley (R-39). Roberts said that Jordan and Dziedzic largely cover Northeast Minneapolis, which has a concentration of Ukrainian immigrants.
“I’m joined today by members of both parties and both legislative houses to show that Minnesota stands firmly with Ukraine and our 17,000 Ukrainian-American neighbors living in our state to show solidarity,” Jordan said, adding that she is planning to include an amendment to include Belarus in the bill, as that county’s leadership has allied itself with Russia.
“I would really like to thank the Minnesota-Ukrainian community and the Minnesota-Ukrainian American Advocacy Committee for getting us together and rallying around this legislation to ensure that Minnesota does its part to bring about what is hopefully a swift end to this terrible war,” Jordan said.
Luda Anastazievsky and Asya Mikhailenko Sturgell, members of Minnesota’s Ukrainian-American community, both spoke at the event. Anastazievsky, who thanked Roberts and the JCRC for their role in helping this get to this point, said that as a public employee, she supports the divestment of her pension dollars.
“My friends and co-workers have been asking me how I’m doing. I want to use my Minnesota nice answer and say I’m fine, but I’m not. Honestly I can barely function,” Anastazievsky said. “Our state cannot provide defensive weapons, but it can fight back and defend Ukraine. Minnesota can help Ukraine by divesting its pension fund of all Russian assets. Our state both should not financially support a government that invades its neighbors without provocation and targets innocent civilians as part of its military strategy.”
Both Anastazievsky and Mikhailenko Sturgell have family still in Ukraine – Mariupol and Kyiv, respectively – and have not heard from many of them for days.
“This bill is a way the Minnesota Legislature can take responsibility to cut commercial ties with the Russian government and hold them accountable for these horrendous acts of war so that my family and friends can go back to living their lives in peace,” Mikhailenko Sturgell said.
Minnesota not alone
Roberts has been tracking, with help from Jewish Federations of North America, the approach that other states are taking with similar measures.
“Thirty-eight states have either done something or are thinking about doing something, and it’s everything from [government run] liquor stores to the state pension fund to contracting,” he said. “It’s kind of all over the map. But depending on when we get ours done, we might actually get ahead of the curve, not just not in terms of introducing something, but actually doing something.”
Having a bill in the Minnesota legislature is key because here, pension fund changes can’t be made by executive order – only through legislative action.
“Some states can do that completely through an executive order,” Roberts said. “I think it’s great [that Minnesota can’t] because it means that it’s not just the decision of one executive, one governor; it’s a decision of the whole legislature to own this.”
Rep. Jim Nash (R-47A), said that the amount of money being divested isn’t the point.
“I think every dollar matters, and I think it stands for what these people behind me and all 201 of us [legislators] here stand for,” Nash said. “So if it’s $53 million, $530 million or $5, $3 I think that the message is the appropriate one: That sovereignty matters, that you cannot invade a sovereign nation and depose a democratically elected government.”
Roberts said that having to go through the legislative process means it can show solidarity in a very public way.
“All of the [caucus] leaders support this bill, and of course the governor, who has encouraged the legislature to do this, does,’ he said. “I think if what we’re trying to model here is that it’s not just the governor of Minnesota, but that the people of Minnesota are standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, then doing it through the legislative process really proves that point.”
Roberts and the JCRC got involved after reaching out to Anastazievsky and Mikhailenko Sturgell. One of the first things Roberts and the JCRC did was was we sent a letter to all 15 members of the congressional delegations from Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, Roberts said.
Roberts thanked the Ukrainian community for reaching out to the JCRC.
“Their bravery, their resilience: it’s stunning,” he said. “It’s inspiring, and the trust that they have placed in our organization, it’s humbling. And this is justice.”