From Messenia to Minnesota: Senator Sandy Pappas Talks to TNH

Minnesota Senate President Sandy Pappas has deep roots in that state. She was born in Hibbings, a small city in the Northeastern Minnesota, about 100 miles south of the Canadian border. Though relatively unknown throughout the United States, Hibbings is the birthplace of quite a few celebrities, including home run hero Roger Maris and basketball legend Kevin McHale. It is also the town in which iconic folk singer Bob Dylan was raised.

Senator Pappas also has deep roots in Greece. Her grandfather, Vasilius Panagopolis, emigrated from the small village of Katsaros, in the Messenia region of the Peloponnese, to Minnesota about 100 years ago, joining legions of immigrants from numerous countries who found employment in the iron ore mines, she told TNH. Panagopolis went into the restaurant business, Pappas said, and then proceeded to work for the City of Hibbings.
Pappas graduated from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul – the Minnesota state capital and “twin city” to Minneapolis – and then, as a Bush Foundation fellow, earned a MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  (The “Bush” in question here is not a member of the presidential Bush Family, but rather Archibald Granville Bush, an executive for the Minnesota-based 3M multibillion-dollar company, who began the Foundation in 1953.) She taught political science at Metropolitan for 20 years.

Pappas was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1984, where she served three terms, and then left the House for the Minnesota Senate in 1990. In addition to being President of the Senate, Pappas is Chair of the State and Local Government Committee and is former Chair of the Senate Higher Education Budget and Policy Committee. Pappas also heads the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement, the Legislative Coordinating Commission, and the Subcommittee on Employees and Budget. Pappas is married to Neal Gosman, and they have three daughters and eighteen grandchildren.

Though Hibbings is also the hometown of Gus Hall, four-time presidential candidate of Communist Party USA, of which he was the head, Pappas, a Democrat, is not nearly that far to the left. She doesn’t think President Barack Obama, or prospective 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are “leftists,” either. “I believe Obama and Clinton are moderate/left,” she told TNH. “For example, leftists support a single payer healthcare system and normalizing relationships with Cuba; Obama and Clinton do not.”

Those unfamiliar with Minnesota politics might wonder about the ideology of Pappas’ party, the Democratic Farm Labor Party (DFL). “It is the same as the National Democratic Party,” Pappas said. “The Minnesota Farm Labor Party merged with the state’s Democratic Party in the 1940s, forming the DFL.”

Nonetheless, the DFL has a strong history of populist progressivism, whose fusion of the those two Minnesota parties in 1944 was led by then-rising star Hubert Humphrey, a force in the U.S. Senate for years and the Democratic nominee for president in 1968. Prominent DFL members over the years also included Humphrey’s fellow Senator and three-time presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, and former U.S. Vice President and 1984 presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

That Minnesota’s Democrats retained the “Farm Labor” portion in their name speaks to the state’s long and proud third party tradition, Pappas said. “Our state is more hospitable to modern third parties, such as the Independent Party, the Reform Party or the Green Party,” she added.

In fact, Minnesota made national headlines in 1998 by electing as governor former professional wrestler and actor, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who was a candidate of the Minnesota Reform Party. Later, Venura joined the Independence Party of Minnesota, breaking ranks with the Minnesota Reform Party when it disaffiliated win the National Reform Party – which had been founded based on presidential candidate Ross Perot’s platform, and nominated him for president in 1996 (Perot had also run for president in 1992 as an independent, gaining 19% of the vote). “We are innovative and accustomed to supporting third parties,” Pappas said, describing her fellow Minnesotans. “And we are used to overcoming adversity because of our cold winters – especially this year!

At a time when immigration continues to be a “third rail” topic of discussion among American politicians – afraid to address it for fear of voter backlash, Pappas has no such hesitations: “I am a big proponent of higher education,” the former college professor said, and proud of her role in introducing the Minnesota DREAM Act, passed by the state legislature in 2013, which allows students without immigration documents to pay in-state tuition and receive Minnesota financial aid.

Another issue that Pappas has championed with equal intensity is enhancing penalties for sex trafficking crimes, treating sex-trafficked children as the victims, not the criminals, and providing services to them.

Pappas has a strong legislative record in support of the environment, evidenced by a perfect 100% rating from the state’s North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Perhaps her love of the environment is hereditary. She visited her grandfather’s specific village, Katsaros, twice to meet her relatives. “It’s a village of about 700, and I seem to be related to most of them, including the town mayor at that time, his grandfather who remembered my grandfather and showed me the house on the town square where my family lived.” she said. “The owner of the local taverna was my mother’s second cousin.”

Pappas’ ties to Greece go beyond fond experiences in tracing her roots. She became involved with the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Association (WHIA) in 2007 and served as Board Treasurer from 2007 to 2009. “Our goals are to promote Greek culture and heritage in our states and countries, and to support various political positions, such as dual citizenship for Greek-Americans,” she said.

This past summer, for example, current WHIA president John Pantazopoulos visited the Interdisciplinary Centre for Aristotle Studies in Thessaloniki, with the goal of spreading the spirit of Aristotle throughout the world by establishing partnerships between the Centre and universities and cultural organizations in all of the WHIA member nations.

As for American national politics, Pappas has no plans to run for Congress, though she thinks “we need a broad consensus to elect members of Congress who believe in government and in governing.”

There may not be many Greek Orthodox Churches in Minnesota (there are only four), but they are the focus of the Greek communities, Pappas said, “known for their great summer festivals with music, dancing, and great food.” The communities maintain the culture and language, and speaking of food, “I had my family over,” Pappas said, “for a Greek dinner of family recipes: stifado with garlic mashed potatoes, Greek salad, spanakopita, Greek wine, and crusty bread.”