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The Leaders in the States

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You saw them speak at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Now learn more about who they are and what they stand for.

President Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams, Governor Gretchen Whitmer — they all got their start in state legislatures. From redistricting to voting rights to health care, so much of the crucial work of governing takes place at the state level. Here are the 15 state legislative leaders you saw at Tuesday’s keynote and roll call.

Sen. Nikema Williams, Georgia SD 39

Nikema Williams was raised in Alabama, in a home with no running water or indoor plumbing, by grandparents who instilled in her the importance of the vote. She moved to Atlanta to build her life and after years of working for Planned Parenthood, ran and won a seat in the Georgia Senate. Nikema quickly rose to become the chair of the Georgia Democratic Party and has been a prominent voice in the fight against voter suppression, even getting arrested on the steps of the state capitol for demanding that every vote be counted in 2018.

Following the recent death of renowned civil rights leader Representative John Lewis, Nikema was selected as the Democratic nominee to fill his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Sam Park, Georgia HD 101

“We have lived the feeling of helplessness when someone you love is very sick and access to health care is a matter of life or death.”

Sam Park grew up in Georgia, the grandson of Korean War refugees. He earned his law degree and worked on multiple Democratic campaigns before deciding to throw his hat in the ring. He was inspired to run for office after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and was able to receive treatment thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

In 2016, Sam flipped his state House seat blue, becoming the first openly gay man and first Asian-American Democrat to serve in the legislature. When he’s not in session, Sam works as an attorney for Positive Impact Health Centers, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Georgia.

Rep. Craig Hickman, Maine HD 81

“My husband and I aren’t corporate tycoons, we just want to make an honest living and feed our community.”

Craig Hickman runs a 25-acre organic farm and bed & breakfast in Winthrop, Maine, the type of small business that makes up the backbone of rural economies across the country.

Craig flipped his Maine House seat blue in 2012, becoming the first openly gay Black person to serve in the legislature. There, he’s been an advocate for addressing racial inequality and systemic racism in the state.

Rep. Claire Cronin, Massachusetts HD 11 Plymouth

“Biden will get the pandemic under control…help small businesses & our restaurants recover, & build back better so our economy is stronger & fairer than it was before.”

Attorney Claire Cronin was elected to the Massachusetts House in 2012 and became the first woman to chair the joint committee on the judiciary. In 2018, she championed the passage of a landmark criminal justice reform bill, bringing greater transparency to the judicial system.

Just this summer, Claire sponsored legislation to remove obstacles to abortion care, pass emergency paid sick leave, and expand access to telemedicine.

Rep. Mari Manoogian, Michigan HD 40

“In Michigan, we’re banning business practices that have exploited workers and cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in lost wages.”

At 27, Mari Manoogian is the youngest woman serving in the Michigan House, where she’s fought for clean drinking water and public schools since 2018. Mari is the great-grandaughter of refugees and the first Armenian-American woman to serve in the state legislature.

While her legislative focus is now local, Mari has extensive experience in foreign policy. She previously worked with the Council on Foreign Relations, assisted former Ambassador Samantha Powers at the United Nations, and served at the U.S. State Department.

Sen. Yvanna Cancela, Nevada SD 10

“In Nevada, we’re making drug prices more transparent, so people with chronic illnesses won’t go broke while drug companies get rich.”

Yvanna Cancela is the first Latina to serve in the Nevada Senate, representing the famed Las Vegas Strip, a major service industry hub that she knows well. Before being elected in 2016, Yvanna worked for years as the political director of the Culinary Workers Union, which represents 60,000 Nevadans with members from over 178 countries speaking over 40 different languages.

When not in session, Yvanna works as the executive director of the Immigrant Workers Citizenship Project, Nevada’s only organization offering free help with naturalization applications.

Rep. Denny Ruprecht, New Hampshire HD Grafton 15

“We ran for office because we know the struggles that American families are facing, because we’ve lived them.”

Denny Ruprecht is a lifelong resident of Grafton County, New Hampshire. He was raised in Bath by his mother after his father, a millworker, died when Denny was 3.

As a 19-year-old freshman at Plymouth State University, Denny decided to run for the legislature in 2018. He won that race, flipping the seat blue, and became the youngest member of the New Hampshire General Court. While in office, he’s been an advocate for broadband access and public education.

Rep. Derrick Lente, New Mexico HD 65

“New Mexico is a diverse state, home to 23 indigenous sovereign nations with a rich multicultural history.”

Derrick Lente was raised in a traditional Pueblo family and has vast professional experience working at the intersections of federal, state, and tribal issues.

Derrick was elected to serve in the New Mexico House in 2016 and represents several tribal communities in his district. He is a passionate advocate for respecting tribal sovereignty and committed to preserving the state’s cultural and natural resources for the next generation. Derrick is also credited with introducing and helping pass legislation changing the state’s recognition of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, Pennsylvania HD 181

“A new generation of leaders is rising up.”

Malcolm Kenyatta was born and raised in the city he now represents, North Philadelphia. He became a community advocate early, running as a pre-teen for junior block captain to address some of the issues he saw in his neighborhood. After graduating from Temple University, Malcolm worked as the diversity and inclusion engagement coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia.

He won his seat in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 2018, becoming the first openly-LGBTQ person of color to serve in the legislature. While in office, he’s been a champion for raising the minimum wage, criminal justice reform, & LGBTQ equality.

Sen. Carmelo Rios Santiago, Puerto Rico SD 2

“Los puertorriqueños somos ciudadanos de Estados Unidos, algo que Donald Trump aparenta haber olvidado mientras nuestra isla se enfrenta a estos tiempos difíciles.”

Attorney Carmelo Rios Santiago was elected to the Puerto Rico Senate in 2004 and rose to become the majority leader three years ago. He also serves as the president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.

Puerto Rico is home to more than 3 million US citizens who are not eligible to vote in presidential elections. This year, there is a referendum on the ballot asking Puerto Ricans to vote on whether to join the Union as the 51st state.

Rep. Joseph McNamara, Rhode Island HD 19

“Our state appetizer, calamari, is available in all 50 states.”

Joseph McNamara has served in the Rhode Island legislature for over 25 years, working to address the opioid crisis and empower students across the state. He also serves as the chair of Rhode Island’s Democratic Party.

Joseph is credited with giving one of the most memorable roll call addresses of this year’s Democratic Convention, referring to Rhode Island as the “Calamari Comeback State.” But he also touched on the tough times that have befallen his state’s fishing and restaurant industries in the midst of the pandemic.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, South Carolina SD 42

“Joe knows it’s not enough to rebuild the economy the way it was before, we’ve got to build it back better.”

The grandson of sharecroppers, Marlon Kimpson was elected to serve his North Charleston community in the South Carolina Senate in 2013. Marlon fights for laws to improve the state’s health and education systems. Since the pandemic began, the unemployment rate in his community has quadrupled, and he’s very concerned that evictions could put families out on the street.

Marlon is also a trial attorney, representing a variety of clients including asbestos workers injured by occupational disease, employees whose retirement funds have diminished due to fraud, and students whose civil and human rights have been violated.

Rep. Victoria Neave, Texas HD 107

“In Texas, we’re standing up for fierce women like my mom and my tias who raised me to never back down from a tough fight.”

Attorney Victoria Neave grew up in a working-class family in Dallas, an area she was elected to serve after she flipped her Texas House district blue in 2016. The daughter of an immigrant with a sixth-grade education, Victoria is an example of how our public school system can help a family realize the American Dream.

In her first term in office, Victoria wrote and passed legislation to address the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits, bringing long-overdue justice to survivors of sexual assault. Now, as Texas faces one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, she’s fighting to make sure mothers have access to health screenings for safer pregnancies & childbirths.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Tennessee SD 29

“The nurses in Memphis who came out of retirement to treat patients during this pandemic — you built this country.”

Raumesh Akbari is the chair of the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus and the former chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus. Since being elected to the legislature in 2013, Raumesh has been a champion for criminal justice reform, reproductive health care access, and reducing maternal mortality, especially for women of color. She’s advocated for the expansion of Tennessee’s Medicaid program, as well as a state-level law that would ensure women receive equal pay.

Raumesh previously addressed the Democratic Convention in 2016, where she spoke at length about fighting for free community college and the crippling burden of student loan debt.

Rep. My-Linh Thai, Washington HD 41

“As a 15-year-old refugee from Vietnam, I knew that education was the key to finding opportunities in my new home.”

My-Linh, a Vietnamese refugee, has championed legislation for schools, food security, & ensuring that courts are accessible to all, regardless of immigration status.

Before being elected to the Washington House in 2018, she served on the Bellevue County School Board, where she fought to improve the public education system.