Kenyan-American Huldah Momanyi Hiltsley wants to make history in the US. She is aiming to be the first ever black woman senator in the parliament of Minnesota if she wins on November 8.
Huldah, who left Kenya at the age of nine and has been a resident of Brooklyn Center for more than 20 years, is seeking to represent District 38 (equivalent of a constituency) in the Minnesota State Senate.
Riding on the Democratic Party, she believes she has a great chance of winning, considering that she obtained the majority delegate votes with 54 per cent during the party convention.
“If elected, I will be the first black woman in the senate in its 164-year history. I will be the first African-American, African immigrant and the first Kenyan-American elected into the Minnesota legislature,” said Huldah in an interview with the Nation.
The corporate compliance specialist was born in Nyamira County in 1985 to Mr and Mrs Philip and Tabitha Momanyi. They moved to the US nine years later. She attained a Master’s degree from Bethel University, Minnesota.
Her three Bachelor’s degrees from the same institution were on international business, international relations and reconciliation studies.
“I work as a senior privacy analyst in the medical device industry,” she offers.
Huldah is married to an American, Bart Hiltsley. They have a daughter, Jaydah Rae. She says the husband is her greatest supporter. And besides being the current president of Mwanyagetinge, an organisation of Kenyans in Minnesota, Huldah is a recipient of the Morrill Hall and Rachel Tilsen Social Justice Award for her commitment to social and restorative justice practices.
She describes herself as someone who values integrity, accountability, transparency and equity. The Minnesota legislature is composed of 67 senators and 135 House of Representative seats. Senate is the upper house.
While the state elected its first woman to the senate in 1927, it took 75 years before a woman with Asian heritage got the privilege. Hmong-American Mee Moua was the first Asian to be elected in 2002.
Besides Huldah, 24-year-old Somali-born Zaynab Mohamed is another African immigrant eyeing District 63 of the same state.
Both Huldah and Zeynab had a similar push to join politics.
When they, at different times, visited their parliament to advocate their communities’ issues, they noticed there were no elected leaders from the minority group. There was a screaming need for diversity and inclusion.
And in finding someone to represent them, the two looked no further than themselves. With the November mid-term election drawing closer, Huldah has intensified her campaign to join the 67-member upper house in what she believes is a promising race to replace Senator Chris Eaton. Chris, who has been at the helm since 2011, will not be seeking a re-election.
“I am running to motivate our people, especially those from the minority communities, including African immigrants, to run for office because we need more of us in places of power. I am running to bring the much-needed diversity and inclusion and the change we want to see cannot come if we stand on the sidelines,” Huldah states.
Her manifesto, which they call platforms in the US, are tailored to public safety issues, affordable housing, small business, early childhood education and immigration reforms.
“I’m looking forward to finding sustainable solutions that create an environment where everybody thrives no matter their community or colour,” she says.
District 38 is home to the most culturally diverse population in Minnesota, with roughly 60 per cent of its residents being persons of colour, according to the 2020 US census. Blacks make up 33 per cent of the residents, Asians 17 per cent, while whites are 35 percent.
On that backdrop, Huldah believes the legislature should mirror their constituents in diversity. And what chances does Huldah have?
“In my assessment and the track record of my campaign, and keeping in mind being a first-time black woman candidate, we have a great chance of winning on the following grounds: We won the majority delegate vote with 54 per cent during the Democratic Party Convention, recruited the highest number of first-time party delegates and raised more money,” she states.
The hopeful says endorsements from main political parties are based on voters who have signed up to be party delegates through caucusing, as they call it in the US. Once the delegates have been determined, they go to the party convention to cast their vote of endorsement for their candidate of choice.
The candidate who gets 60 per cent of the votes wins the party’s endorsement. “The process is not as complicated as compared to that of Kenya. If no endorsement is made at the convention, then primaries are held and voters decide the endorsement for the particular party,” Huldah says.
Asked to draw a comparison between the political environment for women in the US and Kenya, she says the fairer gender faces challenges when running for political office in both countries, but the magnitude and nature of challenges vary.
“In the US, women of colour, especially blacks, face racism and other systemic issues. Raising money is also a challenge. Besides running a campaign, women are also working full time with family responsibilities on top of it,” Huldah says.
In Kenya, she observes, women candidates face even more hurdles, including intimidation, harassment and violence, coupled with lack of access to resources needed to run successful campaigns.
Unlike in Kenya, women in the US are more enabled to take on higher political roles as they have access to resources and organisations that promote women leadership and governance. However, there’s still a poor ratio between white women and blacks or women of colour.
It was never Huldah’s plan to become a politician, but with the thin line between her passion for public service and politics, she found herself crossing the line to seek a leadership position that would allow her to advocate her community’s needs at the state level.
And her father’s history makes a good reason for her to want to stand up for the minority; he was less than 48 hours from being deported in 2000, because of what she terms a broken immigration system.
“My father came to this country as a student in the early 1980s. After graduating, as a black man in the south, he could not find work. He eventually relocated to Minnesota in the late 1980s in the hope of finding employment,” Huldah narrates.
“For 11 years, he tirelessly fought the broken immigration system. With only 48 hours before he was to be deported to Kenya, it was the Baptist churches, led by the Progressive Baptist Church, that petitioned then-Senator Paul Wellstone to come to our aid and lobby for my father’s case,” she added.
In the dying minutes, the court overturned the family’s order of deportation and they were granted permanent residence status, which eventually led to US citizenship.
“He inspired me to run for the senate seat because I truly believe when good people run, lives are changed for the better,” Huldah says.