Jane Leonard and Karin Sonneman at the Growth and Justice office in St. Paul
Jane Leonard and Karin Sonneman at the Growth and Justice office in St. Paul (photo Sarah Whiting)

With an unprecedented number of women running for office this mid-term election year, twin sisters Karin Sonneman and Jane Leonard offer perspectives on what it is like to be, since childhood, on the inside of Minnesota politics. At age four, they moved from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., when their father’s employer — former Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman — became the Secretary of Agriculture during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Freeman’s wife Jane, who died this year at age 96, was instrumental as a mentor and role model. She was active with the growth of the state’s DFL party in the 1940s, UNICEF, Girl Scouts of America, and development programs of CARE. The sisters also had strong women role models in their family. Their mother had been the first woman editor-in-chief of the University of Minnesota Daily during a time of peace (a woman held the position during World War II because there were no men to fill it). Their great-grandmother graduated from college in Sweden in the 1890s before immigrating to the United States. 

Sonneman and Leonard were encouraged in their ambitions by their family, and grew up during a time of progress for gender equality in this country, particularly with the advent of Title IX. “From the get-go, we were surrounded by people in public service,” recalls Leonard. “There was no question in my mind that my job was going to be about service and trying to improve things.” 

Sonneman spent years as a public defender being elected as Winona County’s first woman county attorney in 2010. Leonard dedicated her career to rural development, and bridging the rural/metropolitan divide, and now heads the policy organization Growth & Justice. Although they count themselves lucky, both recall times when male colleagues would take credit for their ideas, or when a lack of women in leadership positions in their fields felt discouraging. 

Sonneman faced direct bias when she ran for county attorney in 2010. Her male opponent made comments that included the assertion that Sonneman’s career had been spent “fighting to get sex offenders and other criminals off,” that she had spent her time “coddling, defending, and enabling” criminals, and that her “natural inclination [would] be to let offenders off the hook.” Following widespread condemnation, including a public rebuttal by a retired woman judge, her opponent withdrew from the race.



Both sisters credit strong mentors and role models, male and female, for helping them achieve positions of leadership, and now strive to give the same gift to young up-and-coming professionals. They are happy to see the wave of women candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections. “Women bring an empathy that men don’t always use effectively in running things. Also, we get things done,” says Sonneman. 

“All of these policies over the years, where policy was set by men for women, and continues to be so, [that’s what happens] when you don’t have enough women running for office,” adds Leonard. “With all the women running now, we have a great opportunity to get them elected, and support them with the policies they are trying to change.” 

Women in leadership tend to build coalitions, they indicate — and not let ego get in the way of creating strong policy that one person wants to take credit for. “If we can embrace community as a way of organizing ourselves, and stop being distracted with all the craziness that’s happening, then we have all sorts of opportunity,” says Leonard. “As our grandmother used to say, ‘Brighten the corner where you are.’”

Sonneman has been working on bipartisan initiatives to reduce the number of people in jail in Winona County — an effort that started in 2007 with criminal justice reforms that are being done state- and nationwide on a community by community basis. She has attended national conferences with others who are working on similar programs that are “working to keep people out of jail, and to keep kids in school.”

“Everything is related,” says Leonard. Housing, child care, and transportation, for example, go hand in hand. “There is a narrative foisted upon us to divide us — the urban and racial divide — yet I can point to policy reports that [state] equity is the smart growth strategy. We need everyone we can get. To keep certain people out of power and wealth is crazy.

“It’s about trying to convince people to get out of their place of resentment, and emotions that color your views,” she adds. “That’s part of what attracted me to the work of Growth & Justice — actively working to bridge those divides, show how things are related, why we all need to work together.”

In the end, the sisters agree, “Women are tenacious.”