‘Anything is possible’: Recovery advocate, ex-felon makes a run for Duluth City Council

17 July 2023

As the August 8 Duluth City Council primary nears, candidate Miranda Pacheco, an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and her campaign manager Bridget Holcomb have been out campaigning around the city. Knocking on strangers’ doors and telling them why you deserve their vote can be tough. In Pacheco’s case, both candidate and campaign manager knew they had their work cut out for them.

When she moved to Duluth from south Minneapolis in 2015, Pacheco, 43, had struggled with addiction for much of her life. When she moved north, her life had hit a low point: She was homeless, had lost custody of her three children and faced two felony drug possession charges.

Following her recovery journey, Pacheco found steady work as an addiction counselor and in the Duluth shelter where she lived for a time when she first came to the city. She now owns her own home in west Duluth and has regained custody of her children. 

Earlier this year, Pacheco, who’s made a name for herself in the local recovery community, got a text from a friend, asking if she’d ever consider running for office. 

Without hesitation, Pacheco replied to her friend’s text saying yes, she’d like to run for city council. She was inspired by the late Renee Van Nett, Duluth’s first Indigenous city counselor, who died of cancer in 2022 at age 52. Pacheco wanted to keep Native representation going in the city. 

“I thought she was fierce and amazing,” Pacheco said of Van Nett. “Ever since I met Renee, I wanted to be a leader like her. She showed me how a Native person looks in those kinds of positions. I want to continue to have representation in places like that.”

Until this spring, when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill restoring voting rights to ex-felons, Pacheco would not have been able to vote. Now, her first-ever vote will be for herself. 

In the beginning, Pacheco figured her complicated life story would be a liability in her campaign. She told Holcomb she’d like to keep it quiet, but Holcomb had a different idea: At their first in-person meeting, she asked Pacheco to lay all her cards on the table.

“She was like, ‘Come on, Miranda. Tell me your story,’” Pacheco said. “So I blurted it all out. She said, ‘Wow,’ and I said, ‘Let’s just not tell that to the public.’ She was like, ‘Wait. What? You know we have to. Your story is so inspiring.’” That response changed Pacheco’s mind. “Now,” she said, “my story is my strength.” 

So far, putting Pacheco’s story up front has been effective on the campaign trail. “People respond really positively,” Holcomb said. “We usually lead with the fact that she was a felon and that she lost her kids to the system and she was homeless. Then we talk about how she fought back to get her life together and the sort of person she is now.” 

According to Holcomb, that kind of story appeals to people in Duluth. “What I love about Duluthians is we’re not going to judge somebody on where they’ve been,” she said. “We’re going to judge people on what they are doing now and whether they show up for this community. Miranda is this incredible example of someone who got her life back, and the first question she asked was, ‘What can I do to support my community?’” 

After a rocky start, Pacheco’s got her door knocking sea legs. “The first couple were kind of scary,” she said, “but people are pretty open to talking to me. Some people are like, ‘We’re going to vote for you.’ I don’t have to talk to them too much. But one lady told me I should quit. I said, ‘If you tell me to quit, that makes me want to try harder.’” 

Out from under

Back in 2015, when she moved to Duluth, Pacheco was running from the traumas of her past. 

“I was actively in addiction,” she said. “I was homeless. My kids were in the system. I was looking at 86 months in prison. That scared the crap out of me.” 

She checked herself into Mash-ka-wisen Treatment Center, a Sawyer-based program focused on the needs of American Indians, in October 2015, and stayed until January 2016, later spending time in the program’s halfway house. When she completed her treatment, Pacheco had the option to move back to Minneapolis. “My addict self wanted to do that,” she said, “but something made me stay here.” 

Once she made the decision to build her home in Duluth, Pacheco’s life started looking up. “I hit the ground running,” she said. “I really wanted to get my kids back into my care. I had to get housing and a job. That was through literally blood, sweat and tears.”

One key to meeting these goals was earning an education. Pacheco enrolled at Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College, where she earned her associate’s degree and a chemical dependency certificate. After completing an internship at Mash-ka-wisen, she was offered a job there. 

The job at Mash-ka-wisen is a realization of a dream that began when Pacheco was enrolled in the treatment program. “I told myself, ‘I am going to come back here and be a counselor,’” she said. “I am living that dream right now.” 

Regaining custody of her children was a significant step in Pacheco’s recovery. Today her son, age 22, lives in nearby Hermantown, and her daughters, ages 17 and 13, live with her in the home she bought in 2021, with help of a Duluth housing support nonprofit called One Roof Community Housing.

“They had a matching system where every month you put in $93 and they matched me two times,” Pacheco explained. “I did that for a year so I could save up for a down payment.” 

Duluth feels like the right place to put down roots, she said: “It is a safe environment here for me. I feel grounded when I’m here. It’s probably because of the water.”

Photo by Todd Thompson
Miranda Pacheco, right, and campaign manager Bridget Holcomb shown during a photo shoot.

The water of Lake Superior has a deep, spiritual meaning for Pacheco. She credits her recovery with prayer that grew from living in a space where she felt a deep connection. “When I was using, I didn’t seek out my culture,” she said. At Mash-ka-wisen, “They teach us about spirituality and how to pray. I’m sober now and all those things are so powerful. It’s replacing the power of addiction with something equally powerful.” 

Odds for success

What are Pacheco’s odds of winning a seat on the city council? Holcomb, for one, thinks her candidate has a good chance. 

“I am optimistic,” she said. “She got the DFL endorsement, which means a lot in this town. She is leading from her heart and she shows up 100% as herself everywhere she goes. There is never a disguise that she puts on. She is never trying to fool anybody.” 

Holcomb believes that Duluth voters will be inspired by Pacheco’s life story and touched by her commitment to helping others and improving life in her adopted city. “After completing addiction treatment, finding a job and buying a house,” Holcomb said, Pacheco, who is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in social work at Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica, “goes back and takes a job at two of the organizations she went to for help when she was fleeing from trauma and violence. Every day she helps people who are in the same position she was in.” 

And being open about Pacheco’s past has proved inspirational for some, Holcomb said. “We’ve had multiple people reach out to the campaign who say, ‘I’m a felon. Seeing you inspires me. How can I help?’ People need role models like her.” 

Pacheco said that when she was in the depths of her addiction, she would’ve loved to hear about someone who’d lived a similar life and was able to get out. She believes she lends an important perspective to the debate, one that is too often ignored. 

“People like me, people with felonies, people who were homeless before, we need to be in these positions because we haven’t been allowed to the table,” Pacheco said. “We can bring a different viewpoint and representation.” And having her voting rights restored feels hopeful, she added: “I have a voice again. I know my voice is important. I feel like I’m part of society and this community again.” 

With the primary just weeks away, Pacheco continues to confront her past head-on every time she talks with potential voters. “I tell them that I came to Duluth homeless and in active addiction with my kids in the system and I turned my life around here and I’m in the position now where I want to give back,” she said. “That’s my quick speech. The root of it is representation for Native people and for felons or people with a past. I want people to see that anything is possible. I want to inspire them to keep on going.” 

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