Soaring Above the Glass Ceiling

By MNR News posted 03-29-2023 10:09 AM

In an era when women faced inequity on every front, Deanna Wiener blazed a career in real estate, politics, and environmental activism. And she’s still going strong.  

When Deanna Wiener was growing up in St. Paul in the 1950s and 60s, there were three primary career options for women: nurse, teacher, or secretary. Otherwise, the default life path was married mom with children.

“Those were the kind of avenues we were given,” said Wiener, who is broker and co-owner of Cardinal, a realty, homebuilding, and remodeling company in Oakdale. “I didn’t challenge it. My mom was a homemaker and had a wonderfully happy marriage to my dad. I kind of assumed things would work out the same for me.

Yet when Wiener was graduating from high school in 1971, her mother gave her some surprising advice.
“‘Make sure you can take care of yourself, Deanna.’ I always remember her saying this because it’s not what I expected to hear from a woman of her era,” Wiener recalled. “But she knew things were changing for women, and it was important that I be able to get on my feet and support a family if I had to.”

After her first job working in a nursing home, Wiener took her mother’s advice and enrolled in nursing school at St. Mary’s Junior College. She emerged two years later with an RN degree, and the means to be self-sufficient. But after marrying her high school sweetheart, it seemed unlikely that she’d ever be alone or unsupported. Working as a pediatric nurse in North Dakota, she and her husband welcomed their first child, Allison. Soon after, they returned to the Twin Cities where Wiener juggled a job at St. Paul Children’s Hospital while racing to keep up with a busy toddler. The pace was frantic, and the reality of nursing was far more grueling than its glamorous depiction in the TV medical dramas. 

“I’d been growing frustrated with the way women were treated by doctors,” Wiener said. “One day during a busy shift, a doctor whistled to me like he was calling a dog. He wanted me to come over and help him. It didn’t even occur to him to use my name. That just stuck with me. I thought, I don’t want to be treated like this. My dad didn’t treat my mother that way. I didn’t grow up in that kind of household.” 

Making a new start in real estate  

Wiener thought there had to be a better way to make a living. Her father, Tom Wiener Sr., who owned Cardinal at the time, proposed an alternative. Real estate. Ready for a change, she squeezed in studying for her license between hospital shifts and diaper changes. In 1976, she obtained her real estate license, just two years after passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), a law that prohibits creditors from discriminating in credit transactions based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or marital status. For the first time in U.S. history, women had the right to legally obtain the line of credit required to purchase homes of their own. 

A single mother struggling in a working man’s world   

The following year, Wiener attended her first closing when she was nine months pregnant. She barely had time to celebrate when her second child, Geoff, was born. Six days later, her husband left her. Suddenly, Wiener was a single mother with two children, and a desperate need to turn a part-time real estate job into a fulltime career. 

Like most real estate offices of the era, Cardinal was inhabited almost exclusively by men. When not working at their desks and waiting for the phone to ring, they socialized during lunch in a smoke-filled backroom playing Gin Rummy. Wiener didn’t play cards, didn’t smoke, and didn’t think she’d be particularly welcome even if she did. So, although she was not pressed against a glass ceiling at her father’s company, there were some smokey regions she could not enter. She might have been a Realtor®, but she wasn’t one of the boys. 

Despite the ethos, Wiener credits her father with being exceptionally supportive of women at a time when many men were not. He encouraged her to stick with it and grow her business. With her brother, Tom Jr., in the homebuilding side of the business, Wiener worked to expand her real estate clientele. It was a slow process and fell far short of paying all the bills. 

“After my divorce, I didn’t have much child support, so I had to work outside the home while my mom cared for the kids. Even with my RN degree, there were times I had as many as five jobs, including giving a neighbor an insulin shot twice a day, and cleaning offices at night. I was doing real estate, of course, but didn’t have many clients at the time,” Wiener said. 

A political awakening in governmental affairs   

Because she was coming from a small firm, Wiener’s father urged her to expand her network by joining one of the local association’s committees. Her future husband, Jim Tilsen, whom she met in a real estate continuing education class, also encouraged her to attend caucuses and become more politically active. 

“I had two pathways into politics. I was a member of the DFL Feminist Caucus, and I joined the Realtors’® Governmental Affairs committee that year when they were focused on going to a precinct caucus. I was very supportive of women’s reproductive rights and Jim urged me to attend.” 

She continued to ramp up her involvement, eventually winning leadership in her Eagan district. This led to her becoming an alternate delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention when Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro were candidates for president and vice president. Amid all this activity, she continued expanding her real estate practice. All the pieces seemed to be coming together. In 1988, she became the first woman president of the St. Paul Board of Realtors® (now, St. Paul Area Association of Realtors®). 

Running for the Senate, despite butterflies and self-doubt   

It was around this time that a woman for a local political group urged her to run for office. 

“I came home after that meeting feeling sick. I just had butterflies,” Wiener said. “I’m not a lawyer, I thought. I’m not a professional speaker. I convinced myself I could not possibly run for office. Why would anybody even say that to me? So, I just tucked it away and it didn’t happen. But a little seed was planted.” 

By 1990, that seed sprouted into a campaign. Although she lost her first race, Wiener gained the confidence she needed to run again in 1992 when redistricting* opened the seat in two years instead of four. 

“The second time I ran, I won pretty handily, which was amazing because my district had the highest Republican index in the state.” Wiener credits her win to talking about issues of common interest to everyone, regardless of party affiliation. 

“I talked about the issues that brought us together. That’s why I think I won. Plus, I had a business side to me. That made a difference to enough people who were willing to cross party lines and vote for me.” 

Welcome Senator    

Before being elected to the Senate, Wiener had never set foot in the State Capitol. So, the experience was a little overwhelming. 

“As I entered the chamber, Ralph, a Sergeant of Arms, walked up to me and said, ‘Welcome Senator.’ I turned my head around thinking, ‘who are you talking to?’ Just to be called Senator was very disconcerting. I had never had a formal title,” Wiener said. “But you get used to it,” she added. 

Judging by her progress, Wiener got used to it quickly. Within a year, she was serving as whip under Senator Roger Moe, and took on roles as chair of the Higher Education Committee, and serving on the Commerce Committee, and Government Operations. Through it all, she prided herself on always reaching across the aisle. 

“Working together is just about good government. It’s not about partisan politics.” Wiener put her real estate negotiation skills to good use in the Senate and was appointed to numerous conference committees. In one of her early legislative efforts, she went to bat for the real estate industry. In that era, developers applying for zoning-change permits were often stalled by local jurisdictions that didn’t have defined timelines for responding. The delays were costing builders hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wiener’s bill, which became law as Minnesota Statute, Section 15.99, mandated that local jurisdictions must respond to permit applications for zoning changes within 60 days. 

“It’s called the 60-day rule, and it’s still in place today. It doesn’t mean jurisdictions have to approve the application of course, but they have to make a yes-or-no decision within that timeframe. They can’t just tuck it under the rug and forget about it.” 

Another bill Wiener worked to pass was an extended maternity stay law that required insurance companies to pay for at least two days of hospitalization after a woman gives birth. She also introduced a bill requiring insurance companies to cover the cost of diabetic supplies. It passed easily into Minnesota law and was later picked up by the U.S. Congress where it became national law. 

A growing divide in politics and society

In 2003, as Wiener approached the end of her time in the Senate, she noticed a shift in the body’s mood, culture, and collegiality. The friendly bi-partisan lunches and spirited, though respectful, backroom debates gave way to suspicion, leeriness, and outright divisiveness. In Wiener’s view, much of this change was fueled by the rise of social media. 

“The last time I ran, times were changing. It was harder for both parties to work together across the aisle.” Wiener added that while the proliferation of camera phones in subsequent decades has brought some much-needed openness to the political process, it has also widened political divisions. 

Reclaiming the power of the human voice   

The potential for division isn’t limited to politics. The business world is impacted, too. Electronic communications in general are ripe for creating misunderstanding and conflict, Wiener observes. 

“If you have a client who’s mad, you’ll know that from their text. Don’t text back. Pick up the phone. Have a conversation,” Wiener counsels. “You need to hear your client’s voice, and they need to hear your voice, too. If there’s a problem, let’s find an answer together. Whether it’s politics or real estate, it’s all about pulling people together and solving problems. If you have opposing points of view, you have to talk it out—or neither of you will get anything you want.” 

Cleaning the Mighty Mississippi   

A committed environmental activist, Wiener volunteers a lot of time for Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR), an organization working to restore, protect, and enhance the nation’s greatest waterway. Serving on the group’s board, she helps connect University of Minnesota researchers with large industrial farmers, agribusinesses like Cargill, and other players whose activities impact the river’s water quality. 

“There’s so much runoff from farms and industry sending brown, polluted water down the Mississippi and into the Gulf,” Wiener said. 

Although FMR works on myriad aspects of river health, from land use and planning, conservation, water quality, and stewardship and education, Wiener is particularly proud of their win in urging the Minnesota Legislature to ban triclosan, a dangerous water pollutant. Widely used in anti-bacterial soaps and other household products like toothpaste, the chemical traveled from household sinks into streams, lakes, and eventually the Mississippi. After extensive studies of Lake Pepin and other areas of the river, researchers from the University of Minnesota discovered that triclosan was disrupting sex and thyroid hormones in fish and wildlife. 

“Even worse, it was getting into human babies through mother’s milk,” Wiener said. Further, as triclosan degrades in the environment, it breaks into toxic dioxins. 

In 2014, Governor Mark Dayton signed a ban into law that allowed companies three years to comply. Following passage of the Minnesota law, the Food and Drug Administration banned all use of the chemical in the United States after 2017. 

The group also works with farmers to reduce topsoil erosion into the river by maintaining continuous ground cover with crops throughout the year. 

“The environment is not partisan.” Wiener reflected. “This shouldn’t be a Republican versus Democratic issue, or urban versus rural. It’s about all of us living together on one planet. When we take action to reverse the damage we’ve done, it benefits everyone.” 

Advancing the real estate industry as a force for good 

Ultimately, Wiener does not see her work in real estate, politics, and environmental activism as unrelated pursuits, but part of a greater mission to create a world where all people can thrive and build better lives. Realtors® are uniquely positioned to improve the quality of life in Minnesota by helping more people obtain affordable homes, Wiener observed. And much of that work begins with closing the racial homeownership gap. 

“Over the last 50 years, women have achieved a lot more equity in homeownership, and that’s an outstanding achievement,” Wiener said. “But Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) continue to have much lower homeownership rates than white Minnesotans. This hits the Black community particularly hard. Something must be done. This is not who we are. We can do so much better.” 

Wiener stressed that Realtors® can help by supporting political efforts to expand the availability of down-payment assistance for first-time homebuyers and making it easier for developers to build more affordable housing across the state. 

“Real estate has never been a nine-to-five job, and it never will be. You have to be passionate about helping people, solving problems, and always being open to learning from others,” Wiener said. “And those are exactly the kind of qualities needed to tackle the issues of equity, environment, and many other challenges facing our state.”