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Freshmen power

Published (7/15/2011)
By Kris Berggren and Hank Long
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The House’s freshmen members have held considerable sway during their first year in office. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Conventional wisdom holds that the House Class of 2011 “right”-sized the session’s agenda. Of the 37 new members, 33 are Republicans who represent what many pundits termed a “wave of political conservatism” in the 2010 election.

Professionally, they’re from diverse backgrounds, including farmers, teachers, a soldier, a photographer, a day care provider, insurance agents, a lawyer and small-business owners. Politically, it’s been said by supporters and critics alike that they present a united front, which House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls), describes as “very conservative and leaning towards the Tea Party position.”

How do they describe themselves?

“Headstrong, and a little naïve and a little daring,” said Rep. Joe McDonald (R-Delano).

“It’s really kind of an even keel group of people that come from all different walks of life,” said Rep. Kurt Daudt (R-Crown), elected by his fellow Republican freshmen to represent them on the caucus executive board.

“It’s tough to lump us all in a class,” said Rep. John Kriesel (R-Cottage Grove), an outspoken war veteran who voted against his caucus majority on the marriage amendment.

The group that arrived at the Capitol in January is often mischaracterized by the media as an organized “Tea Party” bloc, Daudt said.

“But I do think they all campaigned on a message that, ‘Hey, let’s get Minnesota back into economic prosperity, let’s create jobs, let’s turn this economy around to get Minnesota back on the right track by attracting businesses and really being a pro-job creation environment,’” he said.

Maybe they aren’t a “bloc,” but the voting power of the freshmen class helped pass bills featuring spending limits, no new revenue and government reform plus an add-on slate of social issues such as abortion limits, a constitutional amendment to define marriage and requiring voters to prove their identity.

Although Rep. Bob Barrett (R-Shafer) said freshmen legislators have made it clear to their caucus where their principles lay — such as smaller government that costs less — he believes first-termers have been productive in understanding their role within the Legislature.

“Anyone who is new in their position can’t come in there, guns-a-blazing,” he said. “We should be listening a lot more than we are talking, and I think, as the new group of freshmen, we’ve done that.”

The new majority’s zeal for conservative reform was countered by the red pen of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who vetoed all but one of the budget bills passed by the Legislature during its regular session. As the session closed with a budget stalemate, Dayton said he believed a group of newcomers representing “the extreme right wing” of the Republican Party pressured their caucus leaders to refuse to compromise on a tax increase.

“I don’t think leadership needed our coaxing,” said McDonald. “If we contributed to their determination to hold the line on the budget then we’ve done what I think the people elected us to do: cut some wasteful spending, lower taxes and balance the budget.”

Leadership views

Are those principles so extreme? They served as a campaign platform – along with creating jobs — for many lawmakers, including House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove).

The Republican House leader calls most of the new group “center-right” and said their values generally match his own. “My voting record especially when it comes to spending is, I’m as conservative on fiscal issues and probably most issues as anybody here,” Zellers said.

He’s impressed with his freshmen’s chops – they’ve carried “complicated” bills that he doubted many of his own Class of 2003 could have pulled off.

“On the reform side our freshmen have been dynamic. Our freshmen are interesting in that they’re not really freshmen,” said Zellers. He said the life experience and personalities of this year’s class have given them the tools to carry significant bills through an often heated and very public process.

For example, Rep. Pam Myhra (R-Burnsville) carried a significant education bill proposing a statewide literacy plan featuring a third-grade retention policy for students unable to read. She learned from the give-and-take of the committee process that a bill gets better with the vetting and tweaking throughout the session.

“You take an idea that you feel passionately about or that has come from a constituent and mold it like clay. And as you bring it forward to your colleagues on both sides of the aisle they have really good ideas. One of the things a DFL colleague mentioned was the need for instructing teachers in more effective ways of teaching reading. And that was emphasized in the final bill presented to the governor,” Myhra said.

Myhra also said party leaders respected all members’ ideas and contributions.

“I’ve never sensed that because I’m a freshman it’s diminished my influence in the caucus,” she said.

“Open mic night”

To build communication and trust, Zellers used tools he learned during his early years. For one, he asked first-year Republicans to elect one of their ranks to serve on the executive team.

“It was important they felt not only were they part of the process but they had representation on our leadership team, a seat at the table. I learned that from (former House Speaker) Steve Sviggum.”

One practice that helped freshmen find their sea legs was the regular Monday post-floor session “open mic night.” During these gatherings, new members could ask anything – and they did, from whether they ought to bring a toothbrush and pajamas for late night sessions to “deep philosophical questions” to demands for justifying budget targets.

“If there’s one question we hear time and time again, it’s ‘Well, why?’”Zellers said. “We’re going to spend this much money on this budget, ‘Well, why?’ This is a priority to us and these dollars are for education, these dollars are for higher ed, ‘Well, why?’

“The extra time helped us come along in caucus and as a leadership team,” he said.

Social versus spreadsheet priorities

Leaders’ attention to new members’ needs didn’t help them get a budget enacted by the end of session, however.

After tending to spreadsheet priorities by passing a budget that held state spending to $34 billion without raising revenue, the House took up social issues that drew fire, such as abortion limits and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

That’s where the conservative class’s influence came into play, believes Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing), one of only four new members of the party currently in the minority.

“I thought that the Republican freshmen went to St. Paul to create jobs too,” Melin said. “Yet we wasted how many hours talking about divisive social issues?”

Others downplay that argument. McDonald said he spent just seven hours on the marriage amendment while it was debated on the House floor.

“We’re able to do many things at once. … There is no reason we can’t be working on many projects at one time,” McDonald said.

In contrast, Kriesel believes the end-of-session focus on social issues didn’t serve the people of Minnesota. “Right or wrong, what’s the thing that sticks out about the end of session? The marriage amendment. And so perception is reality.”

Compromise or caving in?

Merely passing fiscal or policy bills isn’t enough, and there’s the rub. The majority has to pass bills the governor will sign into law.

What to some is pragmatic compromise others might call caving in.

“I think we are willing to compromise to a certain extent,” Daudt said, “but the way we are seeing the word used, as it’s being used by the governor right now, is not compromise. The term I would use instead is ‘playing games.’”

Days before a possible state shutdown, Rep. Doug Wardlow (R-Eagan) remained hopeful the governor and Republican leadership could come to a budget solution, but he too, said the word “compromise,” as it was used in the context following the legislative session, is the crux of the problem.

“There is no compromise between right and wrong,” said Wardlow. “It’s difficult sometimes to discern what the right answer and wrong answer is. And people have different opinions about that. So you compromise in your attempts to define what the right or wrong answer is, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right answer.”

Melin said sticking to your guns is “admirable, but it doesn’t work in politics. You might run on one thing, but when you get to St. Paul, you’re trying to strike a deal with hundreds of other people,” she said.

Kriesel also called for practicality from both sides of the aisle. “People need to be reasonable right now because there’s a lot on the line. Saying we’re not budging, that’s fine. But it’s not reasonable. What do we teach our kids? What do we expect when we’re dealing with people? We say, you need to compromise, but then some of us don’t?” he said.

Compromise, Thissen said, not only means accepting things that you don’t necessarily agree with, “but more importantly, that your base doesn’t necessarily agree with.

“What Minnesotans want are legislators who are willing to come to the middle and simply not just appease their base. That’s what the Democrats in the Legislature did with Gov. Pawlenty … and I think that’s where the Republicans need to move.”

Nobody’s immune from the pressures of running for office or of considering whether their vote will cost them at the ballot box. Kriesel said he tries not to think about that but rather, to vote his conscience. “You’ve got to think about what’s right regardless of whether or not if it’s going to hurt you or help you in your campaign next year.”

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