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Soudan snowbirds

Published (3/25/2011)
By Sue Hegarty
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Pat and Bob Tammen leave their home in Soudan to come to St. Paul as citizen watchdogs. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)You might not notice Bob and Pat Tammen sitting in the House hearing rooms. Bob, clothed in a crisp, pressed dress shirt and necktie, blends in with the lobbyists, deputy commissioners and expert testifiers. Pat sits next to her husband, alert to the day’s agenda.

The Tammens are not on anybody’s political payroll, nor are they required to hear or give testimony about proposed legislation, unlike most in the gallery. Yet there they sit, day after day.

“We’ve seen a couple of committees that have citizens sitting there with equal standing. Sometimes I believe those citizens represent our values better than our elected officials,” Bob said.

On Pat’s 74th birthday, March 22, they were in the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee hearing by 8:15 a.m. for 90 minutes of testimony; then again as testimony continued into the evening.

A retired couple from Soudan, the Tammens could spend the long, cold Minnesota winter anywhere. Instead, they pack up their 24-foot camper and drive to St. Paul, where they park in the Sears parking lot across from the State Office Building, so they can be close to all the legislative action.

“We like where we live, and when we talk about the quality of life in Minnesota, Soudan has it,” Bob said.

They begin their mornings with a walk across the street to buy a newspaper and coffee in the State Office Building. After sitting though the morning hearings in the House or Senate, they grab a bowl of soup at the Rathskeller, the State Capitol cafeteria. Afternoons may include more hearings or witnessing a rally in the Capitol Rotunda. In the evenings, they often drive their self-contained Winnebago to a bookstore where they share a sandwich. Pat scours the bookshelves while Bob uses the wireless Internet to check email.

They pay Sears a monthly parking fee of $30. So far, no one has rattled their metal cage, but they do need to watch their step when the snowplow clears the lot. On weekends, they return home to do laundry, open the mail and repack for another week in St. Paul.

In the spirit of full disclosure, they say they are DFLers and lifelong union workers. Pat taught elementary school in the Ely area for 38 years. Bob was an electrician who worked in the mines and did contract electrical work at Xcel’s nuclear power plant in Monticello. They pay dues to nearly every environmental group, but neither has ever held a board seat, they said.

Bob and Pat met after he returned from Vietnam in 1965.

Bob worked for several mining operations and for U.S. Steel, where he became familiar with mining’s residual effect on the environment. “Most of us were pretty nonchalant about what we were doing. There were a few voices in our communities warning us about this, but most of us didn’t listen,” he said.

They don’t always agree with some DFL legislators who say mining brings prosperity to a community.

“Look at Virginia. They are surrounded by taconite mines. You couldn’t squeeze any more mines in there hardly. They’re still losing population,” Bob said.

Pat followed the alternative pathways for teacher licensure debate in the House education committees and believes it will weaken the classroom.

When the legislative session ends, they’ll drive north again and park the camper on

20 acres of undeveloped land they own along 800 feet of shoreline. They’ll drop their canoe in the water and pick up stray fishing bobbers to add them their collection. Enjoying a respite from the Capitol chatter, they’ll hike through the new Lake Vermilion State Park near their house. No doubt, these citizen watchdogs will keep a watchful eye on how taxpayer dollars are being spent to develop the park that’s been called the jewel of the state park system.

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