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Meet the freshmen: Minnesota House edition

Meet the freshmen: Minnesota House edition

Class includes military vets, a former home-schooler and business/finance pros

When the 87th Minnesota Legislature convenes in January, it will seat 60 new members – the third-highest total of the past 40 years. Fifty-four of those new faces will be Republicans.

And though a handful of the GOP senators and representatives who won in last week’s Election Day blowout have served previously in the Legislature, most of them are unknown quantities at the Capitol. In the coming weeks, Politics in Minnesota and Capitol Report will be profiling most of the neophytes set to join the ranks of both chambers’ new Republican majorities. We begin with a look at 10 of the most talked-about new members of the Minnesota House.

John Kriesel             Pam Myhra
John Kriesel Pam Myhra

HD 57A: John Kriesel

The afternoon after he learned he was the new representative for House District 57A, John Kriesel stood in front of the Capitol press corps with a slate of other freshmen House GOPers and answered his first question on how to solve the state’s $6 billion budget deficit. “Well, compromise is what keeps me from having to sleep on the couch every night,” he said, repeating a campaign pledge to cross partisan lines to do what’s best for the district.

And Kriesel, who is just 29, may have to take that approach in representing an area that covers Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park and South St. Paul – blue collar, labor-friendly and generally DFL-leaning turf. The seat was previously held by Rep. Karla Bigham, who declined to run again in 2010.

Kriesel sells himself as a “blue collar guy” who has held down a job since he was in high school. On his 17th birthday, Kriesel enlisted in the Minnesota Army National Guard, where he served for a decade while working at a manufacturing facility. Kriesel was deployed to Kosovo in 2004, and less than two years later was sent to Iraq. In 2006, Kriesel was on routine patrol in Fallujah when a roadside bomb hit his Humvee, killing two of his fellow soldiers.

Kriesel woke up in a hospital bed in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. eight days later to learn that he lost both of his legs in the blast. During his time in physical rehab, Kriesel spent a month interning for Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, responding to constituents and working on military issues.

Now at home in Minnesota and living in Cottage Grove, Kriesel works for a private firm as a marketing and advertising contractor for the Minnesota Army National Guard, and appears every Tuesday morning on KFAN’s “Power Trip” morning show.

Kriesel published a memoir about his time in Iraq, Still Standing. He has been featured on national news outlets, most recently Fox News, and has spent time touring behind the book.

Following his years in the military, Kriesel hopes to develop a legislative specialty in veteran’s issues. One goal is to make military retirement pay tax-exempt, he says, to keep veterans from moving out of Minnesota. He also wants to work hard on seniors’ issues, but first and foremost he hopes to contribute to solutions to the state’s $6 billion budget deficit.

Kriesel says his military experience as a team leader – he had four other men directly under his charge – will help him be a leader in the Legislature, but not necessarily among Republicans. Kriesel hopes to lead a movement to the middle between the two parties. “In the military we didn’t ask each other our political affiliation, it was about the mission,” he said. “Now I think people lose focus and forget that there are a lot of people we represent, and it’s our job to represent them, not our own personal opinions or those of our party.”

HD 40A: Pam Myhra

During the 2010 campaign season, Pam Myhra was lauded by some Republican insiders as their hardest-working candidate. If anyone got to the Legislature this year on sheer will, they said, it was the 53-year-old Myhra. She door-knocked the entire House District 40A, and did many areas twice over.

Myhra’s family was hit hard by the recession in 2009. She had left the work force years earlier to home-school her children, leaving her family with only had her husband’s income – and Chuck Myhra’s income was hit hard by drops in dividends on his shareholdings at TCF Bank, where he works as a vice-president of treasury services. Since their kids had reached college age, meeting tuition payments and household expenses at the same time proved tough.

“We had to set our priorities and make cuts, and I was hearing the same thing from other people,” she says. “People have either lost their jobs, or their wages are down, or they’re concerned about losing their job. We need sensible state spending.”

Making a run for the Minnesota House seat wasn’t a difficult decision for Myhra. She had been active in the area’s Republican Party since the mid-1990s, when she attended her first precinct caucus.  She later took on the job of the Burnsville city chair and the Dakota County co-chair of presidential election campaigns. She also chaired the House District 40A Republicans.

Myhra knows her district well, having lived there for 32 years. She graduated from Burnsville Senior High School and eventually the University of St. Thomas in 1980 with a bachelor’s in business administration.  She later took a job as a manager for international public accounting firm, KPMG, where she specialized in banking, insurance and government until she took time off to raise and home-school her children. At the Legislature, Myhra says she wants to stay true to her campaign pledges of job creation, sensible state spending and changing the state’s business climate.

Myhra spent her earliest years growing up in South America, where her parents were missionaries. Her first language was Spanish, and she spent time living in Bolivia and Costa Rica before her family moved back to the United States when she was six.

HD 41B: Patrick Mazorol

Patrick Mazorol, who beat DFL Rep. Paul Rosenthal in this Edina/Bloomington district, has followed a career path that’s anything but typical. He began his education as a physics student at the University of Minnesota, but worked for more than a decade as an attorney before becoming president and CEO of Securian Trust Company. He is now the senior vice president of university relations at Bethel University.

But it’s just this broad swath of experience that makes him valuable as a legislator, he says. “One thing you have to do in business is to get things done and be looking for solutions,” said Mazorol. “I have the experience of hiring people and finding inefficiencies in many different jobs. Hopefully I can bring a broad view of how to define these solutions to the Capitol.”

Mazorol, 61, was born in Louisiana, but moved to Bloomington when he was in the second grade and graduated from Kennedy High School. When it came time to go to college, Mazorol thought he would put his skills in science and mathematics to use in his undergraduate studies. He graduated from the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus with a bachelor’s degree in physics, and spent several years working as an engineer for Control Data Corp. – a company that built supercomputers.

But Mazorol eventually decided he was interested in law, and enrolled at St. Paul’s William Mitchell College of Law, eventually earning his J.D. and working for a period of years as an attorney. And if that wasn’t enough job diversity, Mazorol went into the financial industry, working for Wells Fargo before eventually landing the top spot at the Securian Trust Company.

Amidst his many careers, Mazorol found time to get a foothold in politics, too. In 1982, he took a run at the state Senate against DFLer (and current Hennepin County Attorney) Mike Freeman. He lost the bid, but it was enough to get him involved with the state’s Republican Party. He spent time as the chair of his party’s Senate district and was also involved in the now-defunct Bloomington Republicans organization; Mazorol also served as campaign treasurer for former House representative and current Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.

Mazorol said he is interested in serving on the commerce, taxes and judiciary committees. His biggest goal in the new Republican majority is to change the tax and business climate in Minnesota to entice new and old companies to make Minnesota their permanent home.

“The biggest thing is making sure we have a climate that will allow for job creation, which is really a business issue,” he said. “Meaningful jobs are created by the private sector, and we have to make sure the state is attractive to the business community.”

In his free time, Mazorol likes to golf and has an unusual affinity for Disney World. He estimates he has been to the vacation spot at least five times with his children – and on several excursions alone with his wife, Barbara.

HD 56B: Andrea Kieffer

Andrea Kieffer officially kicked off her campaign for the House by door-knocking on April 15, tax day. It was an apt choice for a candidate whose campaign website trumpets limited government, fiscal responsibility and personal freedom.

Nearly six months later, Kieffer – who is 46 – unseated DFL District 56B Rep. Marsha Swails, winning by more than 6 percentage points. Kieffer accounts for one-third of the 2010 Republican sweep in District 56. All three seats had been held by Democrats, and many saw the area as a key swing district in 2010.

But even before the election, Kieffer downplayed the political jockeying in her suburban district, which includes Woodbury and Landfall. Instead, she focused on the issues that in her view matter most to the district: the budget deficit and jobs. Looking ahead to January, Kieffer now says, that’s exactly what she plans to do when she comes to St. Paul for session.

“We can’t hurt working families and we can’t hurt job growth,” Kieffer said. “We need to balance the budget without bankrupting the taxpayer.”

Aside from those issues, Kieffer hopes to have some impact on K-12 education finance. She’s interested in getting a bigger share of education money into the classroom and reforming aspects of the system that sometimes draw the ire of teachers across the state.

When it comes to education reforms, Kieffer will come to St. Paul with some background knowledge – though not necessarily from the American school system. For six years, Kieffer and her family lived abroad, first in Singapore and then Budapest. Unable to work a regular job due to visa restrictions, Kieffer said, she got involved in other ways. She was a school board member at the American International School of Budapest, chair of the Parent-School Association in Budapest, and a member-at-large of a parent-teacher association in Singapore.

While abroad, Kieffer said she learned a lot about bringing diverse groups together around a common problem. Early on, there were problems with the schools in terms of academic standards and grade inflation. Four years later, she said, the problems were solved and students were once again graduating with scholarships.

Kieffer moved back stateside in 2008 after two years in Asia and four in Europe. Before going abroad, she worked with the school district and in finance. She later worked in an insurance office before deciding to run for the Minnesota House.  But even during her campaign, she says, she stayed involved. “I’ve always been involved,” she said. “If there’s a group that needs to be started, I’ll start it.” Even now, Kieffer has ties to the Woodbury Chamber of Commerce, Children’s Hospital Association, Woodbury Community Foundation and Washington County Republican Women.

That level of activity is something she hopes to bring to the Legislature. “I’m the kind of person that likes an agenda,” she says. “If you stay focused and don’t go off on tangents, you can get a lot more done.”

In her spare time, Kieffer says she likes to play bridge and make music on her keyboard. Kieffer and her husband, John, have two children who are 20 and 22 years old. Both attend public colleges.

HD 25B: Kelby Woodard

A strong crop of business candidates helped Republicans surge to legislative majorities in both chambers, and Kelby Woodard was one of the most striking exemplars of the trend. The new, if still unofficial, representative from House District 25B – the election is headed toward a recount with just 31 votes separating him and DFL Rep. David Bly – is head of his own global trade and security company and a former director of global security for Target. He also holds an MBA in international business from the University of Dallas.

That background, says the 40-year-old Woodard, is exactly what Minnesota needs at a time when the main concerns facing the state are its budget and its unemployment rate. “Jobs don’t come from the state magically waving a wand,” he says. “That’s an expertise that’s been lacking in our Legislature for a while.”

Part of setting the business climate right, says Woodard, involves getting the budget under control without any tax increases. “What Minnesotans want is a state government that lives within its means,” he says, echoing the words of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the party’s 2010 gubernatorial nominee, Tom Emmer. “That’s the very first thing that has to be tackled.”

But coming from a district that includes Northfield and Belle Plaine, Woodard also has his eye on issues of particular interest to his more rural district, particularly the funding disparity between rural and metro school districts. Accordingly, Woodard says, he hopes for committee assignments dealing with commerce and education.

With the upcoming session and his company to consider, Woodard said he plans to shift some of his business responsibilities to his business partners so he can focus on the Legislature. Heading a global trade security company requires a great deal of travel, Woodard says, but now that it’s established he can take the time to focus as a lawmaker.

Originally from Texas, Woodard came to Minnesota in 1999 for his job with Target. He lives with his wife and four kids – currently attending elementary and high school – in Belle Plaine, outside of the district’s population center of Northfield, which some thought might make his election more difficult.

When he’s not working, Woodard says he and his family do most things together, whether it be football games Friday nights or basketball games during the weekends. They also try to stay involved in the community, Woodard added. “I think we’ve hit every spaghetti dinner ever held in Belle Plaine,” he said.

HD 38B: Doug Wardlow

Two years after his father lost the House District 38B seat to Rep.  Mike Obermueller by slightly more than 500 votes, Doug Wardlow, former Rep. Lynn Wardlow’s son, unseated the DFLer by a similar margin to bring the suburban swing district back to the GOP.

But while one might think his dad – a math teacher by profession – had something to do with Wardlow pursuing politics this year, that’s not the case, he says.  Wardlow’s campaign, rather, was the latest in a series of career moves that have turned on an affinity for public policy and the law.

After graduating top of his class with a perfect GPA from Eagan High School, Wardlow moved east to Georgetown University in Washington for his undergraduate studies. He graduated magna cum laude with a major in political theory and a minor in Mandarin Chinese. Wardlow then stayed at Georgetown, graduating cum laude with a law degree. His time in higher education included two stints abroad working and studying Chinese language and law at Beijing University and as an intern at the Lee and Li law firm in Taipei, Taiwan.

Eventually, though, Wardlow found his way back to Minnesota, and currently lives in a house less than a mile from where he grew up in Eagan. Those connections are part of the reason he says he wanted to serve in the House. “It’s nice to come full circle,” he says, “and be able to serve in the town where I grew up.”

The other motivator, Wardlow said, is his two-month old son, Winston, born to Wardlow and his wife, Jenny, in September. “That’s all the more reason to run,” he said. “It’s not gotten to the point where our problems aren’t solvable yet.”

Looking ahead to the session, the 32-year-old Wardlow says he hopes to focus on the economy and on fiscal responsibility. Personal responsibility and freedom, he added, are broad, important considerations for him as well. “When government takes too many of those responsibilities over, it really suppresses the human spirit,” he says.

Specifically, Wardlow said he’d be interested in tackling civil law issues in the Legislature, primarily tort reform and helping businesses and entrepreneurs work within legal guidelines, which he calls a “natural fit” for someone in his line of work.

Wardlow currently works in business and real property litigation (specifically, eminent domain litigation on behalf of property owners) and employment litigation at the Minneapolis law firm Parker Rosen. Before that, he worked in international trade litigation at the Washington-based firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom and in business litigation at Minneapolis’ Faegre & Benson. He was also a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice G. Barry Anderson and a volunteer researcher for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts in Washington.

Wardlow enjoys playing the piano, fishing, sailing, water-skiing and Chinese calligraphy. He’s an avid reader on a number of subjects, including history, political philosophy, quantum physics and neuroscience. He’s currently reading a book about prime numbers in mathematics.

HD 1A: Dan Fabian

Dan Fabian never expected to get into politics. In fact, he turned down some of the state’s top House Republicans the first few times they tried to convince him to him. His reply to the first such e-mail he ever received was a model of terseness:  “No. -Dan.”

Eventually, though, after a number of visits from Rep. Paul Kohls, future House majority leader Matt Dean and Republican caucus staffer Ian Marsh, Fabian was convinced. “Like a lot of people in Minnesota,” he said, “I’ve been concerned with how big government has become.”

Come January, Fabian, a 56-year-old Roseau native who’s spent most of his life in northwestern Minnesota and North Dakota, will be the new representative from House District 1A. He received more than 58 percent of the vote.

When Fabian makes the 350-mile trek from northern Minnesota to St. Paul for the session, he’ll bring along a set of priorities related to his geographically large, economically diverse district, which is home to a large agriculture base but also to major manufacturing firms such as Marvin Windows and Polaris.

The issues with which Fabian hopes to get involved at the Legislature encompass matters of the environment, local government, agriculture and small business – an ambitious slate for a freshman, Fabian concedes. “I’m trying to narrow my focus but at the same time be able to listen,” he said. “I want to try to focus on the issues that are most important to the district.”

One top concern is the funding gap between rural and metro schools. Fabian has experience in the field: He has been a teacher at Roseau High School for 34 years. Aside from teaching, Fabian has also served as the head coach of the cross country and track and field squads, a commitment that almost convinced him to pass up running for the Legislature at all. “That was something that weighed into it,” he said. “But at some point the coaching comes to an end.”

Still, Fabian was able to close out the season this past weekend: He missed the House caucus’s first post-election gathering to be in Northfield for the state cross-country meet. And he expects to be able to continue teaching in some capacity, although he admits he hasn’t worked out the logistics yet.

Originally from Herman/Alexandria by way of Morris, Fabian graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead in 1976 and later got a master’s degree from North Dakota State in Fargo. He’s been married to his wife, Roxanne, for more than three decades and they have three adult sons: One is a 27-year-old schoolteacher in Wayzata, another is an assistant hockey coach at the University of North Dakota, and a third is playing hockey at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Outside of work, Fabian likes to stay busy. During summers, he managed the local golf shop for 20 years. He’s also driven tractors and trucks and now works part-time as a hail insurance adjuster. In his limited free time, he likes to hunt, fish and ride ATVs and snowmobiles.

Being a legislator will likely upset his normal routine, Fabian said, or at least take up a good amount of his time. Since being elected, Fabian said he’s already spent a remarkable amount of time responding to text messages, e-mails and voice mails – so much so, he adds, that he finally gave in and bought a Blackberry.

HD 27A: Rich Murray

Rich Murray, 53, first got involved with politics more than 20 years ago, helping out with the campaigns of candidates around his hometown of Albert Lea. Eventually, he became the Republican county chair. And this year, he’ll be joining his GOP counterparts at the Capitol as the new representative from House District 27A after pulling out a 57-vote victory over two-term DFL Rep. Robin Brown on Election Day.

Up until this year, Murray says, it never seemed like the right time to go into politics as a candidate himself. It was just a background interest he maintained while making his living as a financial adviser. But talking to people in his district this year convinced Murray that something was different: “It came down to, maybe I’d be giving up a little bit family-wise,” he says. “But it’s an important time in our country.”

Looking toward January, Murray stresses the two main themes of the hour – the budget and job creation – noting that a number of his constituents are unemployed, underemployed or simply not making enough to make ends meet.

Another concern for Murray is fair and equitable funding for his district when it comes to schools, nursing homes and other entities that receive state money. “I need to work hard to get our constituents fair funding,” he says. “I’ve got to look at what’s happening down there.” So far, Murray’s cast a hopeful eye toward placement on a commerce committee or K-12 finance. As an Army veteran, Murray is interested in working on veterans’ issues as well.

After growing up in Claremont on a dairy farm, Murray went to Mankato State before serving three years in the Army. He eventually finished school and worked on a farm for a time before moving to Albert Lea, where he set up shop as a financial adviser.

Aside from his work, Murray participates in a lot of community service in Albert Lea, including organizations like the Salvation Army and United Way. He also helps out with parenting classes for inmates at the local jail, most of whom are men and some of whom are caught up in immigration cases. “My belief has always been that we were put on this world to serve others,” he says.

Murray has been married to his wife Sandy for more than 30 years and they have four children and eight grandchildren. In his limited spare time, Murray likes to stay in shape, read and spend time with his family.

HD 30B: Mike Benson

Mike Benson has always been interested in politics, but his 31-year career working for the U.S. Postal Service meant that, as a federal employee, he couldn’t seek public office.

But Benson, 55, retired from the federal gig in 2004 and transitioned into a new job as a business professor at Crossroads College. After spending several years getting involved with local Republican groups, Benson saw an opening to run in House District 30B in Rochester, an area that has long leaned Republican but was held by DFLer Andy Welti for three terms.

After high school, Benson traveled to New York to attend New York University. He only spent a short time attending classes before he started working as a postal clerk. In 1979 he landed a supervisory position at the post office that took him across the country, including stops in Cleveland and Pittsburgh before he landed in Rochester, Minnesota.

During that time, Benson served as a district manager for an area of southeastern Pennsylvania. He estimates that he oversaw 362 post offices, three processing plants, more than 6,000 employees and $1.5 billion in revenue. It’s just those kind of business chops that GOPers look for in their up-and-coming candidates, and Benson says his experience will help make him a good legislator in a year marked by a historic budget deficit and a still-sputtering economy.

Benson would ideally like to serve on the appropriations or finance committees in the House. “It’s about jobs, the economy, and it’s about controlling state spending so we can get a handle on our own growth and we can begin to invest where there needs to be investment, and that’s the private economy,” he said. “We have to be a party of ‘Yes you can,’ rather than ‘No, the government can do it better.'”

Benson also has a strong interest in education, having completed both a bachelor’s degree in organizational management and a master’s in business administration from Eastern University in Pennsylvania. He is now a professor of business administration at Crossroads College in Rochester, where he also served as interim president from 2006 to 2008.

Benson enjoys spending time with his wife Susan and his four children, all of whom are grown. He also enjoys working with his local church, an activity that has taken him across the world on mission trips, including England and the Dominican Republic.

HD 11B: Mary Franson

Mary Franson’s candidacy to replace seven-term DFL Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba was bound up with the Tea Party movement from the start. The licensed daycare provider attended Tea Party events and sounded all the right themes in this year of anti-government, anti-incumbent sentiment: She was pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-traditional marriage and pro-limited government.

Franson had the backing of new political action group Voices of Conservative Women, which bought radio airtime on her behalf, and pro-life organizations like Minnesotan Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL). But her candidacy didn’t just excite Tea Party groups. The young mother of four said she excited voters of all political stripes in the central Minnesota district, leading to her eventual victory.

“People were really excited that a fresh crop of candidates were out there that were a little younger, and were people who know what it’s like to balance the budget at home,” she said. “I think it’s sad that the Tea Party movement is labeled as extremist, when we are just people who want to take back our country and our state. I don’t see how that is labeled as the wrong thing to do.”

Franson, who was raised on a hobby farm near the tiny Iron Range community of Saginaw, Minnesota, had been thinking about a possible run for public office since high school, but she said she “didn’t want to go to school to be a politician.” After high school she continued her education at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in humanities. Franson, who now lives in Alexandria, Minnesota, has worked as a credit representative for AT&T and is currently a licensed childcare provider.

It was shortly after the 2008 election – when Democrat Barack Obama won the presidency and Democrats swept Washington and the state Legislature – that Franson’s interest in politics was reignited.

“I felt like I hadn’t done enough work to elect our conservatives into office,” she said. She went on to be the state coordinator for Mike Huckabee’s political action group, and formed a Young Republicans group in the Seventh Congressional District. Last November, she was approached about running for the House seat. She was happy to oblige.

At the Legislature, her first priority is solving the budget deficit and facilitating private sector job creation. She is also interested in helping to pass photo identification requirements for voting in the state. Ideally, she hopes to serve on the agriculture committee, which is important in her rural district, and to work on early childhood education issues.

She is also excited about having the chance to serve with the state’s first Republican-controlled Legislature in the last 38 years. “When we say we are going to reform government, we will actually have numbers behind us to do it, it won’t just be lip service,” she says. “This year Republicans are going to have the legs they’ve needed to really get things done.”

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