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Meet the freshmen: Senate GOP edition

Meet the freshmen: Senate GOP edition

Class includes small biz owners, Tea Party acolytes and a radio talk jock

As Charley Shaw writes this week, the new Republican majority in the Minnesota Senate appears dedicated to projecting a considerably more conservative face when Session 2011 convenes in seven weeks.

Leadership is bound to receive a lot of help in that regard from its incoming class of 20 GOP freshmen, whose dedication to shrinking government and holding the line on taxes could hardly be more clear. With few exceptions, the new crop of Republican senators evince little interest in bipartisanship or budgetary compromise. They believe they were elected with a mandate to ease the way for Minnesota businesses and “to make government live within its means,” a phrase that popped up regularly in Capitol Report’s conversations with them over the past week.

SD 28: John Howe

John Howe never imagined himself running for the state Senate. But during a routine run through local coffee shops to meet with residents last year – something the Red Wing mayor did often – Howe was approached by former Independent Republican Sen. Lyle Mehrkens, who represented Senate District 28 before being bumped off by long-reigning DFL Sen. Steve Murphy in 1992. Mehrkens encouraged Howe to run, suggesting that 2010 would be an ideal year for a GOPer to take back the Republican-leaning area.

Howe was hesitant at first, but Mehrkens persisted, eventually convincing him to throw his name in the ring. Not long after Howe started campaigning, five-term Sen. Murphy announced his retirement, opening the door to an easy victory over 28-year-old DFLer Joe Fricke.

Howe was raised on a farm in western Minnesota. He began attending St. Cloud State University in 1981, eventually earning his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. After college, he worked as a guard at the St. Cloud correctional facility. “There were maybe three guards for 160 inmates, so you really had to be paying attention to everything that was going on,” he said. “You find out what you’re made of in a job like that.”

Shortly after leaving the corrections job, Howe was appointed head of security for retailer Sears across a five-state region. He was in charge of everything from hiring and training security staff to making sure each store had proper security procedures in place. In 1993, he lost his job with Sears, and began working as a correctional officer at a facility in Red Wing. But it wasn’t long before he was contacted again by Sears’ officials, who encouraged him to open a store in Red Wing. Howe ultimately opened five stores in the area before selling them off with the intention to retire.

Retirement never came. Howe spent several years working on mortgages for Wells Fargo, where his wife was employed, before running for mayor of Red Wing in 2008. He was ultimately victorious, and has since taken a veto pen to what he saw as unnecessary renovations to Red Wing City Hall and other “wasteful” projects.

Howe is excited to serve as senator for District 28, a unique area that houses the Prairie Island Nuclear facility and is home to the Prairie Island Community Indian tribe. Howe believes the issue of nuclear waste needs to be dealt with by the federal government, and thinks ratepayers have had to absorb too much of the cost to construct plants. He said that shouldn’t be the case if nuclear energy is to move forward in Minnesota.

Howe, 47, and his wife Lisa have three children: Jack, David and Katelyn. Howe enjoys camping, fishing and traveling with his family. He has been to 20 different countries.

SD 36: Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson has always loved talking politics. The self-professed politics junkie enjoyed talking about the subject so much that he lined up sponsors and made a pitch to radio and television stations, telling them why they should let him jaw about the topic on the air.

The method worked. Thompson spent more than a half dozen years hosting “The Dave Thompson Show”  on AM 1500 KSTP, and was regularly featured on KSTP’s “At Issue with Tom Hauser” in the political debate segment. At one point during his time with KSTP, his program was moved to a Saturday slot to replace Republican Norm Coleman, who had filed to run for the U.S. Senate. When Thompson opted to run for state Senate District 36 this year, he too had to leave the air.

But all is well for Thompson. Now the 49-year-old attorney and newly elected senator can join a first-ever Republican majority in the chamber to act on the ideals he spouted over the air for years.

“I have a strong burn for the issues and strong burn for public policy,” he said, admitting that he wasn’t initially set on running for office. But now Thompson said he is sure his passion will be best put to use in the Legislature.  “What has been gratifying for me is that I’m more convinced today that this is the right decision for me than I was even six or nine months ago,” he said. “We will really be able to make some changes, and I want to be a part of that.”

The freshman senator is one of six assistant majority leaders in the Senate GOP caucus, and the only freshman in the bunch. He joins the likes of former Minority Leader Dave Senjem of Rochester and three-term Edina Sen. Geoff Michel.  “I’m very honored and excited about it,” he said about the position. “But this really isn’t about me and it can’t be about any one individual. My goal is to try and help the caucus in any way I can to put the state on track to prosperity.”

Thompson, 49, grew up in East Grand Forks, where he graduated from high school in 1980. Four years later, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of North Dakota, and followed that with a law degree from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Thompson is a self-employed attorney, representing both employers and employees in small business and contract litigation.

Thompson is interested in serving on either the K-12 or higher education committees, and wants to work on state agriculture issues in some capacity.

Thompson and his wife, Rhonda, have been married for 25 years and live with their two children in Lakeville.

SD 38: Ted Daley

After returning from the Iraq War in early 2009, Ted Daley knew he wanted to pursue a deeper involvement in his community. At the time, he applied to serve on the Eagan Planning Commission, a position he still holds today.

But he wanted to do more, so as the 44-year-old Daley looked at what was going on in Minnesota and compared it to his background in business and accounting, he says the Legislature was a natural fit. “That seemed to make the most sense,” he said. “I understand what it means to make a payroll.”

Daley beat first-term DFL Sen. Jim Carlson to win the post representing the Eagan area. The role of senator will continue a record of civic involvement that started while he was in high school, carried over to his time at West Point – where he graduated with a double major in Russian and German and a minor in engineering – and lasted through his 20 years of service in the Army.

“As a West Point graduate, we are called to a lifetime of service to the nation,” he said. “I thought to myself, I want to continue serving.”

In high school he lettered in four sports, served as class valedictorian, participated in choir and band (including all-state recognition in orchestra) and went to state again in a one-act play in high school as well. “Just about everything the school had, I was involved in,” Daley said.

Since graduating from West Point, Daley has served in 40 different countries, including Cuba, Israel and Korea. He’s also worked extensively in the private sector. After getting an MBA from St. Thomas, he worked for a CPA firm and US Bancorp in addition to serving on the board of directors for the US Federal Credit Union.

It’s that background that Daley hopes to bring to the Capitol for the session, particularly as the state tackles its large budget deficit. He hopes to find a balanced approach to fixing the budget – he didn’t sign the ‘no new taxes’ pledge, but said that doesn’t mean he wants to raise taxes. “Shakespeare said beware of the extremes,” Daley said. “It’s really important to listen.”

Aside from the budget, Daley said he wants to focus on jobs and is willing to take on any job Senate leadership sees fit to give him. “I’m a team player,” he said. “Whatever I’m asked to do, I will certainly do it.”

Daley lives in Eagan with his wife, Dawn, and four kids, who range in age from six to 20. In his personal time, he’s a scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts and a lector at his Catholic church. He has also coached soccer and basketball in Eagan, and counts watching his kids’ athletic endeavors as one of his favorite pastimes, along with camping.

SD 10: Gretchen Hoffman

Gretchen Hoffman lives in Vergas, Minnesota, but used to run her knitting business out of Fargo, North Dakota. The reason is simple, Hoffman says: Minnesota’s tax climate is unfriendly to businesses, and state government has put too many regulatory burdens on small business owners.

Changing that was part of Hoffman’s goal in running for the Senate District 10 seat in west-central Minnesota against DFL incumbent Sen. Dan Skogen. It was also a big part of the reason she won, she says.

“Business owners have had to live and work under these circumstances every day, and we understand how difficult it really is,” she said. “It was time to change that, and people at the doors knew it.”

Hoffman said she also feared the direction the country took after 2008, when voters elected President Barack Obama and Democrats swept Washington and state legislatures. She got involved locally in the 2008 U.S. Senate recount as an observer for former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, and started talking with members of local Republican groups.

She started watching the state legislative floor sessions closely. “I felt the Legislature needed someone who was more common sense, someone who wasn’t of the government culture,” she said. “As the federal and state situation started looking bleaker, I decided to run.”

Hoffman was raised in Fargo and graduated from Fargo South High School. She got an associate’s degree in business at a community college in North Dakota in 1979, and moved to Minnesota shortly after to be with her future husband, Virgil. In 1992, Hoffman received a nursing degree through the Fergus Falls Community College.

She ultimately put both her degrees to use, starting with hospital work in Minnesota and North Dakota that included stints at St. Mary’s hospital in Detroit Lakes and in cardiac care work at the Dakota Hospital in Fargo. After several more nursing years in Perham, Hoffman decided to take her longtime passion for knitting and turn it into a small business.

She opened Yarn Renaissance in North Dakota in 1999 and ran it until 2007, during which she had about 10 people working under her. Hoffman currently sits on the Board of Directors of GPK Products, a family-owned manufacturer of PVC water and wastewater fittings.

At the Legislature, she wants to change the state’s tax climate to be friendlier to businesses and, as a former nurse, to work on health issues on the Health and Human Services Committee.

Hoffman and husband Virgil have been married for 27 years, and have three grown sons, Jonathan, Joseph and Douglas. Hoffman is pro 2nd Amendment and is a conceal-and-carry permit holder. She and her husband are NRA members.

SD 56: Ted Lillie

Ted Lillie’s candidacy for state Senate was born in a series of conversations with friends and neighbors about what they saw going on in their city, state and country. “There was a concern about the impact government was having on families, community and economy,” Lillie said.

So like the business owner he is, Lillie did his due diligence on a possible run against pro-biz DFL Sen. Kathy Saltzman: What were the objectives he’d try to meet? Could they be met? What would it take to win?

Lillie found answers to all those questions, and on Election Day he beat Saltzman by more than 1,100 votes in the district, which includes Woodbury, Landfall and Lake Elmo.

Lillie says he hopes to bring his business background and experience working with government to the Capitol. “The direction of Minnesota does need to change,” he said. “We do need to pay attention to family business, create more jobs in the private sector, and streamline government.”

Lillie opposes tax increases in the coming budget solution, instead focusing on streamlining government and re-evaluating services. “The constraints are predicated by the people I talked to at the doors, and they do not want us to raise taxes,” he said. “Families are worried about their budgets more than they’re worried about the state budget.”

Lillie is a fan of the decision by some cities to combine and share IT centers and staff as a way to cuts the costs of government. Generally, he favors a zero-based budgeting approach that would examine state spending in its entirety.

Lillie is the publisher of Lillie Suburban Newspapers, which owns 11 weekly newspapers around the St. Paul suburbs. He’s also been involved in a number of business-related groups, including the HealthEast Foundation and the Oakdale Business and Professional Association. He’s also a past president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

He lives in Lake Elmo with his wife, Lynne, who is a medical director at Woodbury’s Woodwinds hospital. They have two children, Kristina, who graduated from Hamline University and works at a bank, and Theo, who attends Northwestern Chiropractic School. His brother Leon Lillie is a three-term DFL House member from North St. Paul.  While they differ on politics, Ted Lillie said, “We’re brothers, we’re close friends, we have differing views on politics.” He added: “We don’t tend to go into much detail.”

SD 15: John Pederson


John Pederson’s business has been hit hard by the recession. Amcon Block, a cinder block maker that has been in Pederson’s family since 1979, employed more than 100 people in 2007. Now the company is down to about 75.

“I see firsthand what’s been going on in this economy with working families,” Pederson said, adding that he was tightening budgets while the state and federal governments seemed to be increasing their spending. So when Sen. Tarryl Clark retired from the District 15 seat to run against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Pederson said he saw a prime opportunity to bring common sense budgeting back to state government.

“I think like most taxpayers in my district, we are very frustrated with the state Legislature deciding to spend a dollar without really knowing where that dollar was going to come from,” he said. “That will be a fundamental change you will see in the House and Senate now.”

Pederson, 42, was born in Glencoe, but was raised on a 150-acre farm in Buffalo.  He graduated from Monticello High School and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in business administration and Bible studies from Northwestern College in St. Paul. To pay the bills in college, Pederson held odd jobs, including stints as a security officer and a bus and dump-truck driver.

By the late 1990s, Pederson earned his master’s degree in business administration via online classes from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. He has gone on to be an educator himself, as a part-time instructor at St. Cloud Technical College and Rasmussen College.

Pederson now runs his business and has spent two terms serving on the St. Cloud City Council, where he says they have handled cuts in Local Government Aid without raising property taxes. “Our council chose to deal with those by prioritizing services like police and fire and making cuts,” he said. “I think those are things people expect from their local government and I think it’s appropriate for the state to do something similar.”

Pederson said he would like to see the Legislature tackle the budget deficit first, as there will be a “fair amount of pain associated with it.” On his list of preferred committee assignments, Pederson chose business and commerce and capital investment.

Pederson is married with three sons. He enjoys spending time outdoors with his family. In particular, they enjoy downhill skiing and camping.

SD 49: Michelle Benson

The 2011 session will be marked by a massive freshman class of mostly Republicans, many who have come directly out of the private sector with little political experience. That’s the case with Senate District 49 first-termer Michelle Benson, a mother and former Upper Midwest Security Alliance project manager who took down Democrat and former Ham Lake Mayor Paul Meunier for the open seat.

“A lot of the freshmen have come out of the private sector, and I think we are going to see a different attitude about the way the government is run,” she said. “My focus has been efficient, effective government, and stepping back and really prioritizing our spending.'”

Benson, 42, had done some volunteer work with her local BPOU and attended caucus meetings prior to her Senate bid, but her political resume was sparse compared to her mayoral competitor, Meunier, who had been in the post since 2007. Like many players in the Republican wave of 2010, Benson’s political involvement didn’t really spike until 2008, after Democrats won the presidency. “There didn’t appear to be a lot of listening going on,” she said.

Managing government growth and eliminating inefficiencies will be Benson’s main focus at the Legislature, she said, with a particular eye toward health and human services. Benson wants to serve on the chamber’s HHS committee, an area of state government she says is growing rapidly and needs to be managed and reevaluated. “We can’t keep spending money that we don’t have,” she said.

Benson grew up on a farm in the west-central Minnesota town of Murdock, and attended Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School, graduating in 1987. Benson then attended St. Catherine’s University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1991. She spent a short time working as an assistant in research labs for 3M and Pfizer before earning a master’s in business administration from St. Thomas University in 1994 and becoming a certified public accountant.

During college, Benson met her future husband, Craig, who was attending the Naval Academy at the time. They married after graduation and traveled during his five years of service in the U.S. Naval Submarine force.

The two moved back to Minnesota after Craig finished his service, eventually settling in Ham Lake. Benson took some time off to raise her two sons, becoming active in school, church and Cub Scout programs. When both of her sons started school, she jumped back into the work force with Upper Midwest Security Alliance, where she ran the company’s day-to-day operations.

Benson left the job after she decided to make a run for the Senate. “I phased out that job because I intended to win,” she said. “Now that I have won, I know there is a lot more work to do.”

SD 4: John Carlson

John Carlson began plotting his path from Bemidji to the state Senate in 2007, when the race still lay three years away. In the meantime, the House Republican Campaign Committee recruited him to run against DFL Rep. John Persell for the House District 4A seat in 2008. Carlson lost, gaining just 43 percent of the vote.

Carlson said that at the time he intended to give up running for the Senate in 2010. “We packed it in,” he said. “I decided it wasn’t worth going through.”

But a year later, his granddaughter was born. “Then,” the 57-year-old Carlson said, “it got me thinking about wanting to make a difference.”

Come the start of next year’s session, Carlson will be heading to the Capitol as the new state senator from District 4. He unseated first-term Sen. Mary Olson, receiving more than 54 percent of the vote.

Carlson won his election in a somewhat unusual way: He swore off any donations from anyone outside the district – including money from the state Republican Party – and limited any donations from those in the district to $100. He ran very little advertising, but did pay a campaign manager to take care of the day-to-day grind of running for office while Carlson ran his insurance agency.

Now looking ahead to January, Carlson has somewhat lofty plans for his first term, including a constitutional amendment that he and a few other first-year legislators intend to bring to the floor. The amendment would essentially insert the U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment protection into Minnesota’s constitution, ensuring gun rights for Minnesotans at the state as well as the federal level.

“It’s real simple legislation, there’s nothing complicated about it,” he said. “This is something, as I’m knocking on doors, people are very concerned about.”

Carlson is also a proponent of photo ID verification for voters. And he hopes to take on the disparity between rural and metro funding levels for K-12 education and transportation. “The system isn’t right. I don’t have an easy answer at my fingertips,” Carlson said. “But we need to make this fair, that’s what our constitution in Minnesota calls for.”

With an eye toward the session, Carlson says he would like to work with a committee that deals directly with the budget, given his background in business and education. He’d also like to “reform and redesign” the way government operates and reevaluate how services get delivered.

Carlson is from Minnesota and went to high school in Akeley, about 40 miles south of Bemidji. He later went to Bemidji State University, graduating with a degree in business administration before going to work as an accountant for Northern Medical Imaging.

Carlson and his wife Ann, who’ve been married for 32 years, own an insurance agency in Bemidji, and he has been involved with the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors for a number of years now. Aside from running his business, Carlson is also an adjunct professor in the Bemidji State business program.

The Carlsons live on Big Lake. In his spare time, he enjoys fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, ATV riding and other outdoors activities, which, Carlson noted, contributes to another of his abiding legislative interests: how the state handles its natural resources.

SD 31: Jeremy Miller

Jeremy Miller is a fourth-generation business operator at his family’s scrap iron, metal and recycling shop in Winona, and that experience is what the 27-year-old hopes to bring to St. Paul as the new senator from the Winona area. On Election Day, Miller unseated DFL Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes by a 437-vote margin.

Miller’s path to the Capitol started  more than two years ago, when he and his fiancé (now wife) Janel began talking about Miller’s hope to make a run for public office. He talked to a number of people around Winona, including former state Sen. Bob Kierlin, and decided to make a run for the state Senate.

The idea, Miller says, was that there were a lot of things going wrong in the country and state, and he hoped to change that. “I was brought up on hard work, respect and honesty,” he said. “I feel that things at the state level and the federal level are getting a little out of hand and it’s time for the government to live within its means.”

With an eye toward those goals, Miller hopes to bring his business savvy and accounting background to the Capitol when it comes time for the state to balance its nearly $6 billion budget deficit. “Those experiences are certainly going to help,” he said.

Going hand in hand with the goal of fixing the budget deficit, Miller added, is doing so in a way that will help, rather than hurt, businesses grow. “We have to get our economy back on track and the way we do that is to create private sector jobs,” he said. “People are fed up and frustrated and extremely worried about the direction our government is taking them.”

Miller said he’s also concerned about disparities between metro and rural funding in a number of areas, particularly health care and K-12 education finance.  “Ultimately, I think a student is a student whether that person is in Minneapolis-St. Paul or Winona,” Miller said. His district includes 14 public schools, two public higher education institutions and a number of nursing homes.

“These are all issues that directly impact the people of southern Minnesota. There’s a significant funding gap,” Miller said. “I don’t think we can fix it all at one time, but I think we can take some steps to narrow that gap.”

Miller is interested in serving on committees that deal with higher education, K-12, agriculture, energy and veterans.

Miller is involved with a number of groups in and around Winona, including the city’s Chamber of Commerce, YMCA and youth athletics programs. Miller has two older brothers, and in his spare time likes boating, fishing, playing basketball and competing in triathlons.

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