As the Minnesota Legislature prepares for a transition that will see 60 freshmen join the rolls of the state Senate and House, PIM continues with our series of post-election portraits of the 2011 class. In this latest edition, we look at seven more members of the incoming Senate Republican majority.
Former House rep Nelson among new crop of Republican senators
SD 16: Dave Brown
Brown spent 14 years working as a sales representative for Word Entertainment, the Christian music division of Warner Music Group. But as the music industry shrank dramatically with the advent of digital files, Brown realized that his job might be at risk.
As a hedge against future unemployment, he started an independent medical insurance business on the side in 2008. Sure enough, within two years Warner Music Group eliminated his job. “They kept one sales guy and let the rest of us go,” Brown recalled. “I knew this was coming down the pike.”
Not long after losing his music industry job, Brown decided to quit complaining about his disenchantment with the direction of the federal government and seek the Senate District 16 post. The Becker resident survived a five-way battle for the GOP endorsement, winning on just the second ballot. “I really felt like God opened the door for me on that and I was going to keep walking until he closed it,” Brown said of the local party convention.
He then swamped DFL incumbent Sen. Lisa Fobbe, of Zimmerman, in the general election by 15 percent. The district has always skewed heavily GOP. But Fobbe narrowly won the seat in 2008 when Republican Mark Olson mounted a write-in campaign against the GOP nominee and received more than 1,400 votes. “That divided race did open the door for Sen. Fobbe,” said Brown. “Now come January, it will be back in Republican hands.”
Brown grew up in northeastern Iowa, where his dad worked at a John Deere tractor assembly plant. He attended Oklahoma Wesleyan University, earning a degree in behavioral sciences. In 1988 Brown moved to Minnesota and found work as a youth pastor. He subsequently became a music buyer for Northwestern Bookstores, a Christian chain. That led to the gig with Word Entertainment.
Brown cites taxes, commerce and agriculture as his three top choices for committee assignments. In addition he would like to work on changing the Minnesota Agricultural Property Tax Law – more popularly known as “Green Acres.” “I would like to see a complete overhaul of Green Acres,” Brown said. “It’s going to be a priority.”
The married father of two is highly involved with Becker Evangelical Free Church, formerly serving as chair of its board of directors. In his free time, Brown likes to go downhill skiing with his daughters, although he acknowledges that Minnesota’s mostly flat terrain doesn’t provide the greatest destinations.
SD 53: Roger Chamberlain
When he stood up to speak while attending his first-ever precinct caucus in 2008, Senator-elect Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes discovered the consequences. “All of a sudden, I was a precinct chair,” he chuckled. His victory over DFLer Sandy Rummel returned the seat to the Republican column following Rummel’s defeat of Republican Sen. Mady Reiter in 2006.
What made him run for office? After serving as a BPOU vice chair, “In January ’09, I was planning on helping. Three people I respect a lot asked me to do this.” After thought, discussion, and prayer, he decided to take the plunge. “This is a labor of love,” he said. “I am very grateful for what we have.”
The 47-year-old senior corporate tax accountant for Ameriprise Financial brings varied real-world experiences to his new role. After earning an associate degree in law enforcement at Normandale College, Chamberlain worked as an airport shuttle driver, a bouncer, and in security jobs before deciding he needed to “learn a trade.” That led to a B.S. degree in accounting at Metro State in 2001. After work with several smaller firms, he joined Ameriprise, where he has been able to see the “business end of things” and learn about the corporate tax structure in many of the 50 states.
Chamberlain’s website, which describes him as a conservative Republican, lists his priorities for tax changes: Phase out the corporate income tax, exclude capital gains from state taxes, create a flat rate individual income tax, eliminate the estate tax, and make tax credits and other reductions permanent.
Chamberlain spent a four-year hitch in the Navy following high school graduation and later joined the Minnesota Army National Guard, where he was a medic for more than three years before family and work commitments caused him to move on. He says that he finds himself with little spare time, but enjoys canoeing, relaxing and hiking at a lake home in northern Minnesota with his in-laws, and riding his bike on weekends. Before the election season, he often rode a bike to work in downtown Minneapolis from his Lino Lakes home, but replaced that exercise with door-knocking – which he calls his favorite part of the election process.
“Most people, whether secular or religious, are decent, well-intended people who want to do good things,” he says. He hopes to bring a spirit of cooperation to his role. His goal in office is twofold: Fix the budget and reform the tax code to create consumer and business confidence.
In addition to the tax committee, Chamberlain would like to serve on the Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Budget and Policy Committees. He says his interest in that committee stems more from a desire to help find and bring to market clean fuels in an environmentally friendly manner.
Chamberlain and his wife, Annette, have two grown children. His district spans portions of three counties and includes Blaine, Circle Pines, Lexington, North Oaks, Shoreview and White Bear Lake.
How will he know what his constituents want? As a regular bus commuter, Chamberlain says he finds that conversations on the bus help him learn what people are thinking.
SD 21: Gary Dahms
For years, Gary Dahms had periodically entertained the idea of running for the Minnesota House. But the demands of the insurance agency he owns and the family he was raising meant the timing wasn’t right. In 2010 he was ready. With the support of retiring Senator Dennis Frederickson and Rep. Marty Seifert, he rode to an easy victory in this solidly Republican district of southwestern Minnesota, which includes the towns of New Ulm, Marshall and Redwood Falls.
Dahms was born in 1947 and raised on a farm near Redwood Falls, where his parents and four siblings raised crops and a small number of livestock. He credits his parents and the farm lifestyle with teaching him to work hard, know the value of a dollar, and set goals. His father retired from farming at age 84.
After graduating from Redwood Falls High School in 1965, Dahms earned a B.A. degree in agricultural business administration. He remained in the Twin Cities to work in the insurance industry. After marrying his wife, Barb, he returned to Redwood Falls in 1974 and opened an insurance agency. They now have a satellite office in nearby Fairfax. Barb has been an insurance agent for 23 years. They have a grown son and daughter and one grandchild, and live a couple miles outside of town.
Dahms is no stranger to government service, having volunteered for many county boards and committees over the years. As he joins the Legislature, he will leave his post as Redwood County commissioner. He will also resign his position as chair of the Redwood/Renville Joint Powers Board. Dahms is also a member of the Redwood Area Development Corporation, Redwood County Economic Development Association, County Soil and Water Conservation District, Southwest Minnesota Regional Development Commission, and Service Enterprises, Inc.
Experience at the county level, he says, has given him an insight into many of the services that the state provides. He brings that knowledge of health care, human services, human resources and transportation issues with him to St. Paul. Dahms says he wants to streamline the delivery of government services by eliminating duplication and excess administrative costs.
Dahms has an interest in serving on committees that deal with issues in which he has developed expertise, which include agriculture, commerce and business, the economy, conservation, the environment and energy.
Dahms enjoys going to the lake and snowmobiling – but admits that he is more interested in the people he golfs, fishes or hunts with occasionally than the activity itself.
He says his goal is to work with others to create a solid budget “foundation” that, like a good building, will support the structures built upon it, and to make sure residents get the most of every dollar spent.
SD 25: Al DeKruif
Al DeKruif says that he and a number of his new Republican colleagues at the Legislature don’t yet feel like they’re politicians. And that makes sense: Like a number of members who make up the incoming GOP class, DeKruif is a business owner and political novice.
But the private-sector backgrounds of DeKruif and his freshman class have state Republicans excited. “An awful lot of us who ran this time were somebody who’d been watching politics and decided that things were going in the wrong direction,” DeKruif said. “There’s a lot of business owners that didn’t have a choice. They had to step up.”
Fifteen years ago, DeKruif and his wife of 33 years, Carol, bought an investment property in Madison Lake that they’ve made into a small business as a recreational resort and campground during the summer and early fall. DeKruif also owns and operates a consulting company specializing in “super load” moves – many of which involve more than 1 million pounds of gear – all across the country. Some of the heaviest loads involve electrical transformers for power plants. The experience, DeKruif said, is one reason he supports allowing more nuclear energy in the state.
Growing up in southwestern Minnesota on farm, the 54-year-old DeKruif says much of his governing approach will come from common sense. “I grew up knowing that common sense has to come into play in everything you do,” he said. “I certainly want to see common sense come back into decision-making.”
Aside from the $6 billion budget deficit the Legislature and governor will be left to tackle come January, the economy and job creation are among the top issues for the next session. To that end, DeKruif has a clear top priority: improving Minnesota’s business climate. He wants to not only lower taxes on the private sector, but also create tax credits intended to help business, create jobs and spur growth.
Another principal focus for DeKruif is education. He wants to have a role in sustaining Minnesota’s traditional status as a home to top-tier education. One way to make sure that happens, he said, would be to take on the teachers unions.
“Part of my push for world-class education is to demand that our schools, our teachers union, stop protecting underachieving teachers,” he said. “We need to have a way to have the underachieving teachers removed.”
DeKruif will also bring his personal experience to the Capitol when it comes time to cut spending. His 31-year-old son, Jason, was born with cerebral palsy and still lives with DeKruif and his wife at their home, making him sympathetic toward some of what the state spends on social services. That resonates, he said, when he considers the tough decisions that will have to be made with regard to the budget. “We have to make sure we don’t do this entirely on the backs of our most vulnerable,” he said.
In his free time, DeKruif enjoys pheasant hunting, his German short-haired pointer and spending time with his family – which, aside from his wife and son, includes his 29-year-old daughter, Melissa, and two grandchildren. He’s also a member of the Minnesota Patriot Guard, an organization that aims to keep a respectful atmosphere around the funerals for fallen soldiers. He’s also chairman of the Board of Trustees at his Lutheran church.
SD 40: Dan Hall
Dan Hall has spent considerable time at the Capitol during the last decade, serving as a volunteer chaplain. The 58-year-old Burnsville resident makes himself available to talk with anyone under the dome who’s looking for guidance on personal or professional issues.
Hall also coordinates the Capitol Prayer Network. The group consists of residents across the state who agree to pray for lawmakers to make wise decisions for the state.
But during his time at the Capitol, Hall hasn’t always been impressed by what he’s witnessed. That led him to take on first-term DFL incumbent Sen. John Doll in Senate District 40, which includes parts of Bloomington, Burnsville and Savage. “I’ve seen the good the bad and the ugly, and I realized my legislator was not voting the way I would,” said Hall. “I thought I could do this job as well or better than most.”
The campaign in Senate District 40 drew attention for a controversial independent mailing sent out by the state DFL party in the closing days. The political ad featured a man in a clerical collar wearing a button that read “ignore the poor.” Republicans decried the mailing as “anti-Catholic.”
“I don’t think it hurt me,” Hall said of the mailing. “We’ll never know if it actually helped me. … It’s too bad that any party would stoop that low to make somebody look like they’re the opposite of who they are.”
Hall grew up poor in Minneapolis, with parents who divorced early in his life. He lived in a series of low-income housing projects and graduated from Roosevelt High School, where he was a standout hockey player. Hall went on to Augsburg College, where he and his brother both became All-American hockey players. His college coach switched Dan from a defenseman to a forward. “I loved it,” he recalled. “I loved hitting people up front where they don’t expect you to because you’re a forward.”
After graduating with a degree in physical education, Hall worked as program director for a YMCA in Minneapolis. But he believed his calling was either to be a cop or a minister. He eventually chose the latter course, becoming an ordained minister in 1982. But Hall also found a way to meld the two interests by working as a police Chaplain.
In 2001 he founded Midwest Chaplains, a nonprofit group that trains chaplains principally to work with police departments. The organization counsels volunteers on how to help officers work through tragedies and stresses that come with the job. After the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in 2007, Hall spent a week working in the wreckage with survivors and the first responders at the scene. “I’ve got unbelievable memories and appreciation for the Minneapolis Police Department and the chaplains unit in Minneapolis that worked with us,” he said.
Hall expects to use that experience working with law enforcement at the Senate. He hopes to land seats on the public safety and judiciary committees.
Hall has eight children and six grandchildren. He attends River Valley Church in Apple Valley. In his free time, Hall likes to visit the North Shore, biking and relaxing on the beach. Until the campaign began eating up all his leisure time, he still played hockey once a week.
SD 47: Benjamin Kruse
It was nearly 10 years ago that Benjamin Kruse got his first taste of politics at the Capitol. Kruse says his time as a legislative aide to Republican Rep. Bob Gunther fanned his budding political interest and started him thinking about what it would be like to be a part of the picture as a lawmaker himself.
“That was a big spark in that process,” he said of his first stint at the Capitol. “I met some great, great legislators. What that did was really lit the fire under me.”
Now, with the start of 2011’s legislative session, Kruse will return to the Capitol, but this time he’ll be working as a member of the upper chamber, taking his place as the new senator from Senate District 47 after unseating four-term DFL Sen. Leo Foley in November’s election.
Born and raised in Green Bay, the 32-year-old Kruse moved to Minnesota in 1996 to start classes at the University of Minnesota, intending to pursue a double major in child psychology and speech communication. But he was working in restaurants at the time, and eventually left school to work as a restaurant manager for seven years. That, he says, was the start of a business career that helped guide him in his political development.
Kruse would eventually shift gears and earn his real estate license, a move he said was designed to make his professional life more amenable to having a family. Along the way, he grew more involved in public affairs and small business advocacy. He’s a founding member of the North Hennepin Area Chamber of Commerce Government Relations Committee, a member of the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors Public Affairs Task Force and government affairs committee and the North Hennepin Area Chamber of Commerce.
That background, Kruse says, greatly informed not only his personal and political philosophy, but the way he ran his campaign. The focus was always on jobs and the economy, followed by getting the state budget in order, he said.
But there are other policy areas in which Kruse hopes to have an impact at the Legislature, particularly public safety and education, two factors he calls integral to jobs, the economy and the budget. To that end, Kruse says he has plans to write and introduce legislation in all those areas.
“Being on a committee or not being on a committee has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to make an impact,” he said.
His political philosophy has been greatly influenced by his time spent working with and around a number of Minnesota politicians, Kruse said, including U.S. Reps. Erik Paulsen and Michele Bachmann and former state Rep. Phil Krinkie.
Kruse and his wife, Annie, have been married for eight years. Outside of work and his political involvement, Kruse says he enjoys music and that his Christian faith is particularly important to him. He was raised Catholic, he said, but now attends a nondenominational evangelical church to which his wife introduced him. “It just clicked,” he said.
SD 30: Carla Nelson
Carla Nelson unexpectedly found herself active in public policy after she noticed that plans for a new development in her neighborhood didn’t include space for a park. She knocked on the doors of her neighbor’s homes to voice her concerns. She met with the mayor of Rochester.
“I thought the people were being run over by the government,” Nelson recalled. “That was the beginning of just being involved.”
Ultimately her civic engagement paid dividends. After months of advocacy work, a park was added to the development design. Nelson now occasionally takes walks on the site.
The 53-year-old mother of three first ran for an open House seat in 2002. In that contest, she defeated DFLer Tina Liebling by a 40-33 percent margin, with Independence Party candidate Joe Duffy drawing 27 percent of the vote. Two years later, however, Liebling avenged that loss, defeating the GOP incumbent by less than 300 votes.
Following her defeat, Nelson joined her husband’s financial services company, Olmsted Financial Group. Her charge: to develop a new product line dealing with property and casualty insurance.
But after witnessing the squabbling and lack of progress at the Capitol from afar, Nelson had the itch climb back into the political arena. In particular, she was dismayed by the DFL leadership’s decision to pass a nearly $1 billion bonding bill prior to dealing with the state’s budget shortfall during the 2010 session. “To me that was just wrongheaded,” she said. “This punting of the budget ball, I just thought it was a horrible lack of leadership.”
In May, Nelson secured the GOP endorsement in Senate Disrict 30 to take on first-term incumbent DFLer Ann Lynch. The district, which is dominated by Rochester, has historically skewed strongly Republican, but it has trended blue in recent years. Nelson ended up winning the contest by a surprisingly comfortable 8-point margin.
During her one term in the House, Nelson cites as a key accomplishment the passage of funds for a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic in studying genomics and biotechnology. “It was really cutting-edge medicine,” she said. “It’s had real ramifications.”
Now that she’s in the Senate, Nelson hopes to land slots on committees dealing with jobs, education and health care. She believes the top priorities for everyone at the Capitol should be improving the state’s business climate and growing private sector jobs. In education, she wants to resuscitate a proposal to allow for alternative licensure of teachers that was narrowly defeated during the 2010 legislative session. “We need to get mid-career professionals [in the classroom],” she said. “If we had Bill Gates here, he couldn’t teach our computer science classes.”
Nelson has an undergraduate degree from Drake University and an advanced education degree from the University of Minnesota. Prior to getting into politics and finance, she was a teacher in the Rochester public schools.
Nelson is an accomplished musician. During high school, she was first chair clarinetist in the all-state band. She subsequently toured Europe with America’s Youth in Concert. More recently she has performed as a singer with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra & Corale. She also got the opportunity to conduct the symphony for an evening as pat of its “aspiring conductor” fundraising program. Her choice of material? The “Cinderella March.” She was attracted by the relative simplicity of the time signature.
Nelson is also a talented tennis player. She competed with the United States Tennis Association and is a past captain of the team. But she gave up the game during her first stint at the Capitol and hasn’t picked it back up. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to get that racket back out,” she said.