Rep. Sarah Anderson had been a staffer in the Minnesota House of Representatives for 10 years by 2006. That’s when her predecessor in House District 43A, former Rep. Jeff Johnson, decided he’d leave the Legislature to make a run for the attorney general’s office.
At the time, Anderson had served as a legislative aide, constituent services writer, and committee administrator over the previous decade. With that background, it seemed Anderson was an easy option for a caucus looking to recruit someone to make a run for the Plymouth-area suburban seat.
But Anderson’s first reaction to the idea was less than ceremonious.
“I laughed,” she recalled recently. “It’s an interesting process to work at the Legislature, but [running for office] wasn’t necessarily on my radar screen, although you always keep it in mind.”
Through the years, career trajectories like Anderson’s have been relatively common at the Legislature. From answering calls and dealing with constituents to mastering the details of policies and budgets, there is little about state government to which one is not exposed as a legislative staffer. And for some, what starts as a college internship ends in a career as a political operative, lobbyist or lawmaker.
There’s no shortage of current and recently departed legislators who’ve made the leap from staffer to member. (See sidebar for a listing of the 30 post-1980 Minnesota legislators who worked as staffers before earning their election certificates.) Newly elected House Speaker Kurt Zellers, for example, got his start at the Legislature working for the House GOP caucus, and before that worked in communications for former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams.
Former DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher also got her start that way: She was a staffer for Speaker Bob Vanasek and for Sen. Allen Spear; along the way, she also worked in House constituent services.
Former U.S. Rep Jim Ramstad, who ended up representing Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District for years, worked as a staffer for former House Speaker Lloyd Duxbury in 1969-70 before moving on to work in the U.S. House of Representatives and the military. Later, he’d spend nearly a decade in the Minnesota Senate before running for his U.S. House seat.
Open ambition discouraged
While stories like these are hardly rare, it doesn’t mean you’ll find a lot of staffers who cop to higher ambitions. One unwritten but widely observed rule in such matters is that it’s bad form to profess interest in holding an election certificate someday. Indeed, most staffers are given to understand that their names and opinions should not appear in news media or other public forums.
Several staffers – including practically every House DFL employee contacted by Capitol Report for this story – declined to be interviewed, citing caucus rules about speaking with the media. One predicted the cool response: “We’re not an attention-seeking bunch,” he said.
Of course this doesn’t mean that every staffer aspires to be an officeholder someday. Some are steadfast in their insistence that they prefer working outside the spotlight’s glare. “I’m one of those people who is always going to be a staffer, simply because I don’t have the mentality to be an elected official,” said Dan Dwight, a House GOP staffer who left the caucus for a time and later returned. “I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of guy. It’s scary [running for office], not to mention it’s a lot of work.” Dwight got his start as a page for former Rep. Mark Olson’s local government committee; in 2011, he’ll be the committee administrator for Rep. Joe Hoppe’s commerce panel. (“He certainly would be capable of [serving as a member],” Hoppe said. “But I don’t ever want to see him leave.”)
For some staffers, like the House GOP’s Ian Marsh, who got his start as a page over six years ago and subsequently rose to political director for the House Republican Campaign Committee, it comes down to an aversion to the rigors of campaigning as much as anything else. “I hate, hate, hate knocking on doors,” said Marsh, adding that there’s no chance he’ll run for office. “Considering how much I have to yell at candidates, it’s a little hypocritical.” This year, Marsh will serve in the speaker’s office as legislative director.
The life of a caucus staffer is short on job security, a fact underscored by the partisan turnover in control of both chambers following November’s elections. Since then, Republican staff ranks have swollen, while many DFLers lost their jobs.
“I don’t envy the Democrats,” said Gregg Peppin, a public affairs consultant who’s worked closely with the House GOP and recruited a number of staffers over the years. “It’s really tough, because you’ve got to cut 30 to 40 people. There’s no good way to do that.”
Sometimes even highly prized staffers get cut loose or decide to move on amid times of upheaval. Alice Seuffert, who toiled as committee administrator for DFL Sen. Linda Higgins’ Public Safety Budget Division and was regarded by some in the caucus as a “rock star,” will be leaving the rolls of Capitol dwellers to take a job as senior policy advocate for the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. Her husband Will, a former Senate DFL committee administrator, will be following Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon into the Dayton administration.
During her time as a staffer, Seuffert started as a page for former Sen. Steve Kelley, and later served as his legislative aide. She also worked for Higgins and managed the 2006 campaign of former Woodbury-area state Sen. Kathy Saltzman. “I give my heart to everything I do,” Seuffert said. “I’ve always felt a lot of loyalty for the members of the Legislature.”
Barb Jacobs, a staffer for DFL Sen. John Marty, is someone who weathered the post-election turmoil at the Legislature and will still be working at the Capitol this session. Since leaving the Minnesota Housing Partnership to join Senate staff a little over two years ago, she has worked as a legislative aide to Marty, moved up to committee administrator on Health, Housing and Family Security and will once again be a legislative assistant in 2011. “She’s the kind of person who would do very well in politics,” said Marty. “She’s very good at bringing people together.”
As for running for office, Jacobs was among the few who would admit she’s thought about it – tentatively, by her account. “It’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” she said. Her first goal, she added, is to keep helping Marty reform the state’s health care system.
That was the common refrain from the staffer ranks ahead of this coming legislative session: no one wants to be seen as particularly presumptuous or aiming to move up out of turn, much less plotting a run at a current member’s seat. Better to keep your head down and get to work.
“They’re working in a political environment,” said longtime DFL Rep. Lyndon Carlson. “But it’s the kind of thing that might surface closer to a campaign, where somebody might begin to express interest. Sometimes, the timing and the opportunity present themselves.”
Nine who might
Capitol Report spoke to a number of staffers and office-holders from all four legislative caucuses to assemble a short list of some of the stars of current (or just-departed) caucus staff ranks. The results are decidedly unscientific, and they are in no way official – which is to say, they should not be taken as a roll call of caucus leadership’s anointed ones.
Many staffers were hesitant to admit to speak about themselves at all to Capitol Report, let alone profess aspirations for a run at elected office in their future. So let’s put it this way: Considering the experience they’ve already gained, and their reputation among peers and lawmakers at the Capitol, they are among the workers in the trenches who could have bright political futures if it turns out they want them.
Besides Seuffert, Jacobs, Dwight and Marsh, five other people were mentioned prominently:
Dan Pollock: Regarded as a leader on health care issues, former House health care finance committee administrator Pollock will work in the minority research department in 2011. Pollock’s background mixes policy and politics experience: In 2006, the same year he finished his law degree at Georgetown, he served as deputy policy director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign. Later, he was communications director and policy adviser for Ashwin Madia’s congressional run, then a DFL researcher before joining the health finance committee. He was also a researcher on Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s gubernatorial campaign.
Joanna Dornfeld: Described as driven and knowledgeable, Dornfeld is moving from committee administrator on House finance to a new post in Minority Leader Paul Thissen’s office as executive assistant to the caucus.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson, the former chair of the finance committee she administered, said Dornfeld developed a command of the state budget and other policy issues in a committee that “probably had the heaviest workload” of all. Dornfeld was previously a field organizer for the House DFL caucus in 2006 and before that worked with Housing Minnesota. She said she currently has no interest or plans to run for office herself.
Anna Bellin: She was just 18 and an intern during her first session at the Capitol in 2003. But unlike most people who win internships at such a young age, she never really left. Now, after stints as a legislative assistant, campaign field staff and caucus researcher on health care and transportation, Bellin will be joining Rep. Matt Dean’s office this session as administrative assistant to the majority leader.
While she downplays the roles she’d had (“I’ve just landed in things that have led up to this point”), Bellin said she might consider running for office in the future, although not necessarily soon. “I wouldn’t run unless I thought I could win,” she said.
Emily Boyer: After graduating from college at Bethel University, Boyer went to work for the Senate Republican caucus in January 2009 and hasn’t left since. Before graduating, she had worked as a volunteer for U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen’s congressional campaign, John McCain’s campaign in Minnesota and as a volunteer during the Republican National Convention.
After starting as a page, Boyer became a legislative assistant to the caucus, and later to Sen. Michelle Fischbach. Owing to Fischbach’s past role as the minority lead on the chamber’s HHS finance committee, Boyer has worked closely on health and human services issues and on GAMC in particular. This session, she will follow Fischbach, the new Senate president, as her leadership assistant.
Adam Axvig: Axvig first got involved in Republican politics in 2008, starting with field work and later communications for the 2008 re-election campaign of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman. He later spent time at the Free Market Institute before getting back into the Capitol fray as a field director for the 2010 Senate GOP election effort. Now he’ll join former caucus election chair and new Senate Majority Amy Koch as her leadership assistant.
Legislative staffers who became legislators, 1980-present
Rep. Sarah Anderson (R):
Minnesota House of Representatives (Republican Caucus, Legislative Assistant, Committee Administrator for the Capital Investment Committee, and Executive Advisor to Speaker Steve Sviggum) (Republican Caucus, Director of the Legislative Assistant Department)
Sen. Barb Goodwin (DFL):
House: 2001-2006, Senate: 2011-present
Minnesota House of Representatives (House
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Research, Manager)
Sen. Benjamin Kruse (R): 2011-present
Minnesota House of Representatives
(Legislative Assistant to Rep. Bob Gunther)
Rep. John Lesch (DFL): 2003-present
Minnesota House of Representatives (Intern for Representative Andy Dawkins)
Rep. Tara Mack (R): 2009-present
Minnesota House of Representatives (House Page for the Ways and Means Committee) Minnesota House of Representatives (House Intern for Representative Steve Sviggum) Minnesota House of Representatives (House Legislative Assistant to Representative Matt Dean and Representative Joe Hoppe)
Sen. John Marty (DFL):
Minnesota House of Representatives (House Criminal Justice Committee, Researcher and Committee Administrator)
Rep. Joyce Peppin (R): 2005-present
Minnesota House of Representatives (Republican Caucus, Communications Specialist)
Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL): 2001-present
Minnesota Senate (Intern; then Legislative Assistant to Minnesota Senator Jerry Janezich)
Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL): 1996-present
Minnesota Senate (Intern for Senator Jerome Hughes)
Rep. Kurt Zellers (R): 2003-present
Minnesota House of Representatives (Republican Caucus, Communications Director)
Former Rep. Karla Bigham (DFL): 2007-2010
Minnesota House of Representatives (House DFL Caucus Research Assistant and Legislative Assistant)
Former Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL): 1999-2010
Minnesota House of Representatives and Minnesota Senate (Legislative Staff Member for Several Minnesota Legislators including Rep. Bob Vanasek and Sen. Allen Spear) Minnesota House of Representatives (Constituent Liaison)
Former Rep. Sandra Masin (DFL): 2007-2010
Minnesota House of Representatives (Staff Member)
Former Rep. Phil Sterner (DFL): 2009-2010
Minnesota House of Representatives (Intern for Representative Howard Knutson)
Former Rep. Cy Thao (DFL): 2003-2010
Minnesota Senate (College Intern)
Former Sen. Dan Larson (DFL): House: 1999-2006, Senate: 2007-2008
Minnesota Senate (Legislative Assistant to Senator Phil Riveness, 4 years)
Former Rep. Aaron Peterson (DFL): 2003-2008
Minnesota Senate (Tax Committee Staff Member)
Former Rep. Ron Abrams (R): 1989-2006
Minnesota House of Representatives (Committee Administrator)
Former Rep. Matt Entenza (DFL): 1995-2006
Minnesota Senate (Intern for Senator Roger Moe)
Former Rep. Lynda Boudreau (R): 1995-2004
Minnesota House of Representatives (Republican Research)
Former Rep. Doug Stang (R): 1997-2004
Minnesota Senate (College Intern for Senator
Former Rep. Tim Finseth (R):
Minnesota Senate (Intern for Senator Leroy Stumpf)
Former Rep. Gregory Gray (DFL): 1999-2002
Minnesota Legislative Commission To End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020 (Executive Director) Minnesota House of Representatives (DFL Caucus, Executive Assistant)
Former Sen. Randy Kelly (DFL): House: 1975-1990, Senate: 1991-2002
Minnesota Senate (Administrative Aide)
Former Rep. John Tuma (R): 1995-2002
Minnesota Senate (Intern for Senator Bob Schmitz)
Former Rep. Alice Johnson (DFL): 1987-2000
Minnesota House of Representatives (2nd Assistant Clerk of the House) Minnesota House of Representatives (Reading Clerk of the House) Minnesota House of Representatives (Chief Clerk of the House)
Former Rep. Jim Farrell (DFL): 1991-1998
Minnesota House of Representatives
Former Sen. Kevin Chandler (DFL): 1993-1996
Minnesota Senate (Intern for Senator Donna Peterson)
Former Rep. Bob Haukoos (R): 1979-1994
Minnesota House of Representatives
Former Sen. Jim Ramstad (R): 1981-1990
Minnesota House of Representatives (Speaker’s Staff Member, Majority Research Consultant)
Source: Minnesota Legislative Reference Library