Senate DFL’s lightning rod moves on
No one seemed to see Larry Pogemiller’s departure coming. Not even him.
Gov. Mark Dayton announced late last week that the Minneapolis senator of nearly 30 years would move to the Office of Higher Education to replace former Director Sheila Wright, who resigned suddenly in September. Activists in his Senate District 59 were taken aback by the announcement, as were his fellow legislators. Pogemiller says he hadn’t sought the position.
“I fully intended on being in the state Senate and running for re-election,” Pogemiller said Tuesday between meetings about the new job. He starts officially on Monday. “The day that I made the decision and it had settled in, it was a tough day. It’s not that I think it’s the wrong decision, it just dawned on me how much I love the institution.”
The move ends a long and sometimes contentious legislative career that included high-profile roles as Senate majority leader and as chairman of the Taxes and Education Finance committees. Pogemiller was known for his wonky nature and head for complex policy. “In the legislative process, knowledge is power,” said former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, “and he was extremely knowledgeable on some of the things that are the most complicated: school financing, pension laws, tax policy and various formulas that affected local units of government.”
But in the eyes of some, Pogemiller will be more vividly remembered for his Type A personality, his animosity toward former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his love of negotiations. In reflecting on his career in the Senate this week, a host of Capitol sources regularly called him “intense” and “combative.” “Does Larry have an edge? Yes, and I think that edge was shown on occasions and some people reacted different,” Moe said. “There’s no question about it: He is a partisan, that’s a partisan arena. He was a leader. He was a leader of the caucus, and at many times he was a leader on many important issues.”
Pogemiller says he wouldn’t describe his style as combative, noting that many of his K-12 finance bills had strong bipartisan support over the years. He does, however, agree that he is an intense person. “Intense, yes. I can be very intense, but you’re all in for that seat.”
The Senate’s policy wonk
With his styled, medium-length brown hair and tailored suits, Pogemiller didn’t look like the type of legislator that typically hailed from northeast Minneapolis in the early 1980s.
At the time, House District 55A stretched from Central Avenue to the Mississippi and reached into Columbia Heights. It was blue-collar, middle-class and had a strong union presence. Children’s game inventor and former carpenters’ union leader Stan Fudro had represented the area for 24 years. But Fudro had to survive a close primary battle in 1978 and announced early on that he would not run again in 1980.
Pogemiller was one of the first to announce his candidacy to replace him. The 29-year-old bachelor and systems analyst at Northwestern Bank had been raised in northeast Minneapolis. He attended De La Salle High School and even got his bachelor’s degree in the district at the University of Minnesota. For several sessions in the 1970s, Pogemiller lobbied on behalf of Minneapolis at the Legislature. But Pogemiller was not favored by most unions in the area. Only one union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — backed his bid, while larger unions like the AFL-CIO endorsed his primary opponents in the strongly DFL district. But when it came time for the primary, Pogemiller beat two other DFLers. In the general election, Pogemiller bagged the other union endorsements and took home about 80 percent of the vote.
In his first term in the House, Pogemiller tackled crime legislation as a member of the Criminal Justice Committee. He earned praise from then-House Speaker Bob Vanasek for his work on a bill to regulate precious metal dealers, many of whom were trafficking in metals that had been stolen from homes. Just two years later, Pogemiller left the House for the Senate. He was elected alongside a huge, 21-member Senate freshman class that included the likes of Republican Sens. Gen Olson and Fritz Knaak.
He would spend the first decade of his career in the chamber building deep knowledge of some of the trickiest aspects of public policy. He completed a graduate degree at the University of Minnesota’s School of Economics and earned his master’s in public administration from Harvard’s JFK School of Government in the 1980s. He took the reins of the Income, Sales and Economic Development Division of the Tax Committee in the late 1980s, and in 1992, he earned the gavel in the Senate K-12 Education Budget Division.
It was there that he pushed relentlessly for more funding for schools with disadvantaged students and became a central figure in the high-profile political fight over revamping the controversial Profile of Learning program, which set high standards and graduation requirements for students in primary and secondary education. In 2000, Republicans wanted a wholesale repeal of the requirements, which some said took away local control from schools and bogged teachers down with bureaucracy and paperwork. Pogemiller stood against the repeal and fought to reform the program instead. The fight over the program held up the education finance bill and became the defining debate of the session.
Lobbyist Mike Wilhelmi, who worked as a Senate staffer for several years, remembers Pogemiller pushing the nonpartisan staff hard during chaotic parts of session. “I remember him constantly asking for data runs and really pushing the policy staff to be creative. That kind of strenuous time brought that out in him,” Wilhelmi said. “He was aggressive, but he really, really cared about the policy.”
A controversial leader from day one
Pogemiller rose to the coveted Taxes Committee chairmanship at the start of the 2002 session. At his inaugural hearing as chairman, Pogemiller handed out a quotation from Cicero: “Taxes are the sinews of the state.” He also solicited grumblings from Republican members on the inaugural committee. Pogemiller made it clear that they would outline committee objectives and goals and follow those in creating all legislation. Republicans complained that it was dictatorial and hindered the legislative process.
In the committee, he pushed tax bills that aimed to raise income taxes to help patch budget holes and funnel more money to schools, much to the dismay of his GOP counterparts in the House. During GOP Rep. Phil Krinkie’s tenure with the Taxes gavel, the two were known for their feisty relationship and sparring in committee. In 2005, a Senate staffer created the “Thunda Unda the Rotunda” fight promotion poster, featuring “Phil ‘Dr. No’ Krinkie” and “Larry ‘Loophole Liquidator’ Pogemiller” superimposed on boxers’ bodies.
“For the Democrats, it seemed like an annual event to pass some sort of income tax increase on top wage earners,” said Krinkie, who now leads the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. “Obviously, I wasn’t going to just let that happen.”
And while Pogemiller held few news conferences as Taxes chairman, many legislators began to assume that he was the mastermind pulling strings behind the scenes. At the behest of Moe, Pogemiller would stall bills in the tax committee for hours, even days, to let negotiations play out. But Moe says that at times Pogemiller went further than he asked him to go.
“He loved competition as well as the intellectual challenge that these issues gave him,” Moe said. “He drove me near the edge of insanity during the final days of the session. He loved to negotiate and would continue to negotiate until I would say, ‘Larry, it’s time to wrap this up.’
“He is very competitive. He loved the give and take of the process, and sometimes probably played it a little harder than he should have, which has probably left a few ruffled feathers.”
Republicans were generally irked by Pogemiller for what they saw as his partisan nature and his scorched-earth style of politics. The conservative blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed, then under the direction of GOP operative Michael Brodkorb, labeled him Larry “the jerk” Pogemiller. One former Republican operative noted that he was effective because “he was the one Republicans were afraid of.” His tenacity and vast knowledge of public policy made him frightful in questioning and debate, the source said.
His pugnacious nature also put him front and center among contenders for the Senate majority leader job after the surprising defeat of then-Majority Leader Dean Johnson in the 2006 election. Pogemiller beat Sen. Tom Bakk for the position in a close vote that many say exemplified the metro versus rural tensions in their caucus. Bakk received Pogemiller’s Taxes gavel.
In his role as majority leader, Pogemiller took on Pawlenty with vigor. He criticized the Republican governor for raising property taxes on the local level by holding the line on statewide taxes; railed on him after he used unallotments to single-handedly balance the budget; and berated his commissioners in committee.
Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson got it the worst, often spending hours enduring criticism and probing questions from Pogemiller. Hanson, now a lobbyist, says he doesn’t hold hard feelings. “I really like the guy, and I always have,” Hanson said. “He was formidable in questioning me in committee, but he was always good to me personally.”
By Pogemiller’s account, his adversarial stance toward Pawlenty was merely their respective roles in St. Paul. “It was my role as majority leader and his as governor,” Pogemiller said. “On a personal level, we got along really well.”
He didn’t let his work as majority leader keep him out of the legislative mix. Pogemiller successfully pushed the 2008 Legacy Amendment — a constitutional amendment to put dollars from a dedicated sales tax toward the arts and outdoors — through the Legislature. “He knew how to get a deal done,” said Gary Hill, a former staffer in Pogemiller’s office. “That had been kicking around there for years and years, and it didn’t get done until he had the idea of bringing in the arts and culture groups. He got done what [hunting and fishing groups alone] couldn’t get done for decades.”
It passed on the ballot in 2008, a night Pogemiller says he remembers as one of the proudest in his career. “When the voters verified that that was the right thing to do, that was a great feeling,” he said.
Silent in the minority
Pogemiller’s caucus was drubbed in the 2010 elections, which saw Senate DFLers lose the majority for the first time in nearly 40 years. Not surprisingly, Pogemiller opted not to seek the minority leader post. “No matter how committed we were or hard we all worked, in the end it didn’t matter; the result is the result,” he said in a statement. “We were not able to bring an exemplary group of legislators across the finish line.”
He almost disappeared from public view. He sat on only two committees — Taxes and Capital Investment.
While most were surprised by Dayton’s announcement to move him to the higher education post, some observers believed his exit was a long time in the making. His district, which includes much of the area in and around the University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus, is thought to be ripe for drastic changes when new district maps are put in place, one lobbyist noted.
Most agree Pogemiller has the skills to be effective in his new job. For years he advocated for more funding for the U, and sources say his eight years on the K-12 budget committee will give him the financial expertise needed in the office, which provides and oversees financial aid for college students.
Krinkie says he may get a chance to work with Pogemiller again, as he sits on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board. “He has a great deal of knowledge and understanding of the K-12 system,” Krinkie said. “A lot of people remember him for majority leader or Taxes chair. They forget the older posts, but he was effective in that role.”
Krinkie looks forward to working with him again and figures they will have more points of agreement this time around. In a lot of ways, Krinkie said, he believes he understands Pogemiller. “There was always a lot of verbalizing on the Republican side of the aisle about Mr. Pogemiller’s direction and Mr. Pogemiller’s zeal and partisan nature, but I think that comes with anyone who holds a strong ideological position. I’ve had that as someone on the right,” he said. “I’m very vocal and philosophically oriented in my positions. When you do that, you draw a great deal of ire and acrimony from the other side, sometimes even your own side.”