PIM Legislator of the Year
Rep. Larry Howes helped broker the end of a three-week government shutdown
BY BRIANA BIERSCHBACH
It was a cordial mid-July lunch date last year that some have credited with ending the so-called longest government shutdown in Minnesota — and U.S. — history.
By that point, tensions between Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP-led Legislature had reached an all-time high as pressure mounted on all sides to solve the $5 billion budget deficit and put about 23,000 government employees back to work. Dayton had just embarked on a statewide tour to support his budget plan, while Republicans had used their bully pulpit in St. Paul to reiterate their stand against the tax increases Dayton wanted to use to balance the books.
But bonding, not taxes, was the main topic of conversation between the governor and seven-term Republican Rep. Larry Howes at a 45-minute lunch at Jules Bistro in St. Cloud. The Republican from Walker told House Speaker Kurt Zellers about the meeting, but only he and the governor were present. No other legislators or staffers would attend, Howes and Dayton had agreed.
Both parties ordered grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, with chips on the side, a move Howes later joked was the first sign of compromise. As the House chairman on Capital Investment and a longtime member of that committee, Howes went back and forth with Dayton about the prospects of a bonding package in lieu of tax increases, which he said Republicans would just not accept.
Two days later, Dayton and GOP leaders announced that they had reached a framework for a budget deal. As part of the agreement, Dayton would table his demand to raise taxes, and Republicans would give the governor a $500 million bonding bill. Dayton had requested a bonding package as large as $1 billion at the start of the 2011 session.
While the inclusion of a bonding bill in the final deal caught some Capitol watchers by surprise, Howes had it as part of his calculation all along. The moderate Republican had been creating a bonding package behind the scenes all session that he expected to serve as the linchpin of any eventual deal, despite public statements from GOP leaders that 2011 was the wrong time to do a bonding bill.
“There’s not going to be a tax increase,” Howes told Capitol Report in April, “and I think [Dayton] knows that. Of course we’re saying there’s not going to be a bonding bill. There’s always some give and take. I’m just saying [the bonding bill is] the weak link.”
“Larry is kind of an understated guy, but he’s got a good deal of seniority that gives him a powerful perspective on the bonding issue,” GOP operative and former House staffer Gregg Peppin said. “It was foresight that was gleaned from his experience on that committee over the years, and knowing that bonding can be a trade-off … that can be palatable for all the different caucuses.”
Howes continued to be a critical factor in the days just before the July special session. He was tasked with putting the finishing touches on a bill that could garner three-fifths approval in both chambers. He knew the challenges; just two months earlier a small flood relief bonding bill fell five votes shy of passing off the floor amid criticisms from House Democrats.
That meant working closely with DFLers like St. Paul Rep. Alice Hausman and Glyndon Sen. Keith Langseth, both former Capital Investment chairs. “He’s very inclusive,” Hausman said of Howes, “and I would say kept me in the loop all the time. We really worked together across party and jurisdictional lines.”
Howes’ reputation as a sometimes caucus-bucking moderate is nothing new. Before working the phones and driving the parade car for Rod Grams in 1994, Howes grew up in a home of conservative Democrats in south Minneapolis. The retired summer camp manager is known as one of the last remaining moderate Republicans on fiscal matters like bonding and property taxes.
Howes was one of the first Republicans to criticize the GOP-led move to eliminate the Market Value Homestead Credit in the 2011 budget. The move became hugely unpopular in outstate communities in the months after the credit was repealed in the July special session, and Howes vowed to work with Democrats, if necessary, to fix the problem.
Howes was also one of the only incumbent Republican House members to be paired up with a DFL incumbent on his own colleagues’ redistricting map last year. According to the proposed House GOP map, Howes would be pitted against two-term Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji.
But the appearance of at least some separation from the younger, hard-line members of his own caucus likely gave Dayton just enough comfort to agree to meet with Howes privately, one GOP operative said.“He was different and Dayton knew that. He was approachable and he was also ready,” the source said. “That was the key.”
PIM Politician of the Year
Rep. John Kriesel took political risks and emerged as an important new presence at the Capitol
BY PAUL DEMKO
Rep. John Kriesel was always destined to attract an unusual amount of attention at the Capitol. That’s because in December 2006, an improvised explosive device destroyed Kriesel’s Humvee while he was on patrol in Fallujah, Iraq. The Minnesota National Guard member lost both of his legs — and two of his closest friends — in the attack. He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star medals for combat valor.
At the start of the 2011 legislative session, House Speaker Kurt Zellers hailed the freshman as a “rock star” of the Republican Party. Early in the session, Kriesel earned plaudits for shepherding through legislation banning synthetic marijuana. He also drew attention for his outspoken support of expanded gambling, including a proposed casino at the Block E development in downtown Minneapolis, and for using his Twitter account to criticize actions by Republican leaders — most notably when then-state party Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb criticized RNC Committeewoman Pat Anderson for flouting the party’s plank against gambling by lobbying for racino.
But nobody could have predicted the central role that Kriesel would play in the most intense, emotional debate of the 2011 legislative session. In late May, when the House took up the issue of whether to put a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2012 ballot, anticipation had been building for several days. Hundreds of protesters — most of them opponents of the proposed gay marriage ban — were camped outside the House floor.
In an emotional speech, Kriesel cited his combat experience and alluded to the protesters just outside the chamber in explaining his opposition to the legislation. “This amendment doesn’t represent what I went to fight for,” Kriesel said. “Hear that out there? That’s the America I fought for, and I’m proud of that.”
He then waved a picture of Andrew Wilfahrt, a gay Minnesota soldier killed in combat in Afghanistan. “I cannot look at this picture … and say, ‘You know what, Corporal? You were good enough to fight for this country and give your life, but you were not good enough to marry the person you love,’” Kriesel said. “I can’t do that. I cannot do that and I won’t do that. If there was a ‘hell, no’ button right here I would press it. … I’m pleading with you to vote no. I’m begging you.”
Ultimately just three of Kriesel’s GOP colleagues joined him in opposition, and the measure passed. But he received widespread attention and praise for forcefully bucking party orthodoxy on such a hot-button issue.
Kriesel has certainly not muted his opposition in the ensuing months. He joined the steering committee of Minnesotans United for All Families, the main organization opposing the gay marriage ban. Kriesel has also made numerous public appearances to speak against the proposed amendment and frequently uses his Twitter account to criticize its backers.
Javier Morillo, a DFL activist who serves on the steering committee with Kriesel, argues that he has brought a unique perspective to the debate. “I just think he’s become this real moral center for the campaign, to remind everyone that it’s not about partisan politics and to really give a whole different argument, which is the angle of patriotism and love of country,” Morillo said.
No one has questioned the sincerity of Kriesel’s stance. But it also looks like potentially smart politics. Kriesel won an open seat in 2010 by 3 percentage points in a district that leans strongly Democratic. President Barack Obama carried it by 16 percentage points in 2008, while Mark Dayton won it by 5 percentage points in the 2010 gubernatorial contest. Kriesel’s outspoken support for gay marriage could inoculate him against attacks on the left in 2012.
There has been considerable speculation that Kriesel’s stance on the marriage amendment could earn him a GOP endorsement battle. But so far no signs of an intraparty challenger have surfaced. “I haven’t heard a thing about that,” said Tom Dippel, GOP chairman in House District 57A. With the endorsing convention just two months away, that appears to mean that Kriesel won’t face a GOP challenger.
In recent months, Kriesel has won praise from some disparate quarters. The GLBT magazine Lavender named him its “Person of the Year” for 2011. Governing Magazine included him on its list of “GOP Legislators to Watch.” He was briefly floated as a potential challenger for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2012.
Kriesel’s high profile is unlikely to dip going forward. The gay marriage referendum is certain to be a contentious and expensive campaign throughout 2012. Given Kriesel’s willingness to take on the issue, he will almost certainly continue to be a significant voice in the debate.