Retiring St. Paul freshman says polarization and inaction at the Capitol wore him down
Sen. John Harrington’s legislative career will come to a close after just two years.
In 2010 the former St. Paul police chief easily won an eight-candidate DFL primary to replace retiring Sen. Mee Moua. But in April 2012 he was denied the DFL’s re-endorsement and faced at least two challengers for the party’s nomination. Instead Harrington will step down from his post at the end of the year.
During his brief tenure at the Capitol, Harrington distinguished himself by speaking forcefully on issues related to law enforcement and minority groups. In particular, he was among the most vocal critics of the so-called Castle Doctrine bill, which would have expanded the circumstances in which individuals could use lethal force to protect themselves.
Harrington was also at the center of the controversy over Sen. Geoff Michel’s handling of the revelation that former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch was having an affair with a Senate staffer. During two days of ethics hearings on the matter, the committee repeatedly deadlocked along partisan lines and ultimately took no action.
Harrington becomes the 28th incumbent to announce that he will not be seeking re-election. In just the past two weeks, two other DFL legislators — Reps. Sandra Peterson of New Hope and Kory Kath of Owatonna —announced plans to retire. The class of retiring legislators includes 14 DFLers and 14 Republicans.
Capitol Report spoke with Harrington on Tuesday about his decision to leave the Legislature. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Capitol Report: Why did you decide not to run for re-election?
John Harrington: I was pretty frustrated with what we could do, what we did do. I didn’t feel like I was really in a position to accomplish the things that I thought were important, and didn’t feel like I had the passion, the drive to come back at this and hit this kind of same dead weight again. That’s really what it felt like: You kept running your head into an immovable object.
CR: Any issue, in particular, that you were frustrated you couldn’t make headway on?
Harrington: There’s lots of them, actually [laughs]. Voter ID was frustrating. The Castle Doctrine — which I expect if [the Republicans] come back in the majority, we’ll see again despite Trayvon Martin. The ethics hearings were frustrating. The list kind of goes on and on and on.
CR: You mentioned the deadlocked ethics hearing over the conduct of Sen. Michel. What did you take away from that process?
Harrington: That we need a new ethics process [laughs]. While I understand that the idea behind having [the Senate Ethics Subcommittee] as a two-two [partisan split] is to protect the minority so that they can’t be railroaded, it does present a situation where the bias is toward no action, it seems. Despite the fact that you could have clear and convincing evidence, the bias seemed to be toward making no decision whatsoever. And in this case, it was complicated by the fact that the majority essentially had pre-ruled that you couldn’t bring evidence in. So you couldn’t bring evidence in of any wrongdoing, and yet we were empanelled to discover whether there was wrongdoing.
CR: In retrospect, is there something that could have been done differently that might have made that less of a somewhat ridiculous process?
Harrington: I don’t think that having the political decision as to who’s going to have to pay for lawsuits that may or may not be brought — having the attorneys trying to maneuver around disclosure around that — I don’t think that should preclude justice. The example I gave when we were in committee was that as chief of police, you knew that if you found an officer guilty of excessive force, you also knew that there was a potential that the city was going to get sued.
And because you’d already found him guilty of excessive force, the city was probably going to have to pay out. But I don’t think the fact that the city would be liable for that takes away the responsibility of the body to find facts and to try to adjudicate wrongdoing. I think what happened in this case was we decided that the money that might be paid out was more important than the facts.
CR: You did not get endorsed for re-election by DFL activists in your district. What was your response to that?
Harrington: I understood that. I’m a moderate. I was pretty well prepared for that by folks who have been doing this longer than I have.
The endorsing conventions are often places where folks who have a particularly narrow view — they have a great deal of power in that venue. Moderates oftentimes have not fared well in that. I was fairly well prepared that a no-endorsement was possible. In fact, I had long conversations with several people that were part of the convention. Their comment to me was that they in fact thought no endorsement was preferable in a district that is now 55 percent people of color, [and] where the delegates to the district were certainly not 55 percent people of color.
CR: You were going to have at least two primary challengers. Were you concerned about your ability to get re-elected?
Harrington: No. I’m a novice at this. But everyone I talked to said that they still thought I had great name recognition, that I had been very active. I had certainly not been someone who had been sitting on the sidelines in the Senate. Folks had seen me taking very forceful and thoughtful positions on gay marriage, on voter ID, on the Castle Doctrine, on the stadium, whether you liked the position or not. Folks said that I was very visible, and they thought I would not have a great deal of difficulty either raising the money or getting the votes necessary for re-election.
CR: You served in a public capacity before as police chief. How was this different from that job?
Harrington: It feels less decisive and less direct. As chief of police, you see a problem. You empanel the group to decide yes, we have a problem here and [these] are the dynamics of the problem. You pull your troops together and say OK, here’s what we’re going to do about the problem. Within a very short period of time, you are actually addressing the problem.
In the Senate, my experience was you identified the problem. You had to convince at least 33 other people there was a problem. If you could convince them there was a problem, you then had to convince them that you had a solution to the problem. You then had to convince 68 people in the House it was a problem and that you had a solution to the problem. You had to convince the governor there was a problem, and then he had to sign off on the [solution].
It seemed like most of the solutions that we came up with — very few of them seemed to take effect immediately. We were setting up delayed reactions to the problem. By which point I question whether the problem is even the same problem. By the time we get to the teacher evaluation, will the problems in classrooms be the same as they were when we started down that road? I don’t know the answer to that. But it felt disconnected from problem-solving.
CR: Is this the end of your political career?
Harrington: I’m one who never says never [laughs]. If you’d asked me three years ago, will you ever run for elected office, I would have said absolutely not. It seemed the most unlikely scenario for me to want to do after police work. I’m not saying that I will never do this again. I have great memories. It was great to represent my district. I had great mentors in the Senate.
One of the things I noticed as I was making this decision was the energy and the drive of folks like [DFL Sens.] Roger Reinert and Tom Bakk and Kari Dziedzic and Jeff Hayden, who every day came in with optimism and fire in the belly to go in and fight. There were days toward the end of the session where I was hard-pressed to hit that fire.