Hopes to work on transit, criminal justice issues at Capitol
Raymond Dehn has already faced most of the hurdles he will encounter on his way to the state Capitol.
The first came when Dehn joined a crowded field of candidates vying for the open North Minneapolis House District 59B seat vacated by Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, who opted to seek the district’s Senate seat instead. By the time the DFL endorsing convention came around last spring, seven people were vying for the backing of activists, including Dehn, former Hennepin County staffer Tera Cole, attorney Ian Alexander and former state Rep. Willie Dominguez. Four candidates were knocked out of the balloting in the first round, but the process deadlocked between Dehn, Cole and Alexander. All three moved on to the August primary, which Dehn won with 37 percent of the vote.
His victory came by the narrowest of margins: Dehn finished just 19 votes ahead of Cole. While that was just outside the 0.5 percent margin that would trigger an automatic recount, Cole requested and paid for a recount herself. When Hennepin County finished retallying the results, Dehn had added one vote to his winning total.
“When you have one person win by 20 votes, that’s a really close margin,” Dehn said, “and it takes a while, I think, for people to get to the place where that’s OK.
“All of us ran because we wanted to make our community a better place, and it’s going take all of us to do that.”
Now Dehn, an architect and longtime neighborhood activist, is facing a general election against Republican Gary Mazzotta in a district that has voted overwhelmingly Democratic for many years. A partisan index compiled by watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota puts the new House District 59B seat at DFL +58.
‘I didn’t have a past’
In looking at his likely ticket to St. Paul, Dehn can’t help feeling lucky.
At the age of 18, he was convicted of felony burglary, receiving a five-year suspended sentence and later entering treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. Dehn said he served a “soft term” for his burglary sentence, and his father’s health insurance helped pay his way through his drug and alcohol addiction treatments.
Six years later, in 1982, Dehn was granted a “pardon extraordinary” by the Minnesota Board of Pardons, which effectively cleared his criminal record. Dehn was able to return to the University of Minnesota to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in architecture. Afterward, Dehn spent time as the national president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, spending 18 months in Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of 30,000 architecture students in the organization.
“I was able to turn my life around and return to college,” Dehn said, adding that he believed he got preferential treatment because he is white. “I never had to deal with the issues of applying for jobs [with a felony record] and employment issues or anything.”
It wasn’t until years later, while at a national conference for architects, that the reality of his extraordinary recovery really hit him. A speaker at the conference asked anyone in the room who had a criminal history to stand up. Dehn — who had never talked about his past with his colleagues at the time — stood up, to the shock of most of his companions. “These people didn’t know about my past because I didn’t have a past,” Dehn said. “I decided to stand up, and that was sort of the point for me where I said to myself, ‘I know of the injustices.’ I was in some ways fortunate to have some opportunity to really do something with my life, and I now have the opportunity to tell my story and talk about the criminal justice system.”
Dehn moved to Minneapolis’ Willard-Hay Neighborhood in 2001, where he got involved in community activism after picking up a flyer for a neighborhood meeting. Since then he has served on his local neighborhood organization (a position he will leave in December), advocated for a light rail line in the community and worked on a criminal justice campaign with liberal advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, among other things.
Dehn’s first foray into politics came as a phone bank volunteer for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 campaign. After Wellstone died in a plane crash, Dehn switched gears to do get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of DFL up-and-comer Keith Ellison’s legislative campaign. Ellison won the 58B seat and eventually went on to serve in the U.S. House. Dehn’s longstanding relationship with Ellison won him the congressman’s endorsement for the Legislature — a factor many people familiar with the campaign cite as critical to his eventual success.
“I think Ray Dehn is the right candidate this time because our neighborhood needs a strenuous, energetic advocate who will really reach out and listen to everybody,” Ellison said in a Youtube video endorsing Dehn.
Not everyone is as high on Dehn as Ellison. Dehn unsuccessfully challenged now retiring north side Sen. Linda Higgins for her DFL endorsement in 2010. Higgins initially endorsed Alexander for Champion’s House seat but said she subsequently “backed away from that” endorsement and kept her vote to herself. When asked if she thinks Dehn will be a good fit for the district, Higgins said only, “I’d prefer to not answer that.”
Focus on criminal system, transit in St. Paul
Looking ahead at the 2013 legislative session, Dehn sees the work he will do in St. Paul as an extension of things he’s been doing at the local level over the past decade. Based on his experience growing up, Dehn wants to bring greater racial equality to the criminal justice system, but he doesn’t expect that it will happen fast.
“Do I think I’m going to get there in January and introduce a bill that will totally transform the criminal justice system? No,” Dehn said. “I understand how the process works.”
He will also continue to push for the Bottineau light rail line, which would connect Minneapolis’ north side to surrounding communities. Dehn has worked closely with Champion on that issue over the years despite a deep divide in the community over the project. His support of the line has made him unpopular in some north side circles, he says.
“I would love to be a huge advocate for looking at a 21st-century transportation system. As our region continues and continues to grow, we cannot keep building more lanes of highway and freeways,” he said. “I think public transportation has a huge role in our regional growth and success in our regional economy.”
But some of Dehn’s hardest work during his first term may be spent repairing hard feelings within his own community following the election. The campaign was at times contentious. In one instance, a group called Minneapolis Democrats for Truth put out fliers against Alexander’s campaign. Dehn’s critics said the flyers looked similar to several others floating around the district from unions supporting Dehn’s campaign. Dehn denounced the campaign tactics of the group, but that hasn’t mended all hard feelings.
“There’s some work that needs to be done to restitch the community somewhat,” Dehn acknowledged, adding that Ellison held a “unity” event on his behalf this month. “What I can say is my background and perspective as an architect and as someone who’s had experience with the criminal justice system makes me very different from other legislators,” he said.
“I don’t just think about what’s in front of me, but I try to think about unintended consequences. Most people, when they drive down the road, they think about the next road they have to turn at. I try to think about the next two, three, four turns after that. I hope that is a skill that is helpful at the Capitol.”