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Meet the freshmen: Senate DFL (part 1)

Meet the freshmen: Senate DFL (part 1)

Sen.-elect John Hoffman, from Champlin, served on around a dozen high-profile boards and commissions before winning his seat in the Legislature. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Senate majority’s new faces mix fresh with familiar

Of the 38 seats won by DFLers in reclaiming control of the Minnesota Senate on Nov. 6, no fewer than 14 will be filled by members who were not part of the caucus in 2011-12. But in several cases, the newcomers will hardly be strangers.

Three of the DFL’s new senators (Kent Eken, Bev Scalze and Bobby Joe Champion) took advantage of redistricting or retirements to move up from the Minnesota House; three others (former Sens. Jim Carlson and Kevin Dahle and former Rep. Alice Johnson) are returning to the Capitol with prior legislative service on their resumes; only a little more than half — eight of them — are true freshmen.

In the coming weeks, Capitol Report will be profiling all the new faces of the 88th Minnesota Legislature. We begin with the first series of profiles of the new DFL Senate majority.

Kent Eken, Senate District 4

It may be hard to believe, but Rep. Kent Eken’s move from the House to the Senate means he will represent fewer square miles. The new Senate District 4, which includes some regional population centers, is more geographically compact than his former House district, which comprised sparsely populated turf stretching across some four counties.

Eken, a DFLer from Twin Valley, has served five terms in the House and spent time as chairman of the House Environment Policy and Oversight Committee. Redistricting severed him from more than 90 percent of his House district and paired him with fellow DFL Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth. Eken decided to run for the area’s open Senate seat instead. He went on to win a hard-fought, lavishly funded race against former Buffalo Bills football player Phil Hansen by 4.5 percentage points. Eken’s victory kept in the DFL column the seat that Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who is retiring, had held since 1975.

Even though he’s never previously represented Clay County and its seat in Moorhead, Eken emphasizes his roots in the adjoining Norman County. He lives in the house that his grandparents built when they came from Norway. His grandparents were married in the living room of that same house, and his mother was born in one of its bedrooms. He also has political roots: His late father, Willis, was House majority leader in the mid-1980s. Eken joked that he was breaking the family tradition by moving over to the Senate.

Eken’s new district includes a couple of institutions of higher education in Moorhead, which will require him to pay ever more attention to the details of higher education policy and funding. Eken doesn’t have enough seniority in the Senate to land the sort of chairmanship he had in the House when the DFLers last had the majority, but he hopes to play a role on greater Minnesota issues such as agriculture and the environment.

On the issue of the upcoming debate over taxes and spending, Eken said he’s inclined to support an income tax increase on the wealthy, noting that such a hike would have less effect on the district than further property tax increases.

“Right now what I’ve been seeing is shifting more and more of the tax burden to middle and lower income people and onto greater Minnesota communities like ours,” Eken said. “I would prefer, instead of raising property taxes that hit our area the hardest, raising taxes on the highest levels, which would take some of the pressure off of greater Minnesota and spread the burden more fairly across the state.”

Kevin Dahle, Senate District 20

Kevin Dahle’s path to the Capitol, out the door and back again has involved a lot of close victories.
In 2008 he became the first Democrat to represent his Northfield-area district in 17 years, winning a special election in then-Senate District 25 after Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Republican Sen. Tom Neuville to a judgeship. Dahle’s unexpected victory provided Democrats with the single vote they needed to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a $6.6 billion transportation package. But in 2010 he was swept out by a major Republican wave that also pushed Democrats out of the majority in the chamber for the first time in nearly 40 years.

He opted to jump back into the mix again in 2012, running in one of the most competitive and expensive Senate races of the cycle against retired FBI agent and Republican nominee Michael Dudley. It was so close that the contest is now subject to an automatic recount — only 82 votes separated Dahle and Dudley.

Barring major shifts in votes, Dahle is likely to return to the chamber when the Legislature reconvenes in January, and he’s excited to continue much of the work he left off in 2010. “People have said, the two years you took off was probably good for you,” Dahle said. “It seems like it was a tough two years to be in the minority.”

Dahle previously served on the Commerce, Energy and Education committees and would like to return to them all if he can. “On energy, it’s one of those committees where you feel like you’re just getting up to speed on the lingo by the time three years are up,” he said. He can also see himself taking the lead on action involving payback to the state’s public schools. Lawmakers borrowed heavily from schools’ reserve funds to balance the budget in 2011, and Dahle expects that to be part of a budget solution taken up in 2013. Overall, however, Dahle says his main focus will be budget reform and getting the “fiscal house in order.”

Dahle earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies from the University of Northern Iowa and his master’s degree in education at St. Mary’s University. This year Dahle was a semifinalist for teacher of the year after 29 years at Northfield public schools.

Little-known facts about Dahle: He’s a member of the Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club, he has done standup comedy since he was 18 years old and he has run the Northfield High School drama department for the past 20 years. He lives in Northfield with his wife, Beth. They have three children together.

Matt Schmit, Senate District 21

Matt Schmit’s affinity for politics and current events can be traced back to his father, who taught social studies at Red Wing High School. “I’ve been talking about Iraq and Iran since I was just a kid walking up to the school bus,” Schmit, who will be 33 when he takes office in January, said. “That was something that always stuck with me.”

His early exposure to politics easily morphed into a policy focus in school. He moved to central Minnesota to attend Saint John’s University, studying biology and political science. The former Saint John’s football player currently serves as a member of the school’s board of regents.

Immediately after graduating, Schmit headed to the state Capitol for his first job as a legislative assistant to DFL Sen. Sharon Marko. Marko served as vice chair of the Senate K-12 Education Finance Committee at the time, meaning Schmit got a chance to sit in on all the committee hearings. “I just wanted to stay there long enough to get a taste of the action and then move on,” he said. After four years in the Senate, Schmit enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

In 2007, Schmit started his own consulting firm, P3 Strategies, focusing his work on economic development, community broadband deployment and transportation policy. “We will see how that translates into legislating,” Schmit said this week, just a day removed from his freshman orientation. “You can’t do it all, but I would really like to take my focus on 21st-century infrastructure to the Legislature.”

He also plans to go headfirst into some of the distinct energy and natural resource industries based in his southeastern Minnesota Senate district. Senate District 21 is home to the Prairie Island nuclear power plant and several wind energy companies. The area is also “ground zero” for frac sand mining, Schmit said. “[Those issues were] always out there during the campaign, and that’s something we are going to be engaging in on day one at the Legislature.”

In his free time, Schmit says he is an avid outdoorsman. He enjoys fly fishing, hunting, skiing, and he runs triathlons and half marathons when he has time. Schmit is also an avid reader, and plans to take a break from the “heavy stuff” to dig into a bit of good fiction before the session starts in earnest.

Vicki Jensen, Senate District 24

Jensen is the first Democrat to represent Owatonna and Faribault in the Senate in 40 years. DFLers didn’t expect District 24 to be even remotely competitive until Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, announced his retirement in an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the GOP endorsement to run in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.

Jensen, an insurance agency owner and Owatonna School Board member, defeated Republican political newcomer Vern Swedin by a little more than 5 percentage points.

Jensen graduated from Appleton High School in western Minnesota. Her professional life has centered around financial services. Jensen worked as an analyst in the operational control department for CitiBank in Sioux Falls for 12 years. She moved to Windom, Minn., and worked there as a technical writer. Around 2001, she and her husband, Trevor, moved to Owatonna, where they own an independent insurance agency.

Jensen’s biography is a blend of business ownership and Democratic activism. She caught the political bug when she went to hear President Bill Clinton speak at a farm in South Dakota. She served on the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce at the same time she was chairing the Steele County DFL. Jensen’s dual experiences steer her to the political middle. When asked about Gov. Mark Dayton’s preference for an income tax on the state’s wealthiest earners, she said the proposal doesn’t fix the larger budget problems facing the state.

“I worked a lot with the chamber, and most of it was because I was a small business owner.” Jensen said. “It gave me some insight into how there are things we can do together. But one way or another, I don’t think this is the answer. To just say we’re going to create a fourth tier [income tax bracket] and that’s going to fix things, I don’t believe in that. I think we have to do a lot more than just that.”

Given the GOP bent of her district, Jensen will be more moderate than her fellow caucus members from the Twin Cities urban area. But Jensen thinks that she can still maintain DFL beliefs and represent the needs of the district.

“It’s tough,” Jensen said. “It’s just an interesting district, the way it’s divided and it’s pretty conservative in one area and more liberal in another. So it takes someone with a specific background, I think, to match the area. And my background seemed to do that.”

Jensen has been active in the Minnesota Farmers Union and would like to serve on the Agriculture and Energy Committee. Another big priority is advancing a project to improve the Highway 14 corridor.
Away from politics and business, Jensen etches and carves on glass, an art form she learned from her mother. The process is a big production, involving a sandblaster and compressor. The Jensens have three children. The oldest, Miranda, is a senior at Winona State University; Ryan is freshman at Rochester Technical College and Benjamin is in third grade.

John Hoffman, Senate District 36

John Hoffman’s resume is, in a word, daunting. The newly elected senator from Champlin served on around a dozen high-profile boards and commissions before winning his seat in the Legislature.

That includes a three-year term under Gov. Tim Pawlenty on the State Interagency Council and a stint on former Congressman Jim Ramstad’s Education Advisory Committee. In 2001, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rodney Paige appointed Hoffman to serve on the federal Interagency Coordinating Council, where he advised and assisted secretaries in a handful of cabinet departments.

In 2005 he was elected vice chair of the Anoka Hennepin School Board, the largest school district in the state. He serves on the Midway Chamber of Commerce’s board, and he currently works as marketing director at St. Paul Midway Training Services, which offers employment for adults with disabilities.
“Volunteering has always been a big part of my life,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman also did extensive government work in Iowa, serving on the governor’s Special Education Advisory Committee and working for the Department of Youth Services for Polk County as head of the Juvenile Detention Center. During that time, then-Vice President Al Gore recognized Hoffman for his work reforming government.

Hoffman was born in Casper, Wyo., where his father worked as a geologist for Chevron Oil. While Hoffman was still a baby, his father moved their family to Minnesota to start a business with his brother. Some of Hoffman’s first memories involve his mother’s running for the Watertown-Mayer school board. She lost twice, but Hoffman remembers school policy discussions and politics as regular “kitchen table conversations” in their home.

Hoffman continued to be surrounded by political movers and shakers growing up. Former GOP Rep. K.J. McDonald (whose son Joe McDonald now sits in the Legislature), was a longtime family friend and shot the photos at Hoffman’s wedding, and one of Hoffman’s school teachers ran for office and won. “People I knew ran for public office and got it, and I thought, ‘These guys are just people just like me.’”
At the Legislature, Hoffman would like to focus on education, health and human services and environmental policy. His district covers the cities of Coon Rapids, Champlin and Brooklyn Park, all of which are connected by the Mississippi River. Hoffman also helps review health grants every summer and would like to take that experience to the Health and Human Services Committee.

But mostly, Hoffman wants to work in education. “Being on the school board for seven years, there are things we want to do and things we need to do but aren’t able to do because they aren’t fully funded,” he said. “I bring a good perspective and I understand how a lean machine operates. I understand how to find money that you might not have known existed.”

Bev Scalze, Senate District 42

As Bev Scalze weaved her way through the newly formed Senate District 42, which encompasses much of Ramsey County, she found many voters disappointed in the lack of a balanced budget. But they didn’t stop there. Many of Scalze’s campaign interactions also revealed that constituents were angry over what they perceived as misleading accounting tricks and partisan bickering that had engulfed the previous budget negotiations and led, ultimately, to the 2011 shutdown.

Scalze, who went on to win 55 percent of the vote in defeating Republican April King, said she learned a lesson at those doorstep sessions.

“What we need to do this session is balance the budget — honestly, and in a bipartisan manner,” Scalze said. “It’s been a number of years that this budget has gotten out of whack.”

The state’s departure from sound fiscal practices and straightforward accounting has accelerated over the last eight to 10 years, according to Scalze. And she should know: First elected to the House in 2004, Scalze has been in the Legislature during most of that time. During that time, Scalze has witnessed the worsening of what she now calls a “structural imbalance.” It is not a problem with an easy solution, and she thinks legislators and voters will have to be patient and thoughtful as the state seeks to sort out its finances.

“It’s going to be, I think, a slow process,” Scalze said. “It’s like turning a battleship.”

As she points out, moving to the Senate gives Scalze something of a reprieve from the quick judgments she had grown used to, as she won’t face reelection until 2016.

Among Scalze’s economic priorities is a reduction in the corporate tax level, which she says would bring the Minnesota “more in line with other states,” and make it an attractive home for new businesses. It would also serve as an effective boost in holding onto existing corporations, she said, an issue that is especially important to Scalze. Her district contains the headquarters of three different Fortune 500 companies: the dairy coop Land O’ Lakes and medical device company Boston Scientific are both based out of Arden Hills, and the check-printing company Deluxe Checks has headquarters in Shoreview.

But while she acknowledges the importance of these large corporations that do business across the country and internationally, Scalze also hopes to focus on more localized issues as well. A former longtime member of the Little Canada City Council, the senator-elect hopes to work on issues affecting local government. Saying she has maintained a good relationship with the League of Minnesota Cities, Scalze said she plans to take on municipal topics such as the declining levels of local government aid (LGA).

“I think [LGA] needs a rework,” she said. “It’s an old formula, from the 1970s, and some cities are struggling now.”

Melisa Franzen, Senate District 49

In the hotly contested race for Edina, large amounts of money were spent both for and against DFL candidate Melisa Franzen. As a first-time candidate, Franzen, a lawyer for Target Corp., managed to defeat GOP Rep. Keith Downey, who had been widely seen as a rising star in the Republican Party. In total, the race between Frazen and Downey attracted more than $600,000 in independent expenditures from party units PACs on either side. After all the spending was concluded, Franzen won with 52.7 percent of the vote.

For her next challenge, Franzen is prepared to dive into an issue with even larger figures at stake: the state budget, where an expected $1 billion-plus deficit looms.

Shortly after the election, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk indicated that, while his caucus was looking closely at its options on tax reform, it would do so with business interests in mind. Franzen’s background with Target and her connections to the business community could prove valuable as the DFL tries to consider the potential impact of legislation, while keeping good relations with the state’s major corporations.

“I think any issue that deals with the business community is something that I can provide some input,” Franzen said.”Even if I’m not on a committee [considering a piece of legislation], I’m certainly planning on chiming in to make sure that businesses are represented.”

With DFL Senate leadership and committee chairs just announced, Franzen is eyeing several possible appointments, and has a keen interest in the issues that would come before the Health and Human Services Committee. Specifically, Franzen wants to be involved in the formation of the state’s health care exchange, a crucial piece of implementing the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Franzen has already put much thought into Minnesota’s options for its exchange during her time with Target, and thinks her knowledge would be a valuable asset.

“A lot of that needs to be done in a very short amount of time,” she said, referring to the state’s impending April 1 deadline, by which point Minnesota will need to provide a detailed version of its exchange proposal to the federal government. “It’s a very complex issue,” she said. “I think I can bring some expertise and some background on that process.”

Franzen is also hoping to play a role in the state’s moves toward tax reform, though she said she wouldn’t be able to state her position fully until she sees the state’s official forecasts in November and, more importantly, February. Whatever the revenue projections, Franzen said, the issue will require careful deliberation to achieve a proper long-term solution.

“I don’t think we’re going to be rubber-stamping any proposals,” she said. “We need to make sure what we do is not just something that’s going to be changed every two or four years.”

Melissa Halvorson-Wiklund, Senate District 50

Melissa Halvorson-Wiklund’s path to the Legislature was cleared thanks to some favorable redistricting, which left an open seat in an area that had previously been represented by Sen. Ken Kelash. Kelash decided to move into the district and challenge Halvorson-Wiklund, who had already declared her intent to seek the DFL endorsement.

Though Kelash’s electoral experience would seem to give him the natural advantage, Halvorson-Wiklund was building on a slightly different political past of her own. Since 2009, she had served on the Bloomington School Board; within two years, she was elected to serve as chairwoman. The relationships and name recognition earned there were enough to push Halvorson-Wiklund over the top; she won the endorsement easily, defeating Kelash on the first ballot.

That victory paved the way for an easy win on Election Day — Halvorson-Wiklund collected 61 percent of the vote in the DFL-friendly new Senate District 50 — but the first-time candidate still showed chops as a fundraiser. Through October 22, she had raised nearly $40,000 for her campaign fund; that haul included donations from Education Minnesota PAC, the political advocacy fund of the state’s teachers unions, and the pro-choice group EMILYS’s List.

Education will be Halvorson-Wiklund’s major issue in the Senate. She campaigned on the idea of improving the schools’ system of financing, and said the issue resonates strongly with her constituents in Bloomington and Richfield. On the campaign trail, Halvorson-Wiklund made repeated mention of the impropriety of the 2011 Legislature’s $700 million shift in state aid to schools.
“We need to address school funding shifts that have taken place,” she said, “and obviously the financial impact of that has been large in the districts that I represent.”

Another key issue for Halvorson-Wiklund will be transportation: With her own area currently served by the Hiawatha Light Rail Line, she has stated her support for additional funding for light rail expansions.

As for her own priorities, Halvorson-Wiklund seemed content to wait to find out which committee appointments she lands, and what the DFL leadership has in mind. On the one hot-button issue that seems to pervade all other aspects of the current discussion, the senator-elect said she was open to tax reform, but did not volunteer specifics as to her current position, aside from saying she’d like to see a “balanced approach.”

“I’m hoping,” Halvorson-Wiklund said, “to learn more about the specific proposals that will come forward from the governor and the DFL leadership.”

Jim Carlson, Senate District 51

Like many incoming lawmakers this cycle, Jim Carlson has been around block once before.

He’s one of about a dozen legislators returning for a non-consecutive term after he was ousted in a massive GOP wave in 2010. Carlson has deep roots in Eagan, growing up on a farm just as the region was transforming from rural to suburban. His father eventually sold their farmland for housing developments, which Carlson lives in today with his wife, Gayle.

Carlson attended Dunwoody Institute in Minneapolis to specialize in machine design before earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota. He spent 20 years working in that role for 3M. After retiring in 2002, Carlson got more involved in local politics, running against former GOP Rep. Lynn Wardlow in 2004. He lost by about 1,500 votes and decided to try again in 2006, this time in the Senate. He won that race with about 54 percent of the vote.

His training as a mechanical engineer led him to the vice-chairmanship of the Senate Transportation Budget and Policy Committee. Looking ahead to his return to the Capitol, Carlson has a list of small and big issues he wants to try and tackle.

On the small end, Carlson wants to increase disclosure on the state’s campaign finance laws. His race for the Legislature this year was one of the most expensive in the state, with outside groups on both sides pouring in hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking or supporting candidates. Carlson says he has nine clipboards at home full of literature attacking him from the campaign season. Many of those expenditures were from nonprofit groups and went undisclosed. “There are a lot of things spent against me that were not disclosed in the campaign finance reports,” he said. “We need to put some teeth in the campaign finance rules. That’s something that I’m not going to let go of.”

The big picture, however, is balancing the budget and fixing the state’s structural deficit. “After that, if we can get some bonding going and get some construction people back to work, while at the same time still maintaining our environmental protections, that would be ideal,” he said.
Carlson and his wife have two children. They’re both members of a gourmet cooking club and the Minnesota Street Rod Association. Carlson also enjoys biking, wood work and sports cars.

Susan Kent, Senate District 53

Susan Kent doesn’t worry about hiding her southern drawl when talking to people in Minnesota. That’s because the newly elected senator from Woodbury is proud of her rich upbringing on the “other side of the river” in New Orleans. “New Orleans is not like what everybody imagines,” Kent said. “It was a very interesting and great place to grow up. It’s really given me a different perspective on life.” Kent’s father, who was from the deep South, was also a part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “I grew up with a strong sense of social justice,” she says.

Kent stayed in the South for college, attending the University of Texas in Austin to get her bachelor’s degree in communications. After a brief stint in New York City, Kent moved back to Texas to work in marketing. It was there that she met her future husband, Chris. After the two married, Kent left a career in marketing — mostly consulting for corporations, nonprofits and government agencies — to move to Woodbury to raise a family. In the community, Kent quickly became involved in education activism, serving as PTO president at Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion School and on several working groups in South Washington County Schools.

Looking ahead, Kent shows signs of her southern upbringing again, using a gumbo analogy to describe her skill set and value in St. Paul. “My life has been a lot of different components that have all come together and given me a really interesting perspective,” she said. Her work with schools in her district have set her attention on education issues at the Capitol, specifically working out a plan in the next few years to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars owed to the state’s public school districts.

She also thinks her marketing skills, which mostly involved using data to capture the mood of the public, will be useful to her in St. Paul. “My job was really data-driven. It was about a strategic approach to people and their wants and their needs and addressing those,” she said. “I think that can come in handy when drafting policy.”

First and foremost for Kent, however, are jobs and the economy, the most common issues she heard about while campaigning in her business-centric suburban district: “We’ve gone through a really difficult time and we have a huge opportunity to make a difference.”

Kent, 49, has an 11-year-old son named Andrew. She enjoys cross-country skiing and camping with her family in her free time. Kent’s family makes frequent visits to Minnesota’s north shore its and state parks.

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