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As he talked about meeting with thousands of potential voters on the campaign trail, Jason Metsa found himself using a certain word, and paused to acknowledge what it meant. “Those people are now my constituents,” he said.

Meet the freshmen: House DFL (part 1)

Rep.-elect Jason Metsa of House District 6B, shown at right with House Speaker-elect Paul Thissen, credits his predecessor, retiring Rep. Tom Rukavina, with “helping to make this an easy transition for me.” (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Editor’s note: During November and December, Capitol Report is profiling all 65 of the newly elected members of the Minnesota Legislature.

Roger Erickson, House District 2A

Roger Erickson spent most of the campaign season in his car. The newly elected representative in House District 2A can drive 2½ hours south from his hometown of Baudette and still find himself within the confines of the turf he now represents. “In freshman orientation, one woman stood up and said she had a really big district. She said it took her 40 minutes to drive through it,” Erickson said. “I laughed and said to her, ‘We need to sit down and talk about your definition of big.’ ”

His traveling time isn’t likely to go down much. Erickson’s new district is also in the far northwest corner of the state; he estimates it’s a more than 300-mile trip one-way from his home to the state Capitol in St. Paul. His biggest concern, however, is adjusting to city life. His district is distinctly rural. Logging is one of the wooded district’s biggest industries, and the largest city Erickson door-knocked during the campaign had fewer than 3,000 voters. The district is home to only one stoplight. “That gives you an idea of how rural we are,” Erickson said. “City life is going to take some getting used to.”

Erickson grew up in Roseau and started teaching in the Lake of the Woods school district in 1975. He coached the area’s golf and football teams for decades before retiring from teaching in 2010. He was still in his old classroom for much of 2011 as a substitute teacher. “This is the first year I didn’t have a classroom to go to,” Erickson said. He has always been involved in local DFL politics, and when the new district maps were released, Erickson saw an opportunity. “There was no DFL incumbent, and I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t gone down to the endorsing convention and said my piece.” He easily won the party’s backing to take on freshman incumbent Rep. David Hancock, and after an expensive contest that saw outside cash play a major role, Erickson won by nearly 10 points.

At the Capitol, Erickson wants to work on education issues, specifically by pushing repayment of the K-12 school aid shift that has ballooned to $2.4 billion. Like most freshman lawmakers, Erickson is also looking ahead at the projected budget deficit.

“We have to honestly and truly balance the budget, and that’s going to take a combination of some revenue increases and cuts,” he said. “We need to get that job done with no gimmicks.”

Erickson would also like to work on natural resource and environmental issues. Logging and tourism are major industries in his district, Erickson said, and he’s heard a lot of concerns about invasive species from votes in his area.

Erickson’s wife, Carol, is also a teacher. They have two children, Dale and Marie. Erickson started and continues to hold a weekly junior golf clinic at Oak Harbor Golf Course.

—Briana Bierschbach

Jason Metsa, House District 6B

As he talked about meeting with thousands of potential voters on the campaign trail, Jason Metsa found himself using a certain word, and paused to acknowledge what it meant.

“Those people are now my constituents,” he said, “which is kind of a weird thing to say now, as a freshman legislator.”

Though he was running in a district that tilts heavily DFL — Metsa went on to win election with 68 percent of the vote — the 32-year-old representative-elect from Virginia said he put in the hours at various candidate forums and on voters’ doorsteps. He thinks his interactions there, and the results of the legislative elections across the state, are evidence of Minnesotans’ support for bipartisan efforts to improve the state’s economic situation.

“I think Minnesota sent a pretty clear message that we need to be working on bread-and-butter issues,” Metsa said.

To his way of thinking, that work starts with righting the course of the state budget, and getting to work on a “good, strong bonding bill.” Passage of a bonding bill, which requires a three-fifths majority, means the DFL majority would need to pick up at least a handful of Republican votes. Metsa is confident that there are like-minded potential partners across the aisle. Even though his party is in the majority, Metsa said he might, at times, find himself at odds with DFL colleagues who are looking out for interests that break out along geographic lines.

“From the standpoint of a rural legislator, we don’t always agree with our metro DFL legislators,” Metsa said. “I look forward to forming the same relationships, and finding common ground, with DFL legislators and Republican legislators.”

Metsa’s ability to navigate that course will likely be aided by advice from outgoing Rep. Tom Rukavina, whose retirement after 13 terms in the House opened the seat that Metsa will now hold. In the weeks since the election, Rukavina has been giving Metsa something of a tour of the district to meet with key figures and visit possible targets for state funding and legislative projects.
“[Rukavina] has been a wonderful mentor,” Metsa said, “and is helping to make this an easy transition for me.”

Like Rukavina before him, Metsa, whose background includes work as an organizer for the North Area Labor Council, wants to position himself as a defender of the Iron Range’s mining and organized labor interests. As one example of that thinking, Metsa said the state should be mindful with its purchases, and support its miners by purchasing steel made from the region’s iron ore whenever possible.

On other issues, like taxes and budgeting, Metsa said he planned to take his cues from DFL leaders, at least in the early going of his legislative career. Those leadership figures include Senate Majority Leader-elect Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, whose house is “just a hop skip and a jump away” from Metsa’s, and Gov. Mark Dayton.

“Mark Dayton’s always been a good friend to greater Minnesota,” Metsa said, “and I’m looking forward to working with him.”

—Mike Mullen

Erik Simonson, House District 7B

Erik Simonson’s election to the Minnesota House of Representatives was a development that no one foresaw at the start of campaign season, least of all Simonson himself.

“Three months ago, I never would have guessed I would have run for this position at this time,” he said.

Simonson’s path to the House opened up when former 7B Rep. Kerry Gauthier became embroiled in a highly publicized scandal, after police investigated Gauthier’s sexual encounter with a teenage male at a Duluth rest stop. Gauthier’s eventual withdrawal from the race left a reliable DFL seat in jeopardy, especially when it looked like the disgraced first-term legislator’s name would have to stay on the ballot. Simonson, an assistant Duluth fire chief and longtime union organizer, declared his intention to run as a write-in candidate against little-known Republican nominee Travis Silvers.
In late September, however, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the DFL would be allowed to strike Gauthier from the House District 7B ballots, and replace his name with that of Simonson, who had by that point successfully won the party’s endorsement. The court’s surprising decision made for a much simpler campaign for Simonson, who went on to collect 62 percent of the vote in defeating Silvers and a pair of write-in challengers.

With the tumultuous campaign season behind him, Simonson is looking forward to the business of the 2013-14 Legislature. The first issue on his mind is settling the state’s budget. Citing a particular interest in how state taxes and spending will affect K-12 education, Simonson says he is troubled by the Legislature’s decision to raise its borrowing from the state’s school districts to $2.4 billion as part of the budget accord that ended the 2011 government shutdown.

“I don’t like the idea of pushing things off,” Simonson said. “I think if the state is going to do something in terms of funding K-12 education, by all means, let’s fund it. I don’t like just piecemeal-ing this thing together.”

A round of new facilities funding recently supplied Duluth-area schools with brand new buildings, but Simonson is dismayed by the reports of what’s going on inside those schools. Relaying stories of science classes with as many as 55 students crammed into a single room, Simonson said schools are suffering from overcrowding.

“[Students] are sitting in the window wells — they don’t have desks,” he said. “And enrollment seems to be growing.”

Simonson surged into the front-runner position thanks largely to his role as a union leader; after Gauthier withdrew from the race, those organizations quickly switched their allegiances to endorse Simonson. He said he plans to use his new position in the Legislature defend the interests of organized labor.

On the ever-present issue of taxes, Simonson supports a “fairer” tax system, which would likely mean increased income tax on the state’s highest incomes.

“I’m a firm believer,” Simonson said, “that we are going to need more revenue to solve this budget problem. I know for a fact that it can’t be done with cuts alone. There’s probably just no way around that. To be honest, I don’t know that I really want to look for a way around that, either.”

—Mike Mullen

Jerry Newton, House District 37A

Jerry Newton’s legislative career has been blown around by the political winds in recent election cycles. In 2008 he won a House seat, defeating his GOP opponent by 13 percentage points, after three prior unsuccessful bids. Two years later the tables were reversed, with Newton narrowly losing to GOP challenger Branden Petersen. This cycle Newton was back on top: He defeated GOP candidate Mandy Benz by nearly 15 percentage points to become one of seven returning House Democrats elected to a non-consecutive term this year.

Newton blames his electoral ups and downs on turnout fluctuations depending on whether there’s a presidential contest. “The drop-off tends to be more among Democratic voters than it does among Republicans,” Newton said. “We’re liable to see the Legislature turning over every two years.”
During Newton’s last tenure at the Capitol, he served as vice chair of the Veterans Affair Division. He points to legislation that allows disabled veterans to utilize public transportation for free as a top accomplishment. “It’s really been used a lot, especially up in the St. Cloud area,” said Newton, noting that there’s a medical facility for veterans in the area. “It didn’t cost anything, which is the other nice part about it.”

Newton’s attention to veterans’ issues isn’t surprising: He served 23 years in the U.S. Army and earned the Bronze Star for combat duty during the Vietnam War. Newton retired from the military with the rank of command sergeant major. His service took him around the globe, including seven years in the Middle East and a stint as an adviser to the Turkish military.

Newton returned to Minnesota in the late 1970s and spent the next two decades running a pair of grocery stores that his father founded in Coon Rapids and Blaine. He eventually sold those stores off in 2001 after it became increasingly difficult to find distributors willing to work with small, independent outlets. Currently he teaches political science at Anoka Ramsey Community College.
Upon returning to Minnesota, Newton also immersed himself in DFL politics. He was elected to the Coon Rapids City Council in 1994 and served for six years. He was then appointed to fill a vacancy on the Anoka-Hennepin School Board in 2000, twice winning re-election.

Heading back to the Capitol, Newton hopes to serve on the Ways and Means, Education Finance and Higher Education Finance and Policy committees. He also hopes to build on work he did serving as co-chair of the Coon Rapids Regional Dam Commission in recent years. That body helped secure $16 million in bonding dollars in 2011 for improvements to the dam, aimed in part at thwarting further migration of invasive Asian carp.

The century-old dam hasn’t served as a source of hydro-electric power since the mid-1960s, but Newton hopes to work on bringing it back online as a renewable energy source. “That’s one of my priorities for this session, to try and work on that,” he said.

—Paul Demko

Connie Bernardy, House District 41A

Connie Bernardy’s return to the state Capitol is very much a product of redistricting.

When the state’s new political maps were released in February 2012, incumbent DFL Reps. Tom Tillberry and Kate Knuth were put in the same Fridley-area House district. Knuth opted to step aside instead of face her colleague in an endorsement battle, but by the time the convention came around in March, Tillberry had a challenger anyway in Bernardy. Bernardy had the backing of Knuth’s mother, who endorsed her at the convention.

Bernardy easily trumped Tillberry for the DFL endorsement in a single ballot and ultimately sailed to victory in the House District 41A general election by more than 20 points. The victory marks a return for Bernardy, who served in the chamber from 2001 until 2006 after years of working in various capacities in her community.

Bernardy first got active in her community in 1999, worried that the public schools her daughters would soon attend did not have adequate funding. She worked with parents, teachers and school administrators to start Save Our Schools (SOS), a coalition designed to push for increased per-pupil funding. Bernardy also served as an adviser to the board of Banfil Center for the Arts and was a member of the Fridley Youth Advisory Council and the Spring Lake Park Chemical Health and Violence Prevention Council. She led two state-wide health coalitions and served on the board of Northwest Youth and Family Services.

In her previous terms in the House, Bernardy served on the Taxes Committee and was the lead DFLer on the House Education Policy and Education Finance Committees. She left the House in 2006 to take a job with the teachers union Education Minnesota, where she focused on bridging gaps between schools and their surrounding communities to bring more volunteers and programs to classrooms.

This year, she wants to continue her work on education. “One of my passions in life is supporting education and creating education opportunities for people,” she said. “I’d like to carry on with that in my work in the Legislature.”

Bernardy also has a soft spot for transportation issues. “We have to help our state achieve its goal of having a world-class, multimodal transportation system,” she said. “Whatever I can do to help support that, I would like to do.”

Bernardy currently works with the Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Department as the director for active living and planning. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Minnesota. Bernardy lives in Fridley with her husband, Dan. They have two daughters.

—Briana Bierschbach

Barb Yarusso, House District 42A

Barb Yarusso has a background in science, having worked as a chemical engineer and taught science at the high school and college levels. As such, Yarusso, a representative-elect from Shoreview, plans to employ something akin to the scientific method in her approach to legislating.

“The approach for engineers is observe, gather information, and assess the situation,” Yarusso said. “I don’t tend to dive in thinking I know the answers. My first week [in the Legislature], it’s going to be an awful lot of, ‘Shut up and listen to the people who’ve been there before.’ ”

Yarusso won the right to do that listening with an Election Day victory over Republican Russ Bertsch in which she claimed 53 percent of the swing district’s vote. In the course of the campaign, she had proven herself to be an able fundraiser, and as of October 22 had pulled in more than $35,000 in donations, or nearly twice as much as Bertsch.

Prior to her decision to seek office, Yarusso had worked at General Mills, and did consulting and educational work at 3M and Ecolab. She also taught at Hill-Murray High School, a private Catholic institution in Maplewood, and has served three non-consecutive stretches as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.

Higher education is among the “really broad” range of topics that interest Yarusso; she still maintains good contacts at the University of Minnesota, and said she could serve as a “good legislative liaison” between the Capitol and the state’s largest public university. Though she has not had time to give a detailed review the University of Minnesota’s new budget proposal, which calls for an increase in state funding in exchange for a tuition freeze, Yarusso said she likes the broad outlines of the plan.

“I would like to see [funding] increase,” Yarusso said. “Of course, it would have to fit in with the rest of the budget. But there is a tendency for education dollars to have a good payoff. It’s something I favor, kind of generally.”

Yarusso’s experience at the university also influences her position on energy policy, and her desire to see an increase in “green” job projects. Already, she said, promising work on renewable energy technology is going on at the University of Minnesota, with researchers looking into ways to convert bioenergy into liquid fuels. Yarusso said she would be more likely to support increased funding for research grants, rather than taxpayer subsidies for green projects.

“In terms of subsidies, we have to be careful,” she said. “If you lock yourself into a subsidy for a really specific thing, that tends to thwart the possibilities for other things that could turn out to be better.”

Aside from hammering out a budget, the 2013 Legislature is also tasked with designing and approving a state-run health care exchange, a major facet of implementing the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Yarusso knows a task force has already been meeting on that issue, but said she’d be interested in getting involved in that as well as other aspects of health care reform. Despite the fact that a much higher percentage of United States incomes go toward health care costs than in European countries, Yarusso said, the American system still fails to provide adequate coverage to its citizens.
“We need to spend less, and get more people covered,” Yarusso said, adding: “Now, the nuts and bolts of how to do that, you’ve got to work out.”

—Mike Mullen

Mike Freiberg, House District 45B

It’s not unusual for legislative candidates to grow weary and sleep-deprived in the days preceding an election. But Mike Freiberg had better reasons than most to be tired in November 2012: Ten days before the election, Freiberg and his wife, Lauren, welcomed their second child.

In the end, the results in Freiberg’s open House District 45B seat weren’t stress-inducing. He annihilated his Republican opponent by more than 30 percentage points. But he didn’t leave things to chance, actively fundraising and door-knocking throughout the campaign. He’s been elected to three terms on the Golden Valley City Council, but noted that he was new a new face for voters in Crystal, New Hope and Robbinsdale, which comprise two-thirds of the district.

Perhaps the most consequential part of Freiberg’s path to the House was winning the DFL endorsement. Freiberg was among several candidates to emerge in DFL circles after Rep. Sandra Peterson, DFL-New Hope, announced her retirement on May 23, one day after she had filed with the Secretary of State’s Office to run for re-election. Her abrupt exit, attributed to a health problem, prompted several compelling DFL candidacies. In a remarkably orderly process, the local party’s executive committee held the equivalent of an endorsing convention, where Freiberg was chosen as the winner. The candidates who had filed for office with the Secretary of State’s Office withdrew before the close of the filing period, and the race proceeded without a DFL primary.

Freiberg, 36, grew up in Golden Valley and remembers door-knocking with his dad in 1990 in support of Paul Wellstone’s first U.S. Senate campaign when he was just 14 years old.

Freiberg attended Georgetown University where he got a political education in the nation’s capital. He did internships with former Minnesota DFL Congressman Martin Sabo and Wellstone. Immediately out of college, Freiberg went to work as a legislative assistant for Minnesota DFL Congressman Jim Oberstar from 1999 to 2001. He came back to Minnesota in 2001 and enrolled in law school at William Mitchell.

Freiberg is an attorney for a nonprofit organization and focuses on tobacco-control issues. Freiberg has served nine years (three terms) on the Golden Valley City Council.

Public health and local government are natural issues of interest to Freiberg given his background. Education matters, such as paying back the $2.4 billion dollar school aid shift, are an important issue for his suburban district. Integration revenue, which was overhauled by the Legislature in 2011, is also particularly important to the Robbinsdale school district, he said.

Freiberg will represent an area that is part of the proposed Bottineau transit line. Funding for the project is contingent on local resolutions, and the Golden Valley City Council has been the lone holdout along the proposed line. Freiberg was in the minority in supporting the Bottineau resolution on the council, and will continue to support the project in the Legislature.

In addition to his newborn, Freiberg has a 3-year-daughter.

Freiberg comes from a musical family and plays the piano. His hobbies include geo-caching, which he describes as a high-tech treasure hunt. Freiberg follows GPS coordinates to find things that people have hidden, sometimes solving a puzzle before he can obtain the coordinates. He has found things in all of Minnesota’s 87 counties.

“It’s an interesting way to combine technology, being outdoors and finding hidden things,” Freiberg said.

—Charley Shaw

Raymond Dehn, House District 59B

Raymond Dehn’s biggest challenge ahead is likely not at the Capitol, but back home in his north Minneapolis House District. In order to win Sen.-elect Bobby Joe Champion’s old chair in the chamber, Dehn had to first compete in a seven-way field for the DFL endorsement in the spring. The endorsement deadlocked, so Dehn subsequently headed to a three-way primary, which he won with 37 percent of the vote.

But his victory came by the narrowest of margins: Dehn finished just 19 votes ahead of former Hennepin County staffer Terra Cole, who requested and paid for a recount herself. When Hennepin County finished re-tallying the results, Dehn had added one vote to his 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.”

Dehn didn’t take the standard path into politics. He was convicted of felony burglary at the age of 18, receiving a five-year suspended sentence and later entering treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. Six years later, Dehn was granted a “pardon extraordinary” by the Minnesota Board of Pardons, which effectively cleared his criminal record. Afterward, Dehn returned to the University of Minnesota to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in architecture and spent time as the national president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, advocating on behalf of thousands of architecture students around the nation in Washington, D.C.

“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.”

In 2001 Dehn moved to Minneapolis’ Willard-Hay Neighborhood, where he got involved in community activism and politics. Dehn worked as a phone bank volunteer for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 campaign and did get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Keith Ellison’s first legislative campaign. In 2010, he unsuccessfully challenged then-DFL Sen. Linda Higgins for the party’s endorsement. Dehn has also served on local boards, advocated for a light rail line in the community, and worked on a criminal justice campaign with the liberal advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, among other things.
At the Legislature, Dehn sees the work he will do as an extension of things he’s been doing at the local level over the past decade. Based on his experience growing up, Dehn said he wants to bring greater racial equality to the criminal justice system, but he doesn’t expect that it will happen fast. 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.

—Briana Bierschbach

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