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Meet the freshmen: House GOP (part 3)

Staff//December 5, 2012

Meet the freshmen: House GOP (part 3)

Staff//December 5, 2012

Rep.-elect Marion O’Neill has professed a desire to work on energy issues. Her district contains the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, and she recently discovered that a great-uncle not only worked on the Manhattan Project, but was also a pioneer in solar energy. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

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

Mark Anderson, House District 9A

Last month, Mark Anderson received two very favorable verdicts. The first came when voters in House District 9A elected him. The second came a couple of days later, when his fiancee said I do. After a long campaign season and a wedding, Anderson and his new wife were ready for a vacation.
“It was a busy month. I have an election on Nov. 6, I get married on the 21st and head to Bora Bora on the 23rd for eight days,” Anderson said.

Anderson is a Republican from Lake Shore, which is in eastern Cass County and ensconced in the resort industry around Nisswa. Apart from the tourism industry, the sprawling district is mostly agricultural. Wadena, Minn., population 4,060, which is Anderson’s hometown, is the largest town in 9A.

Anderson’s father, Don, owned a couple Red Owl grocery stores in the Wadena area and served as an Independent-Republican in the state Senate from 1983 to 1990. Anderson caught the political bug through his dad’s involvement and attended the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit as a youth delegate.

His first venture in business came when he owned a bar on Gull Lake called the Channel Inn and Granny’s Pub. He became a stock broker in the Twin Cities at Midland Management, but wasn’t satisfied with the 9-to-5 work life. While visiting his father at the state Capitol, he fell into a conversation with lobbyist and pilot Ross Kramer, who suggesting flying. The idea took Anderson to college at the University of North Dakota and on to a career as a professional pilot.

He spent almost 10 years as a contract instructor in the 747 flight simulator facility for Northwest Airlines. He also flew charter jets. He moved back to Lake Shore about 10 years ago and currently is a contract pilot for several Twin Cities companies.

Anderson dominated in his electoral battle with DFLer and Wadena City Council member Don Niles, winning by more than 15 percentage points. Anderson is a fiscal conservative and would support caps on spending and reductions in business taxes.

“The only reason we have a budget deficit is not because we have a lack of revenue, it’s because we’re spending too much money,” Anderson said. “We don’t tax and spend anymore. We spend, then we tax. To me, the only way that you can control the political side of this is to cap spending, period.”

As he gets settled into married life and his first term in the House, he’s also pursuing a microbrewery. He incorporated Gull Dam Brewing last February and hopes to launch the brewery and tap room by Memorial Day.

“I’ve noticed all over the country, especially here in the Midwest, a lot of these small towns have brewpubs that are popping up, and microbreweries,” Anderson said.

Anderson has a daughter from a previous marriage who is now in college, and his wife has three children. They both like to water ski and downhill snow ski. He has a black belt in karate.

—Charley Shaw

Marion O’Neill, House District 29B

Marion O’Neill first came to the Capitol as an invited guest. After getting to know O’Neill on a social basis, Rep. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, told her she should come by the statehouse to shadow him and see what the Legislature was like. Anderson wanted O’Neill to consider running for office someday, a thought that hadn’t previously occurred to her, though she did take him up on the offer to visit his workplace.

This year, when Anderson moved to run for an open Senate seat, O’Neill took it as yet another invitation to the Capitol, and one she couldn’t pass up.

After winning the Republican Party’s endorsement in House District 29B, which formerly belonged to Anderson and includes Buffalo, Monticello and Maple Lake, O’Neill went on to collect just over 50 percent of the vote to defeat DFL candidate Barrett Chrissis and Independence Party candidate Eugene Newcombe.

The win means that O’Neill will have a new workplace, but in the same building where she currently spends her days.

After the Republicans won majorities in both houses in 2010, O’Neill took a job as a legislative assistant to Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing. Over her two years as a senate staffer, O’Neill worked closely with Howe on issues such as transportation, with Howe serving as vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

That experience has given O’Neill a familiarity with specific issues that she expects to engage with as a legislator. As an example, she pointed to MnPASS, the state’s electric toll system, which she thinks has a built-in flaw.

“The way it was designed,” O’Neill said, “was as a loss. Not only do you not recapture funds, it’s designed to operate as a net loss. I have a really hard time swallowing that bitter pill.”
O’Neill also professed a desire to work on energy issues, an interest she comes to by way of her geographical and ancestral ties. Her district contains the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant, and she recently discovered that a great-uncle not only worked on the Manhattan Project, but was also a pioneer in solar energy.

“I have a great interest in energy, and renewable energy,” O’Neill said. “We’ve got a culture, already in statute here in Minnesota, that we value renewable energy and new technology.”

Describing herself as a “huge numbers person,” O’Neill said her concern for the bottom line stems partly from her professional background, which includes work as an executive at Minnesota Teen Challenge, a faith-based nonprofit aimed at treating addiction. In her role as director, O’Neill dealt with the charity’s accounting decisions; she also works on finances in the tiling and glass construction company she now owns and operates with her husband.

O’Neill hopes to combine her interests in mental health and budgeting by serving on one of the Health and Human Services committees. That area of government is an “incredibly broad and complex area of our law,” and, as as O’Neill noted, accounts for 47 percent of the state budget.
“It’s a lot of work,” O’Neill said of HHS legislation. “But I’m sort of a workaholic, so that doesn’t bother me.”

—Mike Mullen

Brian Johnson, House District 32A

Two Brian Johnsons from opposite political parties ran for the Minnesota Legislature this year, but only the Republican one prevailed. The GOP Johnson is thankful for that: With such a common name, he says, he has spent most of his life getting mixed up with other Brian Johnsons.

Johnson has never strayed far from his hometown of Cambridge. He grew up on a small dairy farm in his House district and stayed on the farm for three years after he graduated from high school. His family was forced to sell off their herd after his uncle got took ill, so Johnson opted for law enforcement training at the Hibbing Area Vocational Technical Institute. Four months after graduating, Johnson landed his first job as a police officer in the city of Braham, only 14 miles from where his father was living. “It was nice to keep the family tight,” he said. Johnson stayed in the position for nearly 10 years before moving up to the Isanti County Sheriff’s office in 1994. He’s been working there ever since.

Johnson’s first interest in politics came in 1992. Johnson was director of the local Jaycees chapter and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet Republican President Ronald Reagan as part of the group. “I was able to sit down with other award recipients and Ronald Reagan. That’s what got me thinking about the importance of politics and being engaged,” Johnson said.

He jumped right into volunteering on local races for City Council, mostly helping his friends who were running for office. Johnson only got more involved after he got married. His wife, Diane, is the chairwoman of the Isanti County Republican BPOU. Johnson helped current state Sen. Sean Nienow on his first campaign for the chamber and volunteered on the gubernatorial campaign of former Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert.

After years of working with other Republicans, Johnson had hoped for GOP majorities for his first term in St. Paul. “It will be a lot harder to get some of the things done that I wanted to get done,” he said. “It’s not quite as easy to work on things in the minority.”

Still, Johnson would like to serve on the Public Safety Committee and the Elections Committee next year. The 2012 redistricting process, in which judges drew the new political boundaries across the state, was frustrating for Johnson. “I just don’t think it’s right, judges setting the lines instead of doing what’s works best within these communities,” he said.

Outside of politics, Johnson is an avid bowler and has training in repairing bowling alley equipment. He has traveled around the Midwest to do major repairs on bowling machines. Johnson, 51, has one son, Michael, who just turned 10.

—Briana Bierschbach

Cindy Pugh, House District 33B

In order to launch her own career, Cindy Pugh first needed to end one of the longest-running legislative tenures in her own party. As an insurgent candidate in the House District 33B Republican Party endorsement contest, Pugh managed to upset challenge to veteran Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound. By winning the GOP nod, and later, a primary over the Republican moderate, Pugh brought an end to Smith’s service after 11 terms in office.

Pugh’s success, and her candidacy itself, was an outgrowth of her role as a co-founder of the Southwest Metro Tea Party. Pugh had also made a name for herself as something of a freelance Republican activist, taking on volunteer roles in the unsuccessful recount effort for Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in 2009, and again on behalf of GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer almost two years later.

As Pugh explains it, she was encouraged to challenge Smith by her fellow GOP delegates; despite his electoral success, Smith had fallen out of favor with party insiders over his moderate leanings. Almost immediately, the first-time candidate gained high profile supporters: Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, introduced Pugh for her speech at the endorsing convention.

“This is a red district,” Pugh told the crowd that night, “and you deserve a principled Republican representing you.”

Evidently, the crowd agreed, as she earned nearly 70 percent of the endorsement vote on the first ballot.

Thereafter, though Smith pursued a primary challenge against Pugh, the upstart garnered a second endorsement, this one from House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove. In a posting to his Facebook page, Zellers praised Pugh’s support for low taxes and her opposition to child care provider unionization.

“She isn’t someone who is going to let a special interest push her around,” Zellers wrote. “Cindy is a true conservative, and she’s proven it through her years working on behalf of conservatives as a party and local volunteer.”

After winning the primary, again easily, Pugh advanced to a general election victory over DFLer Denise Bader, with the Republican taking 54 percent of the vote in the heavily GOP-leaning district.

In a public access debate hosted by Lake Minnetonka Community Television, Pugh, who was not available to be interviewed for this article, outlined some of the positions that will likely foreshadow her priorities in the Legislature. Pugh stated a broad opposition to Gov. Mark Dayton’s stated interest in raising taxes on wealthy Minnesotans, and positioned herself as strongly anti-abortion. At one point, Pugh highlighted a push by a group in Mississippi to pass a constitutional amendment stating that life begins at conception.

Despite her staunch conservatism, Pugh did express a willingness to hear out the other side of a debate, a declaration that will soon be tested, with the DFL having seized the majority in the House.

“I am somebody who has always worked collaboratively with others,” Pugh said. “I enjoy hearing, and looking for, and listening for good ideas, no matter who they come from.”

—Mike Mullen

Anna Wills, House District 57B

Anna Wills’ career in politics started well before she had even reached voting age. At 12, Wills was working the campaign trail and hitting the phones with her father, who worked as a volunteer on get-out-the-vote efforts for Republican candidates. By 18, she was serving as a delegate at the local GOP convention, and in 2008 she served as Burnsville city chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign.

“I was raised in a family where grassroots activism was very important,” Wills said.

This year, Wills got the chance to put her campaign background to work for her own sake. Rep. Kurt Bills’ decision to challenge DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar left an open House seat in the GOP-leaning area of Rosemount and Apple Valley. After cinching the GOP endorsement, Wills successfully defended the seat, earning 53 percent of the vote to defeat DFL challenger Jeff Wilfhart.

In the course of her interactions with the “wide range of people” in her district, Wills said low-income and upper-income constituents expressed a shared concern for the state’s education system. Wills’ own education background gives her something of a unique view: She is the product of homeschooling by her mother, and thinks she might be the first homeschooled student ever elected to the Legislature.

She believes strongly in making sure parents have the best possible options in choosing how to educate their children.

“Homeschooling’s not for everybody,” said Wills, who did attend some public school classes. “But public school’s not for everybody, either. There is a lot of value in school choice, and Minnesota has taken the lead in charter schools, nationally.”

Despite her own background, Wills explained that she is a strong defender of the public school system. While she is wary of seeing education funding increases, one of her top priorities is paying back the $2.4 billion school funding shift, one piece of the controversial funding mechanism used to end the 2011 government shutdown.

“I think if [school districts] got the money we already owe them, that’s going to go a long way,” Wills said.

Wills feels especially prepared to serve in the Legislature thanks to two years spent as an aide to Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. While in that job, Wills assisted Benson’s work on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Wills plans to use knowledge gained there to play a role in the state’s creation of a health insurance exchange. A key component of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, the measure requires the passage of enacting legislation by March.

“There is a lot of concern from people about, what is the [exchange] going to mean for the state of Minnesota, both for health care and for businesses,” Wills said. “I want to make sure that the exchange can move forward, while making sure the cost and the quality are transparent in the marketplace that gets created.”

Politics is not only responsible for much of Wills’ professional, but also led to a boon in her personal life: While working the campaign trail in 2008, she worked alongside her now-husband, Rob Wills, who now also works as a Senate staffer.

—Mike Mullen

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