St. Peter DFLer played key role on Vikings stadium, other sensitive issues
With the departure of Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, the House DFL Caucus is losing a rising star who has been an effective heavy lifter on major bills such as the 2008 transportation override and the 2012 Vikings stadium.
Last Wednesday Morrow announced he’s stepping down to become the legislative director for the Chicago-based Uniform Law Commission.
Morrow was first sworn into the House in 2007. He won an open seat covering Nicollet County and a portion of Sibley County that was vacated by Rep. Ruth Johnson, DFL-St. Peter. At the outset, the Gustavus Adolphus College communications studies professor was interested in transportation issues because of safety and economic concerns of the east-west thoroughfare Highway 14. He landed on the Transportation Finance Committee just in time to play a role in the aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse and the transportation funding bill that eventually passed with an override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto.
Margaret Donahoe, the executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, noted that not all DFLers from greater Minnesota were supportive of the transportation bill’s financing proposals, including the hike in the gas tax. Donahoe said Morrow played an active role in selling the bill to his fellow greater Minnesota members.
“As a committee member, he was really helpful in terms of supporting that within the caucus and working with advocates to push for that,” Donahoe said.
Morrow said he viewed the state’s transportation funding as inadequate and worked under House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Transportation Finance Committee Chair Bernie Lieder to get enough votes for passage.
“Former Speaker Kelliher was a wonderful mentor and colleague bringing me into that effort, especially talking with outstate members on both sides of the aisle about the deep need for road and bridge maintenance and improvement,” Morrow said. “With the old revenue, Minnesota was falling further and further behind.”
Stadium ‘point person’
The transportation bill would be but one example of Morrow’s involvement in building support for major initiatives. Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union who worked with Morrow on agricultures issues in front of the Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, noted that Morrow’s background as an attorney and an academic led him to develop expertise on a variety of complicated issues.
“When you become an expert on an issue, even if you’re not the lead — like the Vikings stadium or an ethanol-type issue — you earn the respect of your colleagues and become a go-to type person on those issues, and I think that’s what he did,” Petersen said.
Morrow’s most extensive and high-profile role in the Legislature occurred over the last couple years on the Vikings stadium legislation. Morrow became interested in the Vikings issue in part because the team’s training camp is held every year in his neck of the woods at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of the stadium bill, praised Morrow’s style in advocating for the stadium bill without resorting to arm-twisting or heavy handedness. Lanning also said Morrow played an important role in keeping Rep. Paul Thissen, who at the time was the House minority leader, informed and engaged on the issue.
“He really was the DFL House point person,” Lanning said. “He was involved all the way, along with the bipartisan working group we had. He was very helpful in building support within his caucus for the stadium project. I very much appreciated his leadership. It was critical. I said all the way along that this bill wasn’t going to survive unless we had a strong bipartisan effort. Thanks to Terry and other DFL House and Senate members, we were able to make it happen.”
For all of the headaches along the way in getting the eventual stadium conference report to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk, Morrow said he relished the chance to get to work on the Vikings bill.
“I was attracted to its complexity,” Morrow said. “All of the moving parts, the different players, the challenges of whether a project should be funded that would help billionaires and millionaires in an environment in which such pressing priorities on health care, housing and education exist.”
‘A real void’
Morrow will leave the Legislature with some victories on two major issues of importance for his House District 19A. This summer, Gov. Mark Dayton and former Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel announced that Highway 14 will be expanded to four lanes between North Mankato and Nicollet. Area residents have been constantly reminded of the road’s danger, as four people died in accidents in November. Amanda Duerr, a lobbyist for the Highway 14 Partnership, said Morrow helped lead the push in the House to improve the road.
“[His leaving creates] a real void,” she said. “He’s worked really hard on behalf of Highway 14, bringing the issue to the forefront in the Legislature, making it a priority and working hand-in-hand with MnDOT and the governor to get something done.”
Lawmakers are still trying to win funding to get the road expanded all the way to New Ulm.
Another major issue in Morrow’s district is the Minnesota Security Hospital, which houses mentally ill patients, and the St. Peter campus of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which houses and treats sex offenders after they’ve served their criminal sentences. In 2010, he got legislation enacted to help the state track and apprehend sex offenders.
“We were able to make some changes in the sex offender law,” Morrow said. “It was a topic area that wasn’t a partisan battlefield. Both sides saw the need to keep Minnesota safe and operate the facility in accordance with the laws on hospitals and similar institutions. It’s not a prison.”
Morrow noted the state still has major policy decisions to make on the future of the sex offender program. The Legislature recently received a set of recommendations from a court-appointed task force charged with examining the program and its offender release record.
Morrow’s first election to the old District 23A seat was a swing race he won by a little less than 5 percentage points against young Iraq War veteran Andy Davis. Prior to the 2006 election, the seat had been held by DFLer Johnson and Republican Howard Swenson. In his subsequent reelection bids, Morrow reached a status of nearly invulnerable incumbency. By 2010, when Republicans rolled over DFLers to win control of the House, Morrow beat a strong Republican challenger in Rebecca Peichel by a little more than 10 percentage points. He ran unopposed in this year’s election, which allowed him to travel the state in support of House DFL candidates in their successful bid to win back the House. He also logged miles around the state working on President Barack Obama’s successful reelection bid.
Morrow’s strong political position was somewhat unique for a DFLer in greater Minnesota outside the strongholds of Duluth and the Iron Range. Lanning, who also built up a strong position in a greater Minnesota district that has a tendency to split its ticket, noted that the political security that Morrow developed gave him a chance to take leadership roles on issues that more vulnerable legislators might find too politically risky.
“Obviously the fact that he didn’t have any opposition this time was clearly an indication that he was in a solid position,” Lanning said. “And that of course gave him some freedom that helped him in his outspoken support for the [Vikings] project.”
Morrow has had to cultivate a broad appeal to stay in the good graces of the residents of 19A. His constituents range from college students to farmers.
“To me, representing the district I represent, it was a very close first election,” Morrow said. “I think the reality was that I needed to really listen to and take into account a variety of positions on both sides of the aisle, because that’s the district I represented.… As the years went on, I would hear more and more from local Republicans that while they may disagree with what I voted on in a specific case, they generally understood that I was making the decision I thought was best and wasn’t doing it in a partisan fashion.”
Special election not yet scheduled
Dayton has yet to call a special election in 19A. One factor likely to prove important will be whether college students have returned from the holiday break when the election occurs. Local DFLers are fielding candidates. On the Republican side, former state legislator Allen Quist, who earlier this year ran unsuccessfully for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, has publicly discussed a bid for the 19A seat. Nicollet County GOP Chair Peter Trocke said he thinks Republicans have a chance at the seat now that Morrow is gone, especially in view of the low turnout that typically characterizes winter-time special elections.
“[Morrow retiring] definitely evens the playing field,” Trocke said. “Special elections are always a little bit, shall I say, off the norm. Anything can happen in a special election. Of course voter turnout is the main thing. I believe we will have a very strong ground game.”
Morrow was a lawyer in California before he went back to graduate school at Northwestern University and got a Ph.D. in communications studies. He joined the Gustavus faculty in 1995 and served as chair of the St. Peter Board of Education before winning election to the House.
Morrow’s job as legislative director of the Uniform Law Commission will blend his legal, academic and legislative background. The group takes positions on various aspects of law that overlap from state to state. Major policies within the group’s purview include the Uniform Commercial Code as well as issues ranging from elections to child support.
Morrow’s first exposure to the group’s work came when he carried the Revised Uniform Arbitration Act in the House. Morrow is looking forward to trying to get the group’s policies enacted by state legislatures.
“It will be my job as legislative director, working with the great staff that’s been there, to enact these uniform laws throughout the country,” Morrow said.