Paul Thissen made himself one of the most powerful legislators of 2012 on a quiet Saturday near the end of session.
Just two days before Republicans in control of both chambers had hoped to adjourn for the year, Thissen, then the DFL House minority leader, called a press conference alongside other leaders in his party. There were still many moving parts in the looming end-of-session deal, the biggest of them being a Republican tax bill, a package of bonding projects and the contentious financing plan for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. Thissen’s gambit was to make the minority party the one that called the shots on everything.
The silver-haired Democrat from Minneapolis took the podium and called on Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers to bring the Vikings stadium bill up for a vote. Thissen said he was able to put up 34 votes from his caucus, or exactly half the votes needed to pass a bill in the chamber. He accused Zellers of “holding the bill hostage” and noted that the speaker had once cited 34 DFL votes as a condition for bringing the stadium proposal to the floor.
“In my time at the Capitol, it was one of the greatest calls of a bluff I’ve seen,” DFL Rep. Steve Simon said. “And it showed real vote-getting abilities in a very short period of time.”
Earning the votes from House Democrats was no easy task for the minority leader. The Vikings stadium issue had created divisions within both parties, and it was House DFLers who delivered most of the votes to defeat the bill in the Government Operations and Elections Committee less than two weeks earlier. By contrast, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk was more guarded when it came to revealing his vote count. He made no promises and pointed out that Senate Republicans had put up 12 votes on the Twins Stadium while in the minority in 2006.
“I’ve never seen a minority leader have so much influence on a caucus ever,” incoming House taxes chairwoman Ann Lenczewski said of Thissen at the time. “We had been whipped way early in the year about if we could afford the Vikings. We were asked if we were for or against it, and would there have to be a referendum. We didn’t feel pressure on the DFL side to vote for the stadium bill, but he knew he had 34 [votes].”
Thissen’s move to publicly hector Republicans into taking a vote on the bill changed the calculus of the entire session. After the press conference, Republicans suddenly found it difficult to negotiate with Gov. Mark Dayton, who had previously shown interest in cutting a deal on a second GOP tax bill. Dayton had vetoed their first package but signaled willingness to sign a second tax bill in exchange for Republican votes for the stadium. But Thissen got out ahead of Republicans by offering up stadium votes from more than half of the Democratic caucus, thus giving the minority party more leverage in end-of-session negotiations on everything from bonding to taxes.
By several accounts, Thissen was acting at least partially out of fear. Democrats were mostly excluded from the bargaining table during a 20-day government shutdown in 2011, and the final agreement reached by Republicans and Dayton was universally loathed. Thissen, sources said, feared another Dayton-GOP compromise that excluded Democratic legislators.
Instead, Democrats turned into de facto majorities and put up more than enough votes to ensure passage of a bonding bill and the Vikings stadium (the stadium bill earned 40 votes from Thissen’s caucus, six more than he had originally pledged). The session also came to a close without a Republican tax bill.
That transitioned nicely onto the campaign trail for Democrats. Their narrative was clean and it worked: Republicans were the “do-nothing Legislature” that drove state government into a shutdown in 2011, while Democrats united and passed two job-creating bills in 2012. On election night, Democrats reclaimed both chambers.
Thissen’s political prowess was surprising to some, especially as the attorney and Harvard graduate had previously carved out his niche in St. Paul as a heath care policy wonk. For his part, Thissen denies any quid pro quo between Dayton and House DFLers on taxes. “There was no agreement that a tax bill would be signed or not signed in exchange for votes on the stadium,” he said in an interview with PIM after session ended. “Our position all along was that it should not be signed, and we strongly signaled to the governor that it should not be signed. But at the end of the day, it was his decision.”
Moving forward, Thissen’s challenge will be to maintain control of his caucus as the soon-to-be speaker of the House, but Lenczewski doesn’t think that will be a problem. “He is really not a limelight guy,” she said. “But he earned the respect and trust of his caucus.”