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There’s an old adage at the Capitol that first-term legislators should be seen and not heard. St. Paul can take some getting used to, the thinking goes, and most issues debated at the Legislature are so complex that newcomers would do well to sit back quietly and learn.

Majority midterms: 10 frosh who shine

Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park was the only freshman named to the conference committee on the health insurance exchange bill, and he inserted himself in the contentious gun debate in the House last month. Schoen is known for his friendly relationships with lawmakers from both parties. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

There’s an old adage at the Capitol that first-term legislators should be seen and not heard.

St. Paul can take some getting used to, the thinking goes, and most issues debated at the Legislature are so complex that newcomers would do well to sit back quietly and learn. But with each new class of lawmakers, there’s a small group of standouts — freshmen who arrive at the Capitol with a knack for the job.

Capitol Report surveyed more than a dozen well-placed staffers and lobbyists about the freshman class, and most agree on a handful of legislators who are making major strides by the middle of their first year on the job. Those first-termers are tackling major pieces of legislation, forging relationships across the aisle, and even bucking their caucuses on occasion.

Here’s a rundown of the most frequently mentioned freshman standouts:

Rep. Dan Schoen (St. Paul Park):
Cottage Grove cop and first-term DFL Rep. Schoen had big shoes to fill in the Legislature. He was preceded by Republican Rep. John Kriesel, an Iraq war veteran who made a name for himself in St. Paul as an unlikely crusader against the same-sex marriage ban. But Schoen has already proven himself a standout in the eyes of staff and lobbyists. He was the only freshman named to the conference committee on the health insurance exchange bill, and he inserted himself in the contentious gun debate in the House last month.

In all, he’s introduced 23 bills, including a high-profile proposal to extend alcohol sales to basketball and hockey games at the University of Minnesota. Schoen recently pulled back on that bill after learning that the University of Minnesota lost money by adding alcohol sales to the new TCF Bank Stadium, but he’s pushing for the university to give more information to justify those costs. Like Kriesel, he has also taken to Twitter better than most first-term lawmakers, live-tweeting committee hearings or photos throughout his day at the Capitol. Schoen is also known for his friendly relationship with lawmakers from both parties.

Rep. Joe Radinovich (Crosby):
Radinovich is making friends in all the right places. The 26-year-old lawmaker from Crosby, who won his race in GOP-leaning House District 10B last fall by a mere 323 votes, was recently invited to join the storied Iron Range legislative caucus. That puts him in a small but powerful alliance with veteran members like Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, Sens.Tom Saxhaug and David Tomassoni and rising stars like Rep. Carly Melin.

Radinovich was also recently appointed to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, and he is carving a niche in the Legislature as an advocate for rural Minnesota education funding. He’s carrying a bill that would restore the general education levy, which was first created as part of the Minnesota Miracle in the early 1970s, but ultimately eliminated during the administration of Gov. Jesse Ventura. In pushing the levy, he is no doubt making more friends among his Range colleagues in the Senate, who likewise favor some restoration of the general levy. By all accounts, Radinovich’s star is rising fast, but they say he’ll have to carefully weigh votes later this session on gun control, gay marriage and taxes.

Rep. Laurie Halverson (Eagan):
As a freshman, Halverson has so far gotten more attention for what she refuses to do. A former employee of Blue Cross, she became the lone DFL House member to vote against the bill to create a health insurance exchange after repeatedly expressing concerns about the lack of health care industry representation on the board proposed to govern the exchange. That move, say lobbyists, marks a striking confidence in her new role on Halverson’s part.

Halverson has also taken the lead on some hefty legislation, including the Homeless Youth Prevention Act, and she authored a bill that would increase the conflict-of-interest reporting requirements for elected officials. Halverson is keenly aware of her district’s volatile nature; it has completely switched parties in each of the last three election cycles. Most expect Halverson to take a reserved stance toward her caucus as votes on the budget and taxes approach. “She’s hard to put in a box,” one DFL staffer said. “That’ll help her both here and back home.”

Sen. Matt Schmit (Red Wing):
In his first term in the state Senate, Red Wing Democrat Schmit has thrown himself into the emerging debate over frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota. He’s taken a cautious position, introducing a bill that would put a moratorium on any mining until the state completes a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS). The first hearing on his proposal — and every hearing thereafter — drew hundreds to the Capitol in support or protest, and he has miffed Republicans and the business community in the process. But Schmit hasn’t backed down from his position, and will continue to be a key player as the debate over silica sand mining unfolds in Minnesota.

Schmit also wields the gavel on the Senate Subcommittee on Game and Fish; he will be tasked with moving that package through the Legislature this year.

Sen. Vicki Jensen:
Jensen is the first Democrat to represent the Owatonna-Waseca area in decades, and nobody would have blamed her if she had taken a cautious approach to lawmaking in her first term in St. Paul. But Jensen, a former Owatonna School Board member and local Chamber of Commerce leader, has come out confident in her new job, Capitol watchers say. She positioned herself as a Democrat on the side of businesses, and was comfortable taking a publicly contrary position to Gov. Mark Dayton when he initially announced his plan to place a tax on business-to-business services.

Lobbyists say she is particularly adept in her position as the right hand of James Metzen in the Senate Commerce Committee. Jensen made a surprise appearance at a Valentine’s Day rally in the Capitol rotunda in support of gay marriage — a bold stance for a freshman to take early on, especially in a district that has leaned Republican for years. “She carries a lot of trust in her community,” said a Senate staffer this week.

Sen. Greg Clausen (Apple Valley):
Clausen is in a tight electoral spot much like Jensen’s, having won election in the Apple Valley-area Senate District 57, which had been represented by Republican Chris Gerlach for years. The district leans GOP, but Clausen had a long history as a teacher, principal and school administrator in the area, a point of distinction that helped him defeat Republican Pat Hall on election night.

His schools background is helping him out in St. Paul, too. Clausen had the honor of carrying Senate File 1, which would establish all-day kindergarten in schools across the state. He took the podium on the third day of session and made a forceful case for his bill, and by all accounts, he’s an easy, amenable legislator to work with on education issues.

Honorable Mentions

Rep. Yvonne Selcer (Minnetonka): The House DFL Caucus has made it clear that their main priority is paying back the K-12 school shift used to balance past budget deficits. Selcer, who survived one of the most expensive races during the 2012 election cycle, carried House File 1, which, sought to pay back more than $500 million of the shift. She will continue to play a lead role on education issues in the chamber, lobbyists say.

Rep. Jason Isaacson (Shoreview):
Isaacson lands on the list as the only freshman member elected to the House Majority leadership team. His fellow freshmen elected him to the position, making him one to watch as it comes time to whip new members on the budget and tax proposals.
Sen. John Hoffman (Champlin): Hoffman is one of those lawmakers who had some experience before he was elected — he served for several years as the co-chair of the Anoka Hennepin School board, the largest in the state. Now in St. Paul, he has shown an impressive knowledge of the state’s school funding system. And as the vice-chair of the Environment and Energy Committee, Hoffman is also involving himself in environmental issues.

Sen. Melisa Franzen (Edina):
Franzen won a tough, expensive battle against Rep. Keith Downey during the 2012 election cycle to become the first Senate Democrat to represent Edina in years. In St. Paul, Franzen has positioned herself as a pro-business Democrat. She meets regularly with the business community, and she voted for a motion from Republican senators to send the health insurance exchange bill back to conference committee. She spends much of her time on constituent work, lobbyists say, and she is an active and inquisitive participant in committee hearings.

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