The momentum of Tea Party-backed Republicans ushered in a wave of new Minnesota legislators in 2010. Two years later, popular Democratic candidates at the top of the ticket boosted DFLers across the state, and many of those Capitol newcomers were swiftly ushered back out.
The combination of redistricting and the wave elections of 2010 and 2012 created a sizeable contingent of one-term legislators. They passed a single budget, endured a government shutdown, debated constitutional amendments on gay marriage and voter ID, and were then delivered back out into civilian life. These days, some are wistful about their time in office, and genuinely miss mixing it up at the Capitol, while others greeted their newfound freedom from the Legislature with a measure of relief. At least one is so eager to get back into political life he plans to spend the coming month deciding whether or not to run for Congress.
Capitol Report tracked down a quartet from the class of 2010 to ask how they regard their time in office, and to find out what they’ve been doing in the last six months and what they plan to do in the near future.
Sen. Al DeKruif, R-Madison Lake
As someone who observed the 2013 session closely, former GOP Sen. Al DeKruif felt at times like he was experiencing déjà vu. On multiple occasions, DeKruif saw bills, ideas and topics resurfacing that he’d seen during his one and only term in the upper chamber. DeKruif, who represented the Madison Lake area, had been an outspoken critic on the use of e-pulltabs to fund the Minnesota Vikings new stadium, and expressed concern about the use of school shift money to end the 2011 shutdown.
Both topics resurfaced this year, as did the proposed sales tax exemption for local units of government, a proposal DeKruif carried as a freshman, which finally passed this year. By and large, though, DeKruif was hugely disappointed with the DFL majorities’ major initiatives this year, which he said could derail progress that was made in prior years.
“As of June 30,” DeKruif said, “I think we had Minnesota on the right track. The state had money coming in, there was a small deficit yet — something that I think would’ve taken care of itself.”
DeKruif played an active and outspoken role in both of his sessions in office, before ultimately stepping aside after he was paired with Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, in redistricting. Since then, DeKruif has taken a couple vacations and focused on his businesses, which include a heavy hauling consulting company and his ownership of the Sakatah Trail Resort.
Evidently, these pursuits aren’t quite enough to keep him busy. DeKruif has been in talks with local and national Republicans, and is now thinking about seeking the nomination to challenge DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Walz in the 1st Congressional District next year. To date, only Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, has declared a candidacy. The decision to run will have to come soon, DeKruif said, pointing out that congressional candidates face a significant fundraising burden, especially those running their first time.
DeKruif plans to reach out to a few more party insiders before making his decision later this month or in early August. “Quite frankly, something that plays heavily on my mind is the direction the country is going,” DeKruif said.
Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji
Former Sen. John Carlson doesn’t know if anyone else kept score, but he did: By his own count, the Bemidji-area Republican was able to pass 28 different bills in his lone term in office.
“I don’t know if that’s any kind of a record,” Carlson said. “But that’s a lot of bills. Most were really tiny things that helped some people out and didn’t have adverse effects on others.”
As one example of his record, Carlson carried a bill that allows out-of-state dentists to come to Minnesota to do charity work. These smaller, admittedly “not sexy” accomplishments apparently didn’t get enough notice during Carlson’s race against DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug. The two incumbents were paired in redistricting, and Carlson admits he was “a bit of an underdog” against Saxhaug, who had served three terms in the Senate compared to Carlson’s one.
After the election Carlson returned to his full-time job running an insurance agency; a phone call placed earlier this week found Carlson headed back to his office in Bemidji, having just visited and taken pictures of a damaged house.
Carlson now thinks that even if he had won, his second term in office would likely have been his last. Aside from the long hours in committee during the session and the demands of campaign season — “you don’t really have your own life,” he said — Carlson is bothered by what he perceived as the “institutionalized” nature of the Legislature.
“It’s supposed to be a citizen Legislature,” Carlson said. “But it’s hard to have that when a majority of the people have been there forever.”
Having made that point, Carlson said he missed many of the people he met at the Capitol, adding that in particular, he developed “so much respect” for the nonpartisan staffers. But, though he might someday get back into local politics, Carlson has told friends and former colleagues that he wanted a bit of a break from the daily political grind.
“People,” Carlson said, “expect you to still be engaged. But I said, ‘don’t bother me, I’m taking a year off of everything.’”
Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park
As she worked her way through her Spring Lake Park-area district, then-Sen. Pam Wolf couldn’t quite figure out what was happening. Though conventional post-election wisdom has blamed GOP legislative losses on the voter ID and gay marriage ban ballot questions, Wolf doesn’t recall a single voter who brought up those issues.
In fact, she said, she can’t recall the people she met bringing up much of anything. “It was eerie,” said Wolf, who came to decide after the election that voters were either being “Minnesota nice” or had larger, federal-level issues on their minds.
Wolf, who’d been a teacher before her county-run school was taken over by the area school district, had to forgo finding a new job to run her reelection campaign. Following her loss to DFL Sen. Alice Johnson, Wolf started a new career endeavor with Minnesota Education Advocates, a single-minded issue organization she formed in the spring. As Wolf explains, there are already advocacy groups for teachers, principals and school administrators, and she’d wanted to start one that would cater to the needs of students and parents.
Wolf made several trips to the Capitol to introduce her new cause to legislators, though she didn’t do any lobbying this past session. Instead, she intends to create an offshoot political action committee that could vet and endorse candidates, as well as raise money for independent expenditures on legislative races.
Any PAC derived from Minnesota Education Advocates would likely pay close attention to legislators’ votes on certain key issues. Wolf said she disapproved of the Legislature’s voting to eliminate the Graduate-Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD) tests for high school students as well as the basic skills exam for teaching candidates.
Aside from her advocacy, Wolf is still thinking about a rematch with Johnson in 2016.
“I approach it from the standpoint that, I assume I will run until I’m not [running],” Wolf said. “A lot of things can change in three years. If I’m the best candidate three years from now, I will absolutely get back in.”
Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea
Rich Murray’s reelection effort also looked like an uphill battle, even to Murray himself. Riding the GOP electoral wave of 2010, Murray eked out a 57-vote victory in his DFL-leaning district. Following redistricting, Murray’s Alberta Lea-area district was considered the least likely Republican-held House seat to stay in GOP hands last year.
Not that he didn’t try to distinguish himself with at least a pair of key votes: In 2011, Murray voted against a Republican tax bill that cut local government aid (LGA). Also during that session, he was one of four House Republicans to vote “no” on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Murray’s moderate votes weren’t enough to save his seat, as he went on to lose by about 2 percent to Democrat Shannon Savick.
Murray blames his loss, at least in part, on the DFL’s campaign effort and organizational tactics. Despite the fact that Republicans had made tough decisions to deal with a budget deficit, Murray thinks it was the Democrats who dictated the campaign discussion.
“Democrats came out with a story that just hammered on us,” he said. “I don’t think we had a good answer to that, and we should have.”
Since his loss, Murray has devoted his newfound freedom to his investment business, where he expects to hire a couple of new employees this year, as well as spending time with his family. Those interests don’t mean he’s taken his eye off goings-on at the Capitol, though: Murray said he had been in frequent contact with former legislators like Reps. King Banaian and Bruce Vogel, both of whom were also part of the one-and-done class of 2010.
Two other good Capitol friends of Murray’s are still very much on the scene. One, former House Speaker Kurt Zellers, has declared his intention to seek the governor’s office, while another, former House Majority Leader Matt Dean, has said he, too, might enter that race. Murray said that he’d also been urged to run by party activists. He has decided to take in the current race from the sidelines, though he said he’d like to get back into electoral politics in some way.
“I definitely have that desire to serve in some capacity again,” Murray said. “I guess there’s already enough people running for governor that I probably won’t try that this year.”