Mike Beard remembers the day 11 years ago when he got a crash course in legislative reality.
Beard, the GOP’s retiring District 55A representative, was then a 49-year-old freshman legislator and member of the House Transportation Finance Committee. He had campaigned for office in 2002 pitching a 6-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax increase to shore up Minnesota’s roads and bridges. Once in office, he and 27 other legislators coauthored bipartisan legislation to raise the tax.
At first, he says, all was smooth sailing. It was obvious after discussions in committee that there were votes enough to pass the bill out of committee and push it forward toward a House floor vote.
Then came the lesson in political reality. As Beard recalls it, GOP House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Bill Kuisle — a backer of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s no-tax-hikes pledge (and currently GOP gubernatorial endorsee Jeff Johnson’s running mate) — was mightily displeased with the flow of the conversation. Kuisle gaveled the committee into recess and called fellow Republicans into a caucus meeting down the hall.
There the chair proceeded to dress down his members. Pawlenty favored borrowing $500 million for road projects, not raising the money through new taxes, he scolded them. The bill could not be allowed to pass.
Beard was baffled. He says House Speaker Steve Sviggum had directed him to coauthor the bill. But, apparently, not with the aim of passing it.
Back in committee, the question was called and votes counted. Beard was among those who switched their votes to no. “And I did it like this,” Beard says, lowering his chin to his chest, gazing at his shoes and murmuring, “No.” The measure died.
Later that day, Beard — a licensed pilot — headed to the South St. Paul airport, where he keeps two small Piper aircraft that he owns. But he made a stop along the way first. “I bought a six-pack of Bud Light and I bought a couple of cigars,” Beard says. “I went to my airplane hangar and put out my folding chair and smoked a cigar and drank two cans of beer.” It was the first time he had ever done such a thing, he says.
He can laugh about it now, but not then. “I just thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? Do I want to do this?’” he says. “That’s how hard that was on me.”
Big boy pants
Beard says House Speaker Steve Sviggum later privately explained what was going on. The GOP House majority of the time could not pass a bill that Pawlenty would instantly veto, he remembers Sviggum saying. The bill was meant to get a conversation started, allow legislators to make a case why a gas tax hike was needed. But in the end, the caucus had to accommodate the governor’s no-new-tax stance until some other, more opportune time.
“That’s when a feeling came over me,” Beard recalls. “It was, ‘OK, put on your big boy pants. This is the way it works.’”
A former Shakopee City Council member and Chamber of Commerce president known as a strong conservative voice for the energy and transportation sectors, Beard is leaving the Legislature after his current term. He plans to run instead for a seat on the Scott County board of supervisors.
A big reason for that is financial, Beard says. “I’m not getting younger and I am not in a position to retire,” he says. “And in the Legislature, if you are making money, you are doing something really wrong.”
On the other hand, if he is able to win a seat on the county board, he says, he will have spare time enough to morph his existing S Corp, Mike Beard & Associates — which he has used previously to buy and sell Piper aircraft — into a new business refashioned as a government relations consultancy.
“I’m reluctant to call it lobbying, because I can’t see myself doing that,” he says. “It will be making introductions. It’s one thing the Legislature has blessed me with — connections.”
There’s a lot that is old-world about Mike Beard. He has the calm, soft-spoken courtliness of a old-time country preacher. He uses the word “honey” with the former Miss Shakopee who works as a waitress at his favorite local diner — and she doesn’t mind. He even made his bones in a old-school industry, as publisher of an independent newspaper, the Minnesota Christian Chronicle, and several other Christian publications.
Keith Downey, the former Edina representative who now chairs the Republican Party of Minnesota, calls Beard “a true gentleman.”
“I relied on him as a bit of a mentor,” says Downey, who is busy marshaling forces to take the House back for Republicans in the November elections.
“I think he was an extremely effective legislator and committee chairman,” Downey says. “But he always did it with such class and grace. I really respected him, and I think the Legislature overall really respected him for the way he went about his business.”
Beard characterizes himself as “a peace-in-the-valley guy,” a personality component he perfected as a publisher, when his audience comprised various (and sometimes feuding) Twin Cities Christian denominations. In those days, he was responsible for organizing events like the Twin Cities Church Picnic and playing host at the State Fair’s Crossroads Chapel.
“I was the neutral party in the middle that could play with all of the denominations,” he says. “And I like that role. It fits me.”
That is not to suggest Beard is a middle-of-the-road political moderate. He dabbled in socialist philosophy as a high schooler, but that faded fast. His adult interests in politics were spurred somewhere around 1980 with two near-simultaneous events. First, his church screened the jarring anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream.” Then and his young wife, Karen, got their first property tax bill. A Republican activist was born.
His particular brand of conservatism has, naturally, at times drawn criticism. The avuncular former WCCO-TV news anchor Don Shelby, for instance, singled out Beard in a 2011 Minnpost.com column, in which Shelby criticized the legislator for his faith-base conviction that climate-change science is a sham.
“Beard believes that, ‘God is not capricious. He’s given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything,’” Shelby wrote.
In the main, however, Beard has mostly avoided ideological minefields by concentrating on areas of common need for all Minnesotans. Those included energy and, especially, transportation.
“Good roads, good bridges and making sure the airports can do their jobs is a fundamental function of government that we can all agree on,” Beard says. “And since I am a peace-in-the-valley guy, I like working where we have agreement.”
Beard was Transportation Finance Committee chair in 2011-2012, the first Legislature of the partisan era during which Republicans had majorities in both the House and Senate. Beard counts as his proudest legislative achievement the transportation budget that passed out of his committee that term, while he held the gavel.
Until the current session, he says, his bill contained the largest road-construction budget in state history, he says. What’s more, it concentrated on roads and bridges while cutting funding for Twin Cities transit projects by $51.8 million.
If there is a cutting edge to Beard’s kindly personality, it seems attached to the issue of mass transit. He is flatly against it, saying that dollars spent on light rail are wasted, pushed by a group he derisively tags “the transinistas” at the expense of Greater Minnesota roads and bridges.
“They are transportation terrorists is what they are,” he says. “For them, it’s is not about transportation. It’s about urban renewal and about changing our lifestyle in society and all of that.”
Progressive and liberal Democrats from the inner city — the ones Beard says now run the show at the Capitol — are yet another reason that Beard is choosing to leave the Legislature.
“I could do my peace-in-the-valley and go-to-coffee things behind the scenes, and blunt the worst effects on my district,” he says. “But at the end of the day, they have more than 68 votes and there is nothing I can do about that.” On the other hand, if he wins a seat on the Scott County board of commissioners, he says, he will have fewer politicians and a more straightforward brand of politics to deal with.
Beard will go so far as to avow that the patience on which so much of his reputation rests has grown a little thin over the last few terms. It is likely that not all of that is down to liberal Democrats.
Though he claims it didn’t bother him, Beard survived a contentious 11-ballot endorsement challenge in 2012 against Bruce Mackenthun — a virulent opponent of a Beard-backed measure to institute retention elections for judges. Before the 12th ballot, Mackenthun finally bowed out. Beard later won re-election.
However, with Beard out of the 2014 race, Mackenthun is the party’s endorsed candidate. Beard refuses to back him, instead urging his friends to vote for the unendorsed Republican Bob Loonan, a local businessman. Beard worries that with Mackenthun on the general election ballot, DFLer Jay Whiting might have a clear path to winning the district away from the GOP for the first time since Becky Kelso was a legislator in the late 1990s.
All in all, it seems clear, there are places Mike Beard would rather be these days than in a seat inside the toney Minnesota House chamber.
“My collegiality is getting short,” he admits. “In another couple of years, I wouldn’t have a sense of humor. I’d become known as the jaded, cynical guy in the back row. So I am leaving now, while I still can walk out the door with a smile on my face.”
THE BEARD FILE
Name: Mike Beard
Job: Retiring District 55A state representative; former newspaper publisher
Grew up in: Clearfield, Penn.
Lives in: Shakopee (for 28 years)
Education: Clearfield High School; B.A., Bethany College of Mission, Bloomington, Minnesota; took several fast-track entrepreneurial courses, University of St. Thomas.
Family: Wife, Karen, 43 years; four adult children; 13 grandchildren.
Hobbies/interests: Aviation. A licensed pilot who once harbored dreams of becoming a flying missionary, Beard has owned six airplanes over the years. Of those, he sold two, scrapped two, and keeps two at a hangar at the South St. Paul airport. Beard is a member of the Experimental Airplane Association.