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Who at the Capitol has zeal for Twitter?

Political analyst Michael Brodkorb, left, cited John Kriesel, right, a 32-year old former representative from Cottage Grove, as the local master of the medium. “I can’t think of a worse person to pick a Twitter fight with,” Brodkorb said. (File photos)

Political analyst Michael Brodkorb, left, cited John Kriesel, right, a 32-year old former representative from Cottage Grove, as the local master of the medium. “I can’t think of a worse person to pick a Twitter fight with,” Brodkorb said. (File photos)

Since he joined Twitter in June of 2009, the Minnesota Legislature’s most prolific tweeter, Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, has tweeted 12,285 times — an output that exceeds even that of President Obama, whose savvy use of social media helped make Twitter a favorite tool among politicos of all stripes.

In terms of the most significant Twitter metric, of course, Obama has maintained an edge on Nienow. With more than 44 million followers, the president trails only Katy Perry and Justin Bieber on the global Twitter counter.

Compared to the other 136 Minnesota legislators on Twitter, Nienow has done well, amassing 2,153 followers interested in his 140 character insights on subjects ranging from Obamacare to Republican politics to arcane policy debates.

“I joined up originally just to make sure I could use my name instead of having to be ‘sneinow42’ or something. It was a placeholder,” said Nienow. “But after I was elected, I realized that political people — and particularly the media — utilize it a lot more than I knew. I told my caucus, ‘This is the power of the medium. You can sell a message.’”

For Nienow, that point was underscored when he tweeted a question about a DFL tax proposal and, shortly afterward, heard his query repeated verbatim by a reporter at a press conference.

While Nienow is top among current legislators for volume of tweets, Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, has the most followers: 9,538.

Hall, who also posts extensively on non-political subjects such as business leadership, is an outlier in another regard. At 62, he is among the relatively few lawmakers of his generation to take to a medium with such gusto.

On the opposite side of the spectrum: Sen. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina. The 84-year-old lawmaker, who has amassed 181 followers since joining Twitter in 2010, has tweeted just once: “Trying out this thing. Is anyone there?”

Erhardt is a Twitter zealot compared to Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. Bakk, 60, registered an account in June 2009 but has subsequently remained mum. While that comports with Bakk’s reputation for playing his cards close to the vest, political scientist David Schultz thinks those politicians who eschew social media — a cohort that accounts for about a third of the Legislature — are making a mistake

“For Gen Xers and millennials, this is the primary way of gathering information. They’re not watching TV and reading newspapers, or listening to a candidate speech on the radio,” said Schultz, a professor at Hamline University. “In 2008, John McCain mentioned that he’d never sent an email in his life. For a lot of young people, that made him seem out of touch.”

Asked which lawmakers make the best use of Twitter, political analyst Michael Brodkorb rattled off nine names. All but two — Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, and Rep. Erin Murphy — are under 50. Others he mentioned include Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River and Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, ages 28, 33 and 38, respectively.

He cited John Kriesel, a 32-year old former representative from Cottage Grove, as the local master of the medium. “I can’t think of a worse person to pick a Twitter fight with,” Brodkorb said of Kriesel, whose Twitter stats (27,000 tweets, 19,000 followers) dwarf those of any current lawmaker.

But Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Republican Party with more than 19,000 tweets under his belt, said he doesn’t see age as the most significant factor in politicians’ willingness or facility with the medium.

He cited Secretary of State Mark Ritchie as a counter example. The 62-year-old DFLer has tweeted about 13,000 times, roughly the same as Sean Nienow.

“He has a phenomenal Twitter presence. I think he’s a perfect example,” Brodkorb said of Ritchie. “Most people would be surprised to hear me say that. I’ve not had a lot of opportunities to compliment Secretary Ritchie.” Brodkorb said Ritchie’s voluminous tweets about voting statistics and election-related information provide “a textbook example of how to use social media.

When he was still working for the party, Brodkorb said he sought to emphasize the importance of social media training, both for elected officials and staffers. “We worked very hard to make sure we had a strong presence and we encouraged the staff to push and promote messages from the caucus. And we asked them to refrain from bombastic statements.”

But isn’t Twitter without bombastic statements akin to a world without war — a nice idea, maybe, but a pipedream?

Despite his reputation as a sometimes sharp-elbowed operator, Brodkorb professed mixed feelings about the medium’s dark side.

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s incredibly important,” he said. “I don’t think you can be a politician and expect to have any standing if you’re not using Twitter and social media. That said, it also brings out the worst in political discourse. Of all the ways to communicate, it has the lowest standards and the bar is lowered on a pretty regular basis.”

As recent evidence, he pointed to the case of Sheila Kihne, an activist who is mounting a primary challenge to Rep. Jennifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie. Kihne’s opposition to gay marriage and her other highly conservative views have elicited a torrent of vulgar comment on her Twitter feed. Kihne, a prolific Tweeter, retweeted some of the most offensive broadsides, with a barbed aside of her own, “Behold the left.”

While insiders like Brodkorb and political scientists like Schultz regard Twitter as a vital campaign tool, some of the Capitol’s top Tweeters take a different view.

“When it comes to messaging and communication, Twitter is not one of the four major food groups. It’s more like desert,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “For constituents, they either love me or hate me. There are very few undecided people. As a candidate, Twitter is virtually meaningless.”

With 8,879 tweets to his credit, Garofalo trails only Nienow and Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria in terms of output.

Garofalo, who is known for acerbic and often amusing tweets, said he likes Twitter because it allows for an unfiltered expression. “With traditional media, you learn about the politician, not the person. Twitter allows you to share other aspects of your life that are far more important than politics, whether it’s family, friends, personal interests or funny stories,” he said.

The unmediated aspect can be a double edged sword, as Garofalo learned last spring with an ill-considered tweet about the NBA: “Let’s be honest, 70% of teams in NBA could fold tomorrow and nobody would notice a possible difference w/possible exception in street crime.”

In the ensuing uproar, Garofalo was accused of racism and stereotyping and subsequently apologized for the tweet.

“When you make a mistake in writing, it’s very difficult to pull it back,” he said. In the wake of that “painful lesson,” Garofalo said he’s since tweaked his approach. “Now that my kids are on Twitter, it makes me want to be more responsible and less funny,” he added.

Still, Garofalo regularly tweets out rhetorical grenades, generally aimed at Democrats but, on occasion, fellow Republicans, too. Like many of the Capitol’s more provocative tweeters, Garofalo occupies a safe seat, a status that he acknowledges allows for a more flexible, less inhibited approach.

What local tweeter does Garofalo most enjoy?

“I’d say Vanilla Ice but he’s not local,” he said. “I tend to be selective. I have 3,800 followers but I only follow 382 people. I’m kind of picky.”

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