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David Hann no stranger to the hard line

Kevin Featherly//August 20, 2014

David Hann no stranger to the hard line

Kevin Featherly//August 20, 2014

Trained as a theologian and steeped in classical Aristotlean ethics, soft-spoken Senate Minority Leader David Hann, foreground, has great faith that his Republican Party can take back the Minnesota House and governor's office this fall. Here he is pictured at a press conference with GOP Chair Keith Downey. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
Trained as a theologian and steeped in classical Aristotlean ethics, soft-spoken Senate Minority Leader David Hann, foreground, has great faith that his Republican Party can take back the Minnesota House and governor’s office this fall. Here he is pictured at a press conference with GOP Chair Keith Downey. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)

It says something about his views on principle and compromise that Senate Minority Leader David Hann sees Sir Thomas More as “the patron saint of politicians and statesman.”

More, you might recall, was the “Utopia” author and royal advisor who was executed in 1535 for defying King Henry VIII. The king wanted to separate England from the Catholic Church and become de facto pope of his own church. More opposed him. So the king separated Sir Thomas’ cranium from his torso.

Hann, 62, finds a lot there to admire. More was steadfast, and for that, he paid the ultimate price. For Hann, R-Eden Prairie, it’s no good to simply speak of principles. A politician must be committed to them, no matter what.

“Otherwise, you are only committed to staying alive,” he says. “But that is not principle, that’s self-preservation, self-interest. If something costs me my job or, in this case with Thomas More, it costs you your life, then that’s what the cost is.”

Heady stuff. But then, Hann is a fairly heady guy. Trained as a theology scholar and steeped in Aristotle’s ”Nichomachean Ethics,” Hann is as comfortable discussing the likes of Polybius and Tacitus as he is discussing the Republicans’ chances for taking back the House and governor’s office next fall.

An avid reader of history and philosophy, he was juggling a book of Aristotle with a biography of Wisconsin’s progressive era U.S. Sen. “Fightin’” Bob La Follette at the time of this writing. “I continue to have interest in those things,” he says.

It shows, says GOP Chair Keith Downey, a former Edina House member. Hann has emerged as one of the Legislature’s most reasoned, principled and strategic public policy thinkers, Downey says.

“He is clearly a thought leader in the Republican Party of Minnesota,” Downey says. “His leadership of the state Senate, albeit in the minority, is still absolutely critical to Republicans advancing our message.”

Hann’s concerns range far beyond simple politics, according to Downey.

“His concern is for the health of society in general, and the proper balance between the various institutions of society,” the GOP chair says. “And he sees public policy and legislation in that light.”

War and academia

Hann grew up in Minneapolis, and went to high school in Bloomington. He earned his B.A. in religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, but his college career was interrupted midway through.

Before his junior year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as a chaplain’s assistant during the Vietnam War. Back home, he finished his bachelor’s degree. Then he began working toward a divinity school Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

“There are seminary programs where you go to become a pastor, but that is not what I was doing,” he says. “This was academic.”

While there, he got married and his wife, Anne, moved to Chicago to be with him. However, she hated the Windy City.

“We decided we would take a time out from graduate school and go back to Minnesota, get jobs and try to pay down our students loans,” Hann says. “So we did that.” One thing led to another, he said, and he never finished the doctorate.

Instead, he entered business, working for a time as director of forecasting and logistics for E.A. Sween Co. He left after 25 years and became partnering agent with Boys and Tyler Financial Group Inc.

For eight years prior to his 2002 election to the state Senate, Hann also served on the Eden Prairie School Board.

He veered a long way from the track he was on as a student, but Hann

doesn’t regret devoting so much time to religious and philosophical pursuits. “I think in many ways there is lots of carry-over of that into politics,” he says.

Strategic player

Hann sat with Capitol Report the day after a primary election that saw only one unendorsed Republican candidate move onto the general election. Hann said he was pleased with those results.

Historically, he notes, endorsements have meant a little more on the Republican side of the ticket. But recently the GOP has faced serious challenges — deep debt, the chaos surrounding the ouster of former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and the loss of both legislative majorities among them.

Party observers like Fritz Knaak believed until the state convention in May that there would be a virtual free for all come primary time, with the Republican endorsement meaning next to nothing.

It didn’t turn out that way, and like Knaak, Hann credits new GOP Chair Keith Downey for bringing renewed energy and focus to the GOP going into the fall elections.

“You’ve got to give Keith Downey a lot of credit,” Hann says. “He has got a lot of credibility, people trust him. He is a very talented guy and the right guy for the job at this point.”

Just before being interviewed, Hann, along with Downey and several other party and legislative leaders, met privately to discuss election strategy. Along with House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, Hann is very much a player in the election, even with the Senate not up for grabs this year.

Early in the 2014 race, Hann backed his colleague, Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, for governor. When the endorsement went to Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, however, Hann threw his support behind him.

During the spring legislative session, Hann’s role was largely limited to vocalizing Republican policy preferences and conservative concerns about the dangers of one-party rule and the profligacy of DFL-led initiatives, the planned new state Senate office building not least among them.

He can count some concrete successes during the ’14 session, however. Hann took a hardline stance on the $850 million bonding limit that GOP and DFL leaders agreed to last year for the biennium. Some Democrats, including House Capital Investment Committee chair Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, and Gov. Mark Dayton, pushed to allow the bill’s limit to be lifted in light of positive economic developments.

“We were able to limit the scope of the bonding commitments, which we do have some leverage on,” Hann says.

He also credits himself and his GOP colleagues with slowing the roll on anti-bullying legislation that, for a time in 2013, appeared set to steamroll its way to passage. A slightly toned-down version of the bill passed this year.

Hann says that his primary objection to that bill was its presumptuousness. Local school boards have anti-bullying policies, though policies were not adhered to in a few high-profile cases, he says. As a former school board member, Hann says, he prizes local control.

“I think we ended up with a better law than what we would have had in the first year had it just been steamrolled through,” he says.

Coming to a campaign near you

One of the interesting components of Hann’s soft-spoken, studious demeanor is his ability to deliver caustic—if not incendiary—asides without sounding as if that is what he is doing.

Example: During an interview, Hann offered a thoughtful, lengthy disquisition on the roots of capitalism, tracing it back to its Renaissance emergence. He concluded with his take on the way progressives have reinterpreted capitalism.

“It’s about Marxism, which is what all the Democrats love and all the progressives love,” he says calmly. “Central planning. That’s what it is.” Plenty of progressives would disagree, of course. But few would sound as placid as Hann doing it.

It’s not just a passing notion. He thinks voters have come to feel basically the same way he does, which is why Hann is so confident Republicans will win back the House. Johnson, he says, faces a tougher challenge against incumbent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, but he can win, too.

Even if both things come to pass, of course, the Senate would still be in DFL hands. That would give Democrats a big obstructionist lever to use against a Johnson administration agenda, he says.

Nonetheless, he says, if Republicans win back the House and replace Dayton, some important conservative ideas can become reality.

He says some long-awaited Republican education reforms could get passed, for instance. And he thinks that, while the MNsure health exchange is not likely to be dismantled, Republicans can mitigate its effects.

“We can create the conditions that allow people to make decisions about their own healthcare,” Hann says. “That is being lost, we need to do that.”

But the biggest job for Republican gubernatorial administration, Hann says, would be simply to foster more economic growth.

He firmly believes that Democrats offer a losing argument when they tout an unemployment rate that is slightly lower than the national average. That is particularly true, he says, in light of recent Department of Employment and Economic Development research showing that about half of Minnesotans are educationally over-prepared for their jobs.

“They are either working part time or working at jobs that they are overqualified for,” Hann says. “And to point out that as a great thing? No, it’s not a great thing.”

Get ready. You’re going to hear a lot more of this as the campaign unwinds.

“To me the campaign is really about how effective have Democrats been when they have had all the levers of government,” Hann says. “What have they done with it?”

Hann asserts that the DFL/progressive agenda is to prevent unimpeded economic growth. Liberals want to micromanage the economy, he says, using the firm hand of central planning.

“That’s what Democrats do,” Hann says. “Our position is we are trying to create the organic conditions, if you will, that will allow the economy to grow.”


Name: David Hann

Age: 62

Job: GOP Senate Minority Leader

First elected: In 2002, at age 50

Grew up in: Minneapolis

Lives in: Eden Prairie

Education: Lincoln High School, Bloomington, Minn.; B.A., religion, Gustavus Adolphus College; attended divinity school at the University of Chicago for a few years.

Family: Married 33 years to wife, Anne; one daughter, three sons; three of the kids are married, one is just going off to college.

Hobbies/interests: Hann: “I think the thing I do most is read. A lot of history. Some political stuff, some philosophical.”

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