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And the gavel goes to…

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on how retirements will reshape the Minnesota House. The second story, which will consider the effect on the Republican caucus, will appear next week.


Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, a freshman member and Cottage Grove police officer, has shown willingness to take on difficult issues during his first term. But his chances of leading the House Public Safety Finance and Commerce Committee could be hurt by his lack of seniority. (Photo: Mike Mosedale)

Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, a freshman member and Cottage Grove police officer, has shown willingness to take on difficult issues during his first term. But his chances of leading the House Public Safety Finance and Commerce Committee could be hurt by his lack of seniority. (Photo: Mike Mosedale)

As many as 30 incumbent House members are running for re-election in competitive or toss-up districts, and each is prepared to fight tooth-and-nail to hold onto his or her seat.

But elections aren’t the only factor that will lead to a great reshuffling of the House roster. Fifteen lawmakers are due to leave the Legislature after this year, with several of the most powerful or most senior representatives in both parties headed for the door. Three current Democratic committee chairmen are vacating their positions; two are retiring and a third, Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, is leaving office to pursue the secretary of state position.

On the Republican side, the coming wave of departures is even more dramatic. The minority leaders on five committees, including the most powerful financial panels in the Legislature, are either retiring or have opted to seek different elected positions. Joining that exodus is Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, the former House speaker who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor and would have been an easy choice for a power position had he chosen to stay in the House.

Eventual fallout from the imminent changeover is a matter of perspective. Some legislators and insiders feared a “brain drain,” particularly on matters with enormous and complex budgeting implications; others pitched the generational shift as an opportunity to bring fresh blood and new ideas to major issues. Virtually all agreed that citizen activists and professional lobbyists would seize on the leadership vacuum as a chance to influence policy and funding choices.

“I’m sure everybody will be happy to help [new chairs] with the numbers,” quipped Bernie Hesse, political director with the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 789 union.

For obvious reasons, the toss-up election contests are top of mind for the leaders of the House DFL and Republican caucuses. Asked in separate interviews about the imminent legislative retirements, both House Speaker Paul Thissen and Minority Leader Kurt Daudt arrived independently at the same phrase, saying they did not “want to put the cart before the horse.”

But the two leaders are already anticipating a mid-November scramble for gavels, one that will be only slightly less competitive than the general election that preceded it.

“It’s kind of a judgment call, about who has experience, and seniority, and the personality to do the job,” Thissen said. “Then you just have to be ready to have honest conversations with your members.”

Health finance committee

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, can still recall the moment in the mid-1990s when he realized he needed to delve deeper into the state’s handling of health care. There is, Huntley thought, a Department of Health and a Department of Human Services. But what’s the difference? What do the two departments actually do?

Huntley, then a full-time professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, assigned himself a close reading of the two agencies’ budget documents, and he came away with a much greater understanding of their respective duties.

“And that was after five years [in the House],” Huntley said.

The willingness to dig into budget papers served Huntley well in his capacity as chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, where he has held the gavel for six of the last eight years. The committee is tasked with allotting more than $11 billion per biennium, or nearly a third of the current state budget, trailing only public education among state spending categories.

Huntley, who is retiring after 11 terms in the House, would be comfortable with a number of his DFL colleagues inheriting the position, naming Reps. Tina Liebling (Rochester) and Diane Loeffler (Minneapolis) as capable replacements. Both would be entering their sixth terms next year, and Liebling currently chairs the companion committee on health and human services policy.

Huntley also floated the possibility that Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, could lead the finance committee. Atkins is not a current member of the panel, but is immersed in details of the health insurance industry as chairman of the House Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy Committee, and was lead House author on the legislation to enact MNsure, the state health insurance exchange.

Huntley said he has “no idea” if Atkins would want the position, and observed that the job might force Atkins to cut back on his private-sector work as an attorney; the 15-hour workdays Huntley encountered upon taking the gavel in 2007 convinced him he would need to retire from his teaching job.

In assessing those prospects, Capitol insiders were quick to point out possible flaws, with one saying that Liebling lacks the warmth and even-keel demeanor that the job requires, while another ruled out Atkins, saying Huntley’s successor “has to” come from the existing committee roster.

Huntley also spoke highly of his vice chair during the past two sessions, saying Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, is “extremely talented.” In terms of seniority, Norton, who would be in her fifth term of service next year, is one term behind Liebling and Loeffler.

Regardless of who takes over the DFL leadership position, observers of both the caucus and the human services budget said Huntley’s replacement will inevitably receive input from his or her superiors. Thissen, a health law attorney professionally, and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, whose background is in nursing, are expected to play a significant part monitoring the HHS budget process.

“I think [Thissen] becomes sort of the shadow chair of that committee anyway,” said one source.

Huntley, for his part, said his caucus leaders had granted him and his committee significant leeway in setting the HHS budget. The departing chair also said he never felt discouraged from voicing his opinion, even when it went against leadership priorities, as when he criticized cuts to state health care spending in the 2013 budget.

“I certainly disagreed with it,” Huntley said. “And they did not hold anything I said against me — at least not in any way that I could tell.”

Elections Committee

Two other DFL exits concern smaller matters measured by dollars, but consistently handle hot-button topics. Simon’s job as chair of the House Elections Committee would probably be difficult enough on its own, but is further complicated by Gov. Mark Dayton’s mandate that any election law changes have bipartisan support.

“Outside of capital investment, ours is the only area other that has to be bipartisan,” Simon said. “That presents some challenges.”

Simon chose not to offer names for possible election leaders, but said his replacement would need to be ready to deal with perennial and seemingly intractable issues of campaign finance and disclosure laws, as well as a possible move toward implementing early voting, following this year’s debut of no-excuse absentee ballots.

Freshman Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, served as Simon’s vice chair during the past legislative term, but would need to win re-election in her suburban swing district — she won with just under 52 percent in 2012 — before stepping into the lead position.

Public safety finance

As chair of the House Public Safety Finance and Commerce Committee, Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, has been thrust into the center of attention on more than one occasion, particularly during the heated debate over possible gun-control measures in 2013. Hesse observed that the controversial nature of topics in that committee, which also handles law-enforcement budgeting, might lead the caucus to choose a politically comfortable Democrat, who would not jeopardize re-election by taking a controversial position.

“Whoever holds the hammer on that is going to have a super-majority [in his or her district],” Hesse said. “Either that or somebody really good at getting a deal done before you bring it to committee.”

Paymar’s own top choice to oversee the committee would be Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who now heads the House Civil Law Committee. Paymar said he had seen the Legislature turn away from a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to public safety during his tenure, and said Lesch, a prosecutor, brings the right combination of experience and mentality to inherit the job.

“[Lesch] sees [the enforcement] end of it, but he also sees the human side of public safety issues,” Paymar said. “He knows that people deserve a second chance.”

Paymar also said he had been impressed by Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, a freshman member and Cottage Grove police officer who had shown willingness to take on difficult issues during his first term.

Like Halverson, who some thought could be a good leader on either health and human services or elections, Schoen’s chances would be hurt by his lack of seniority, which is often a key factor in determining chairmanships. Both Paymar and Huntley spoke out against seniority as a tool for judging possible committee leaders, and said they would hope their respective heirs would be chosen for expertise and temperament rather than experience.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the influence of seniority is a frequent point of frustration for younger legislators, especially if it rewards a legislator whose contributions, either during the campaign season or the legislative session, are seen as lacking by other members.

Winkler recalled one recent instance where expertise was valued over tenure with good results, describing then-House speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s decision to put Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, in charge of the House Taxes Committee in 2007.

“[Anderson Kelliher] skipped over a bunch of people senior of Ann Lenczewski, because she thought [Lenczewski] was very capable,” Winkler said. “And [Anderson Kelliher] was right.”

Thissen, for his part, said seniority is only one element of the decision-making process, and said he, himself, had been elevated over more experienced members to lead the HHS policy committee earlier in his career.

Before entertaining those potentially sticky calculations, Thissen said the DFL had another priority in mind to hold onto their gavels — including his own.

“When you’re told people are retiring, it’s one of the things you start thinking about,” Thissen said. “But frankly, I haven’t given all that much consideration to the committee structure yet. First, we have to win on November 4.”

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