On the last day of the 2011 shutdown, a 25-year-old Branden Petersen found himself seated directly across the table from Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius as the House Republican majority and the administration worked to hammer out a final deal on an education budget.
Though Petersen, previously a sales manager at Lowe’s Home Improvement, had only been in office for about five months, his presence at the negotiating table was specifically requested by then-House Speaker Kurt Zellers.
It was an unlikely position for anyone Petersen’s age, even someone who had been plotting a political rise his whole life. This, Petersen stresses, was hardly the case with him.
“I’ve always said I never planned on running for the Legislature,” said Petersen, now a first-term senator representing the Andover area. “And that I never planned on running for the Senate after that. And that I don’t quite know what I’m doing after that.”
This last uncertainty has become a more pressing matter for Petersen, who announced this week that he would not seek re-election for his Senate seat in 2016.
Despite serving only one term in the House and one in the Senate, Petersen crammed a lot into his short stint in the Capitol. As one of a handful of lawmakers known for an independent streak, Petersen positioned himself at the center of fierce debates over education reform, marijuana reform, gay marriage and individual privacy, to name just a few.
Petersen spoke to Capitol Report to reflect on the greatest successes and biggest frustrations during his eventful five years in office.
Capitol Report: You’re leaving office after just one term in the House and one in the Senate. Was that part of a plan, or did something happen that accelerated the process?
Branden Petersen: Well, I didn’t plan on serving at all. (Laughs.) The opportunity presented itself the first time. I got married during my first campaign, at 24. We bought a house, we had three kids. So, I find myself in a situation with three young kids, and a wife who’s spent the great portion of our marriage being the caretaker for them. Also, the Legislature is a terrible place to make money, particularly for someone like myself, who’s also the primary breadwinner. I’ve been trying to juggle a private-sector job and my public obligations for five years. At 30, at the end of my term, I’ll be heading into the prime income-earning years of my life. I’ve got to take advantage of that for myself, and my family’s best interest.
CR: You were involved in some high-profile and controversial issues. Did you feel like you had enough time to make an impact, or are you leaving with some frustration?
Petersen: I think anybody who serves in the Legislature with 201 people leaves with some frustration. Inherently, you never get everything you wanted, and the way you wanted it. But I was the chief author of a teacher evaluation framework that is current law, and has been probably one of the more significant education and policy items that has happened in the last few decades. That’s a very big deal, I think, if you talked to teachers and school districts alike.
You don’t always choose how your work is going to be remembered, and I understood that the [gay] marriage issue was going to be, because of my position, something that a lot of folks remember me for. And probably rightfully so: Given the fact that I was an outlier within my caucus, and just generally within the party, nationally. I feel great about that decision, it’s one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve been able to make.
On civil liberties and data privacy issues, I was able to work with a diverse group of legislators and make some headway. The governor signed my bill, which required search warrant for cellphone surveillance, and which was ahead of the curve. In the world we live in, I feel data privacy and civil liberties conversations are only going to become more important, and more intimately connected to people’s lives. There’s still a lot of work to be done there, and that’s probably a big area where I feel like for a number of reasons, we didn’t quite get done what I thought was possible.
CR: Were there times where, because of your unique ideology within the Legislature, you felt like you weren’t really a Republican?
Petersen: I’ve always felt as though I’ve lived up to the rhetoric of limited government and keeping government out of people’s lives, and looking out for individual liberty. That’s always been the rhetoric of the Republican Party, and that’s always been one of my biggest frustrations in being a member of that party, that it so often has failed to actually deliver on those words.
Candidly, I’m not a big fan of the two-party dynamic. I think it’s self-serving, and serves to self-perpetuate more than anything else. I hope for a day, as an idealist, where individuals are weighed on their own merit, and candidates are required to be of substance, rather than a generic label.
CR: You were the only Senate Republican to vote in favor of gay marriage in 2013. Did that vote do anything to isolate or damage you within the caucus or the party itself?
Petersen: It had very little impact. My caucus was great about that issue. I’ve spoken with [Senate Minority Leader] David Hann over the last year about running or not running for re-election, and Sen. Hann pledged publicly to support me for re-election, and several other senators did as well. In a lot of ways, I voted with the hardline fiscal conservatives of that caucus on budget-related issues, maybe more often than most. While I was the only member who voted for [gay marriage], I think if members were to be honest … I think they understood it, because there were a lot of folks who were torn on that issue.
With the party, it was more with the base delegates, and certainly there was an impact there, which I understood going into it. There was just going to be a segment of the Republican base that would no longer support me, and that was a decision I had to make with my eyes open.
CR: What’s your view of the session that just passed?
Petersen: I was generally disappointed with the outcome of the session. I’ve been there three budget years, and a lot of the stuff is the same-old, same-old. The process is terrible. It seeks to shut out the public at the most critical junctures. It consolidates power in the hands of very few elected leaders. I also think there were a number of issues that simply didn’t get done.
I really thought this was a year where we could’ve addressed a lot of things … in terms of civil liberties and data privacy, and we really just didn’t. Law enforcement came in and really stifled that, with the support of a couple key legislators. What is really disappointing is the lack of individual autonomy, or decision-making, by legislators. The idea that 38, or 39, or 68, or 72 members of a caucus will vote the same way on 40, or 50, or 100 different issues … there’s no way that, sincerely, everybody agrees with those positions. It’s just a function of group mentality, and caucus mentality, that I think does a disservice to public dialogue.
CR: Do you have an interest staying in politics, and do you know how you would do that?
Petersen: I’m going to take some time to not worry about what the next political move is. I’m not running for anything in 2016, and not running for anything in 2018, either — with 99 percent certainty. If you’d asked me at 22, if I was going to run for the Legislature at 24, I probably would’ve said “no, with 99 percent certainty.” But I still plan to be involved. I’ll probably still be a delegate, and involved at the local party. I really want to focus some time with an advocacy organization, or two, that I care about. So, I’ll still be around. But probably not so much in St. Paul.