Come 2017, Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, won’t wake up Sunday mornings feeling he should be doing something to advance the quixotic effort he’ll be remembered for: Sunday liquor sales.
The two-term senator, who also served a term in the House, has joined the growing roster of legislators who say they don’t intend to run for re-election in 2016. Indeed, about 48 hours after Reinert posted a video announcing his decision, Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he also would be leaving the Senate. Reinert said he won’t “handpick” a successor. (Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, is running.)
Capitol Report spoke to Reinert a couple of days after his announcement on Facebook (edited for length and clarity):
Capitol Report: Why did you announce your decision with a Facebook video?
Sen. Roger Reinert: I wanted to share with friends and supporters in my own words. I followed up the next day with a standard press release, but I felt it was more authentic to share the great things that happened in my life in 2015 that led to my decision to leave the Legislature in 2016.
CR: Those things were getting married, getting a Navy [Reserve] promotion and completing your first year of law school?
Reinert: Right — they’re things I never could have predicted two years ago. In 2014 I had no idea I was going to go to law school. I met my now-wife that summer. And I was not anticipating the promotion to lieutenant commander. I look at some who leave [the Legislature] maybe for not positive reasons, but for me they’re amazing reasons and require me to make some different priorities in my life.
CR: Some leaving the Senate said they would run again for a two-year term but couldn’t see four more years. Did you feel that way?
Reinert: No, I really don’t see myself being in the Senate past 2016. I’m focused on putting my family at a higher priority and, being 45 [years old], putting my career at a higher priority. When I was single, juggling three part-time jobs was doable: teaching [at Lake Superior College], the Navy and the Legislature. But now I have to think about more than just myself.
CR: Now you’ll be balancing, let’s see, teaching, going to school and the Navy?
Reinert: Post-Legislature, I’m looking at trying to do some consolidation. The Navy will still be there in my Reserve capacity. But I’m looking to have fewer jobs and splits in my attention. The work I expect to do is in external affairs. I have this nice skill set around teaching, where I’ve learned to talk about difficult things in a way that people can understand. In the Navy I do public affairs. With my legislative experience, I’ve had opportunity to work with media and talk about stories, both easy and difficult. And then underlying that is this law degree, which helps me think about, when do things sound bad and when are they really bad? And I think that combines for work in external affairs, communications, public affairs and perhaps some legislative work, but I don’t anticipate doing lobbying.
CR: Are there enough of those jobs that you might stay in Duluth or might you have to leave?
Reinert: There will be no leaving Duluth. I love this community and I have a passion for it. I look forward to being more active in the community when I’m able to sleep in my own bed every night. [Duluth has] educational institutions and corporate employers [with external affairs] folks on staff. So now that my decision is public, I can start thinking about those conversations.
CR: Can you tell me about your involvement with the Purple Caucus?
Reinert: That came out of my military service. I was in what we called a purple unit, which blended Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. And when I came to the Legislature, coming out of a nonpartisan background [on the Duluth City Council], the political party label didn’t mean as much to me as it did to others. More important to me was that we’re all Minnesotans and ought to be able to figure out ways to move big issues forward. I found a great partner in [Republican Sen.] Jeremy Miller from Winona. We formed this Purple Caucus, which has 24 active members — a third of the Senate. Our motto is simple: We’re Minnesotans first and other labels second. The two things that I will really miss are [the Purple Caucus] and the Legislative Audit Commission.
CR: Was it an extra burden in the Legislature to be someone who teaches political science and civics? You must gnash your teeth when things at the Capitol go screwy.
Reinert: No, I’ve never thought of it as an extra burden. I’ve always thought of it as a gift, because I get to come back and spend fall semester with my students, who refresh me every day. We talk about fundamental issues. And at law school I just finished a semester of constitutional law — you visit underlying ideas and concepts. That’s where my heart is.
CR: Last year you introduced a reform package including returning to a nonpartisan Legislature. Did anyone respond?
Reinert: No, no one responded to that. And not with any surprise on my part. I’m born and raised in Minnesota. I grew up thinking we did it right — the nation looked to us as an example of how state government should and can operate. I feel like we’ve moved away from that, become more invested in partisan politics. I think it has disadvantaged us. Last session we couldn’t do a tax bill or a transportation bill — fundamental aspects of state government in a budgeting year. So what if we were to make some changes?
CR: You anticipated if re-elected you would get a chairmanship, is that right?
Reinert: One of the things I had to think through was, when we look at retirements announced and others that might come, I’m at the mid-seniority level and I certainly would have moved up that list. I think it’s likely. That’s when you can have a significant impact — not just in your committee but in dealing with other chairs who want to move something through your committee. You’ve got something that has to go through theirs, and you can become much more effective in the horse-trading that happens at the Capitol.
CR: You won’t be endorsing anyone as a successor?
Reinert: I don’t intend to handpick. I’m a voter and a citizen and will certainly have somebody by November that I think will do a good job in that role. But I’ve never thought it was my Senate seat. It belongs to the people of Duluth.
CR: Can you imagine running for something in the future?
Reinert: Not now doesn’t mean not ever. But it would almost certainly be more local and nonpartisan. That’s more where I fit well. As I reflect back over 13 years, two of the most rewarding things I did were serving twice as the council president in Duluth and also as chair of the Legislative Audit Commission. Those were opportunities where my skill in organizing and running effective meetings, and my sense of allowing others space to step forward, were well-utilized.
CR: What are your legislative highlights, or what do you want to do in the rest of your term?
Reinert: I was proud to author the bill that redesigned the LGA formula. The state has become a strong and reliable partner [to local government] again. Then the whole Sunday [liquor] sales issue. It’s the thing that made the most attention with the least amount of effort. And not what I want to be remembered for. I’ve become the lightning rod. I’m hopeful that my being gone will let others like Sen. Susan Kent [DFL-Woodbury] figure out the path forward. I think everybody knows it’s not if but when. My number one 2016 priority is the bonding projects that we have for Duluth. I’m realistic about the very short session and what I can get done.