By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
The 2009 legislative session sucks. That's the word from Capitol insiders. Minnesota finds itself searching for a solution to a $4.6 billion budget deficit. The state unemployment rate just pulled even with the national average. A school system once the envy of the nation has been trimmed to within an inch of its life. And health care is poor, even for the rich.
Now more than ever, we need good leadership. So City Pages decided to peek inside the vaunted marble halls in St. Paul to check on the 29 legislators who represent the Twin Cities. We wanted to see how they stack up as policy-makers, and if they deserve the responsibility of working for the people.
To achieve this, we sent out surveys to some 1,350 statehouse lobbyists.
Let lobbyists rank the legislators!?
There is no other profession that works closer with our legislators, none that has the insight into how the sausage of our laws gets made—who carries a big stick, and who carries nothing more than fancy stationery.
The participants couldn't use their names without risking their careers. After all, how do you call in favors from a guy you savaged in print? Hoping for honest assessments, we granted total anonymity.
This story is largely gossip and opinion of the very best kind. We borrowed the idea from Willamette Week, an alt-weekly in Portland that has a Pulitzer sitting on the shelf. Willamette Week found this was the best way to get an honest assessment of Oregon's legislators. They've done the story for 32 years and counting.
Our own efforts were immediately met with skepticism. "You're asking us to risk our reputations and careers on your story with the 'goal' of candor. No thanks," wrote back one lobbyist. Other lobbyists got on their moral high horses and met our mass emails with mass emails of their own, pleading with peers to ignore the survey.
But 32 lobbyists took the opportunity to open a window to government. We asked them to rank each Twin Cities legislator on a scale of 1 to 10 in three categories: Brains, Work Ethic, and Effectiveness. Then we calculated the average of those numbers for an overall score. We're listing them from best to worst, acknowledging up front that it's not a scientific survey.
What follows is a glimpse underneath the emperor's gown.
Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 8.7
No legislator received higher praise than the speaker of the House. Comments about her read like they were written for a book jacket:
"Our next governor? A grownup in a building filled with children."
"The savvy diplomat who brings together diverse voices while fighting for the most underrepresented in our communities. It is not easy to keep together a caucus, and she has done it with grace and style."
"A leader for our times! Very smart; eager to learn; listens extremely well; seeks common-sense solutions that work for all Minnesotans; tough, but in a kind of compassionate way; very flexible; and highly respected. One of the very best."
It was a struggle to find any negative opinions of her. We only found two: one lobbyist said they miss former speaker Dee Long; another felt that her talents needed to produce action earlier in the session. But that was it.
The budget is her baby this session, and if Kelliher-Anderson powers through a tax increase for the wealthy, her praise could turn into hero worship among progressive insiders.
"She is a powerhouse."
Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 8.5
When you Google "Paul Thissen," the first result is his upstart bid for governor. He believes he has the skills for higher office, as do plenty of others inside the Capitol. His credentials are first-class: B.A. Harvard University, J.D. University of Chicago. The man has academic horsepower to spare.
"Paul is a top-notch legislator with a real future in higher office," says one lobbyist.
Much of the praise is due to his detailed understanding of policy. One lobbyist was impressed that Thissen actually knows what's inside the many folders he carries around, emphatically stating he is the best legislator in the entire bunch.
Another feels that Thissen does better with policy than with politics, a possible hindrance as he works his way up the ladder of power.
Recently, he came into the spotlight for a different reason. His Catholic high school, the Academy of Holy Angels, stripped him of Hall of Fame honor because of his support of abortion rights.
This year, among other issues, he's supporting a bill to help the unemployed obtain temporary health care.
"A real rock star," declares one lobbyist. "Any political wannabe would be smart to hitch to his train. If he were governor, we'd be much better off."
Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 8.5
Berglin commands respect. Lobbyists say she is someone you shouldn't try to B.S. The veteran politician first came to the Capitol in 1972. Since then, the graphic designer-turned-healthcare policy guru has established herself as the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division.