Paul Thissen is statehouse's smartest, but is he ready to be governor?

The well-liked brainiac is quickly turning from race's darkhorse to its thoroughbred

PAUL THISSEN, THE SMARTEST LAWMAKER IN MINNESOTA, crams himself into the passenger seat of a 1997 Toyota Corolla. He sits sidesaddle, with a stack of papers across his lap. In the backseat are a clipboard, a stack of glossy "Thissen for Governor" handouts, and his suit coat. He's on his way south to St. Peter, cruising along U.S. 169, past cornfields and farmland that stretch to the vanishing point.

With neat silver hair, an astute jaw line, and a powerful build, Thissen has the dimensions of a collegiate tight end. Across from him is campaign staffer Nathan Coulter, a petite St. Olaf graduate who played trumpet in the college band, and the Corolla almost seems to tilt in Thissen's direction.

The two are making a three-hour round trip to find out what's happening in St. Peter, home to the state's maximum-security psychiatric hospital. They'll be meeting three security counselors and a retired nurse for coffee.

"These people we'll be meeting know a lot," says Thissen. "And it's the type of information that many of us in the Capitol really need to hear."

But first, he has phone calls to make. With the casual diligence of a maid folding sheets, he punches numbers into his iPhone, introducing himself to various DFLers across the state. Each one could become an all-important delegate at the state convention. There are tens of thousands, and it seems as though his intention is to talk with each and every one. He makes close to 120 calls a day. Most resemble the following:

"Hi, [insert name], this is Paul Thissen. I just wanted to call to see how things are going for you out in [insert city]. I also wanted to tell you we're going to be heading toward your area in the next couple weeks and I wanted to see if we could maybe meet up for coffee. I also wanted to let you know the campaign is going just great!"

He repeats this over. And over. And over. Nonstop. Once he reaches the end of the list, Coulter instructs him to call more people. So he does, and each call is delivered as freshly as the one before it.

   

THERE HASN'T BEEN A DEMOCRAT ELECTED governor of Minnesota since 1986. While the state DFL has seen success in nearly every other public office during that stretch, the last DFL governor was Rudy Perpich, a politician who served before many of today's voters were even born.

For 2010, party leaders seem intent on ending that two-decade dry spell. They're placing every party heavyweight on the ticket, including the speaker of the House, a former minority leader, a former U.S. senator, two statesmen from the Iron Range, a Ramsey County attorney, a state senator, and the mayor of Minneapolis.

"It's going to be tough to pick a son of gun," says Curt Rutske, a DFL member and retiree from the heartland town of Glencoe.

Amid this packed field is Thissen, the son of two public school teachers, and a graduate of the Academy of Holy Angels, where his excellence on the football field as a flanker was dwarfed only by his acumen in the classroom. He left Minnesota to attend Harvard University, graduated with high honors, and rowed for the famed Crimson crew team, led by the legendary Harry Parker.

After Harvard came law school at the University of Chicago, which was then the second-ranked law school in the nation, behind Yale. Thissen made his way through with a calm confidence, earning plaudits as the associate editor for the school's law review. His best memory from this time was meeting a knockout redhead who would later become his wife.

"So yeah, law school was great," Thissen says.

Karen, now a lawyer for Ameriprise Financial, says her husband was the quiet intellect of the class. She recalls how he would always sit back and listen during classroom debates, until finally speaking up and silencing the room.

"Whatever he said would always end the discussions in class," she says. "It was like he took all the ideas and arguments and combined them into what everyone was trying to say."

After law school, the two made their way back to Minnesota, began their careers, and started a family. It wasn't until a legislative redistricting that Thissen got the idea to run for state representative. Karen recalls her husband doing the math in his head and calculating that he had a solid chance to beat the incumbent. All he had to do was win enough delegates from the newly formed region.

Thissen really had no reason to run. He had a high-paying job as a partner at Briggs and Morgan. But he would trade it all for a life inside the marble halls of St. Paul.

Through nonstop phone calls and one-on-one meetings, Thissen won the DFL endorsement in 2002 as a dark horse, a label that many continue to place on him, including the chair of Minnesota's Republican Party, Tony Sutton. When asked last summer about the potential candidates his party will face in the gubernatorial election, Sutton dismissed each one as though he were taking batting practice.

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