By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
It was an otherwise ordinary Senate hearing on March 16 when Mike Parry made an extraordinary claim.
During a discussion about a proposed bill that would allow undocumented workers to obtain drivers' licenses, the freshman state senator went off on a tangent, and made the case that non-citizens have no legal rights.
"I'm talking about the state of Minnesota saying it's okay—in the real world—that we just forget about the fact that you have to be a citizen to have rights," he said while arguing against the bill.
Murmurs rippled through the chamber. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing) took the floor next and pointed out that, yes, even non-American citizens are protected by the U.S. Constitution. At that point, the previously stoic room—in which sat about a dozen immigrants and immigrants' rights advocates—burst into applause. A gavel sounded. Order was quickly restored.
"We speak with passion sometimes, as well we should, but that passion shouldn't trickle into disrespect," Murphy says. "I've been here 18 years, I've seen all kinds of stuff, but I'd definitely put it top-10 worst."
It's been less than two months since he was sworn into office, and already Mike Parry is the most contentious state senator at the Capitol. The balding ex-cop and former National Guardsman from Waseca, about 60 miles south of Minneapolis, is a relative newcomer to politics but wasted no time finding his voice.
"A lot of it is he hasn't been here long enough," says Sen. Jim Carlson (DFL-Eagan). "After you've been here a while, you start to lose some of your sharp edges. I don't think he's got the gist yet."
Parry, who owns a marketing company and a Godfather's Pizzeria, has been under the microscope from the moment he stepped into the Capitol. He was swept into office by a special election on January 26 after his predecessor, Republican Dick Day, vacated the post to lobby for gambling interests.
Even before he unpacked, Parry garnered a reputation as something of a loose-lipped caricature of old white male rage. Upon the passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act—which some on the religious far-right referred to as the "Pedophile Protection Act"—Parry logged into his Twitter account on May 6 and wondered, "whats with the Dems and Pedophiles?"
Three weeks later, he offered a tweet that sounded less like the musings of an aspiring politician and more like the ravings of a backwoods militiaman, calling President Barack Obama "a Power Hungry Arrogant Black Man."
Rather than offer a mea culpa, he doubled down, telling the Waseca County News, "My opinion is that our president is arrogant and angry. The fact is that he is a black man. Now if the Democratic Party and the liberals want to take my opinion and the fact and mix it together and use it to bring a bad light about me and keep them away from discussing the real issues they can do that all they want. They're grasping for straws."
Parry subsequently scrubbed the more damning tweets from his account and issued an apology in which he blamed government waste for putting him on edge.
"I sincerely apologize for past tweets, which were written in haste and out of the frustration I felt for the out-of-control spending in Washington," Parry said in a statement.
Parry was less forthcoming when we asked for an interview, deferring instead to Michael Brodkorb, deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota, who offered a cliché-riddled boilerplate: "Senator Parry continues to offer a fresh perspective and a 'roll up your sleeves and get to work' attitude that has quickly earned him the respect and admiration of his fellow colleagues in the Minnesota Senate."
Parry's plain-speakin' persona naturally conjures comparisons to fellow controversy-monger Michele Bachmann, who parlayed her own outlandish state-level ravings into a national profile. Indeed, Bachmann endorsed Parry during the lead-up to the special election, calling him "a steadfast champion of conservative values who will stand up to the big-spending, big-taxing liberals in the Legislature."
Like Bachmann, Parry owes his success in part to a GOP-friendly constituency. District 26, whose main hub is Owatonna, is part of the same bright-red doughnut encircling the metro as Bachmann's Sixth District 100 miles north.
But the comparisons to Bachmann end there. So far, Parry has displayed neither the willingness nor the ability to capture national attention virtually every news cycle à la Bachmann.
"Remember, Michele Bachmann is a charismatic individual," says Steve Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College. "It remains to be seen whether Parry possesses that same level of charisma."