Office Politics

Kristine Heykants

Gregg Peppin has been trading his usual suit and tie for Dockers and checkered flannel shirts lately, so as to be better equipped for heavy lifting. "Sorry about the mess," he sighed one recent afternoon, heaving a box filled with files from a chair and into the clutter on the floor. Soon the movers will arrive to haul the whole mess upstairs, to the fourth story of the State Office Building. About the only thing that will be staying is the small plaque on Peppin's door reading "Administrative Assistant to the Minority Leader."

For more than a decade, a Republican has occupied the space behind that door. But in another couple of weeks, the office will belong to a yet-to-be-named DFLer, while Peppin and his boss, House Speaker-designate Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon), make themselves at home in the snazzier digs reserved for the House majority. The move is just one signal of the political shift resulting from the November election, which gave the state House of Representatives its first GOP majority since 1986.

The political ramifications of that change will play out over the legislative session, scheduled to begin January 5. But the office politics are already in full swing. "We've had senior Democratic members coming down here and checking out which are the biggest offices," Peppin notes. "The senior members want the corner offices because they have two windows."

Over the next week, Capitol staffers will move as many as 300 offices--hauling Republican desks, shelves, and file cabinets to the fourth and fifth floors, and DFL furniture down to the second. "They'll be moving 50 offices a day for six days," Peppin says. The Republican caucus is in the middle of a hiring binge, with as many as 65 new employees slated to be added by the end of this month. Meanwhile the DFL caucus staff is shrinking to about half its former size. (Minority members get one legislative assistant per three lawmakers; in the majority, the ratio is two representatives to one aide.) Staffers cut from the payroll have little hope of being offered jobs on the other side of the aisle: "It's a partisan staff," Peppin explains. "You have to have people loyal to you."

Right now, however, even partisanship takes a backseat to speed: All the hiring and firing, packing and unpacking has to be completed in three weeks. During that same time, the GOP caucus also has to find space for the 14 new members who were elected this November and haven't been assigned a space. "You might have heard some lobbyists grumbling about that," Peppin says, "They can't meet with the members if they don't have offices."

Ah, yes, the lobbyists. As House staff toiled to pack up their paperwork last week, other Capitol regulars gathered down the road at the Sheraton Midway to analyze the new majority's proposed changes in legislative rules and processes. For her peers, explained Sarah Duniway, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty and Bennett, "the fact that the Republicans have taken the House is a much bigger event than [Jesse] Ventura having won. All the phone numbers you'll have to call are new, and the places where you go to get information on bills and hearings are different. It's total chaos."

The hallways hummed with similar complaints as about two dozen lobbyists--clad in executive-gray suits and basic-black slacks, houndstooth coats and blue Arrow shirts--munched muffins and sipped coffee. Organizers of the confab, put together by political consultants Sheri Pittman and Shawn Towle (who is also a contributor to City Pages) handed out three-ring binders filled with information on House rules, committee reorganizations, and important members' names and phone numbers. Having been ushered into the hotel's still-chilly auditorium at the stroke of 8:30, participants shivered through an explanation by Rep. Kevin Goodno (R-Moorhead) and Rep. Tim Pawlenty (R-Eagan) on how the Republicans had pared back the number of House committees from 32 to 27.

While the topic might put many audiences to sleep, this crowd paid rapt attention: Lobbyists earn their fees by figuring out where, when, and how decisions at the Capitol are made. "I think that the committee structure and the way bills will be handled in this House is completely different from the [DFL-controlled] system," fretted Metropolitan Council representative Eunice Groschen.

But as the morning wore on and participants moved from the auditorium to the phones in the hallway, it became clear that the study sessions were mere preliminaries. The main course was Steve Sviggum, scheduled to deliver a keynote address during lunch. Attendees took their time heading down the hallway, hoping for a precious minute alone with the speaker. Brian Bergson, representing the state government workers' union, strategically located himself in the hallway just outside the dining-room door.

At one point Bergson himself walked the hallways among lobbyists who were seeking to bend his ear--though the attention lavished on him came nowhere close to that paid to the man many consider the most powerful member of the House. Bergson was fresh out of the University of Minnesota in 1992, when he won the District 48A seat in northwest-suburban Osseo; a Republican beat him out the next election, but he never stopped haunting the Capitol halls. This session his client, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, is particularly interested in the Republican majority's plans to streamline state government.

"Everything is in the air, as far as lobbyists are concerned," Bergson explained. "It's hard to plan an attack when you have three different parties operating in three different branches." And when you're a relatively junior lobbyist--that is, not one of the folks who dine regularly with members of the leadership--you jump at any chance for face time, he added. "If you're bright and you're quick, you can get two to three minutes alone with the decision-makers."

And then the mothership arrived. The speaker-designate navigated the gauntlet in the hallway with regal poise, doling out handshakes and back-slaps like candy at a parade. As Sviggum passed the dining-room door, Bergson made his move.

"I'm glad it makes you nervous," Sviggum responded to the lobbyist's queries about government cutbacks. "I'm sure that for a lot of taxpayers it sounds about right." Then he was inside, talking about tax cuts and education funding as the audience munched rubbery chicken fettuccini. He made his exit quickly and without handshakes.

Back at the State Office Building a few days later, Peppin showed a visitor around his and Sviggum's new offices. An industrial-size dumpster sat in the middle of a hallway on the DFL-occupied fourth floor, ready to be filled with 12 years' worth of majority paperwork; staffers glanced suspiciously at Peppin as he motioned to the corner suite occupied, until recently, by Rep. Phil Carruthers (DFL-Brooklyn Center). When the building was renovated in the 1980s, Peppin explained, reigning DFLers added a few executive touches to their abode, including a full, private bath for the speaker's office. When Peppin and Sviggum, both runners, first visited the space, the discovery prompted an immediate reordering of legislative priorities: "Steve turned to me," Peppin recalls, "and joked: 'The first thing we're going to do is get that shower fixed.'"

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