You may not know Ann Lenczewski, but you'd like her. Most everyone does. Through nine terms in the Minnesota House, the Bloomington Democrat was a tireless, whip-smart leader for liberal tax laws.
She was the strongest, smartest voice behind the jacking of income tax for the richest Minnesotans when even fellow Democrats were nervous that it would drive CEOs from our borders.
Lenczewski stood firm. And she was right. Those businesses are still here — and thriving. So is the state, which should have a $1 billion surplus next year.
But you can stop liking Ann Lenczewski next month, when she stops working for you and starts working for whoever can afford her hourly rate. She's leaving office, mid-term, to join Lockridge Grindal Nauen as a lobbyist.
Lenczewski used to cast a cynical eye on the blizzard of proposals that help corporations cut their own taxes while making you pick up the slack. She was wary when plucky "local businesses" like the Minnesota Vikings and Mayo Clinic came to the Capitol with their hands out.
That good work is coming to an end.
Dozens of former legislators now troll the Capitol as lobbyists, having cashed in a past life on the public's dime for a more comfortable one on the corporate dollar. The best lawmakers, like Lenczewski, have spent years toiling for the public good, working long hours for about $38,000 a year. Lobbying is their insiders' version of a retirement plan, a six-figure parachute.
Lockridge's stable already counts a former lawmaker and a handful of senior staffers. But Lenczewski's connections mean she'll be a rainmaker from the moment her phone's plugged in.
"Ann is probably going to be successful in getting us new clients," says Ted Grindal, the firm's lead lobbyist.
Grindal's client list offers a guide to who they will be: Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, and the state dental lobby.
Earlier this year, Lenczewski railed against a huge corporate property tax cut that conservatives pushed as a boon for "small businesses." She argued that it was exactly the opposite, benefiting companies like Target, Walmart, and Best Buy, which have the biggest real estate footprint in this state.
That bill's still on the table, and will be picked back up in March. No one knows it better than Lenczewski.
Big business would be foolish not to buy her connections. Any company that's begging for its own little wrinkle in the tax code — some break on a new office, a warehouse, or soccer stadium built without paying those annoying taxes — will come calling in January.
If you want a carve-out, you want Ann Lenczewski holding the knife.
Lenczewski says she's "open, within limits" to working on behalf of clients whose wish lists she once cut to ribbons. But don't be surprised if her new friends read like a rolodex of the Fortune 500. As you may be aware, the little people can't afford personal lobbyists.
There's nothing in law to prevent this. The Minnesota House has a one-year "cooling off" period, but that rule ridiculously applies only to people who are still in office. It's like your parents asking you not to drink underage — until you leave the house.
"This idea comes up a lot, but the Minnesota Legislature has never passed a law that says nobody can do that," Lenczewski says.
It should. And this, the most egregious instance in recent memory, should be the reason why.
If the DFL regains control of the House next year, Lenczewski will have the ear of Paul Thissen, the new boss. Thissen, who represents Minneapolis, says Lenczewski was his "best friend" in the Capitol, and credited her with knowing "when people are trying to bullshit her."
She's not the only one with a nose for dung. What Lenczewski's doing is perfectly legal, but it "stinks," says Javier Morillo, president of the SEIU Local 26 union.
"If it was someone from the other side, if it was a Republican doing this, people would be howling," he adds.
Not everyone's cut out for lobbying, but the best former lawmakers make for the best lobbyists, says Bernie Hesse, lead government guy for UFCW Local 1189 union. What happens when they join the dark side?
"We lose," says Hesse.
That usually means some rich guy's paying less in taxes, and the rest of us are kicking in to make up the difference.
We've lost already in this case. Ann Lenczewski is now available to the highest bidder she can stomach, instead of everyone who can't afford her help.
And who wouldn't want her help? She's smart. She's funny. People like her.
Even as I talked to her, questioning what she was saying and doubting some of her statements, I was drawn in by her personality. She made me laugh. She made me want to believe her.
She's going to be great at her new job.
If you're looking to retain Ann for the spring, but have difficulty with those Polish last names, it's pronounced Len-che-skee. That "w" at the end is silent. Just like the one at the beginning of the word wrong.
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