Minnesota lobbyists rank Twin Cities legislators
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.
"Linda is the single most effective legislator in the Minnesota Legislature," says one lobbyist. "She knows more and accomplishes more in the single most complicated area the Legislature deals with—healthcare—than any other three legislators combined."
Insiders say she is the most feared and respected legislator at the Capitol. She takes a no-nonsense approach to her work.
"Amazing grasp of the budget, history, and impact on real people," says another lobbyist.
This session has Berglin aiming to reduce the cost of state healthcare. Potential solutions include a move to discourage the overuse of cesarean section deliveries and efforts to trim provider reimbursement rates for federal Medicaid dollars.
"Like healthcare?" one lobbyist asks rhetorically. "Thank Linda."
Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 8.1
The triathlete from Minneapolis began his political life as an advocate for gay and lesbian rights. While the issue remains critical to Dibble's political framework, he's widened his focus over the years and become a critical voice inside the Capitol on a number of different issues.
The bills he's entered this session exemplify his diversity, from regulations about the selling of cocoa-bean-shell mulch to waiving the $50 to $100 testing fee on the state GED for homeless folks.
"He can grasp a huge amount of information quickly," says one lobbyist. "He's also very eloquent; I love to hear him in committee."
His signature bill this session would amend the state anti-bullying law, adding 14 categories aimed at prohibiting harassment, intimidation, and violence. He's used all his skills to get it through, without increasing monetary cost, something legislators are avoiding out of necessity this session.
"One of the most effective legislators at moving key legislation while maintaining his progressive values," says one respondent.
"Rising star," adds another.
Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 7.9
Davnie chairs the Labor and Consumer Protection Division Committee, but the former social studies teacher isn't myopically focused on just one issue.
"He is able to spread thinner and be successful," explains one lobbyist. "He's fast and thinks quick. Sometimes it's hard to get a word in. He's firing on all eight cylinders all the time."
Davnie received high marks for his ability to build coalitions on a multitude of issues. This year he's focused on foreclosure policy and tenant rights as well as sponsoring a bill that further regulates payday lending.
The lobby does admit to one annoyance: his love of playing partisan politics.
"Eighty percent of the Twin Cities legislators are over-partisan," avows one lobbyist. "He tends to get that way on the floor."
Sen. Mee Moua (DFL)
District 67—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 7.9
Moua entered the political scene with fanfare. She's the first Hmong American elected to a state Legislature and, according to lobbyists, might be the smartest legislator at the Capitol.
Moua completed her undergrad degree at Brown, went on to receive a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Texas-Austin, and earned her law degree from the University of Minnesota. She chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has proven to be a quick study.
"Not many legislators have grown into their role as much as Senator Moua has grown since first being elected," says one lobbyist. "She is a true stateswoman."
Sen. Lawrence Pogemiller (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 8.2
Vain. Slippery. Ruthless. Sneaky. Arrogant. All these adjectives were used to describe the Senate majority leader.
To some, partisan bickering is an annoyance, getting in the way of the business of enacting law, but Pogemiller seems to relish the knife-fighting.
"Can be a bully—I've seen him make other legislators cry in public," wrote one lobbyist.
This year, he's sharpening his saber over the budget. That means a battle over taxes with Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pogemiller leads the DFL in its effort to raise taxes on the richest Minnesotans. Insiders also note that the Senate's budget plan is mostly Pogemiller's.
Aside from his brutish tactics, lobbyists point to his smarts as the reason he's climbed the legislative ladder over the years. He's adept at using the press as his mouthpiece. It's hard not to include one of his signature one-liners in a story.
Yet some question the effectiveness of his rhetoric. One lobbyist thinks he's out of touch with greater Minnesota.
"If stopping T-Paw was the name of the game, he would truly rule the roost," says a lobbyist. "Unfortunately, government is a little more complicated than that."
Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL)
District 64A—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 7.8
It's easy to like Erin Murphy. The Irish Catholic from St. Paul commits herself to policy over politicking. Her former life as an operating-room nurse gives her an accurate read on the pulse of healthcare policy.
She's introducing a dozen or more bills looking to improve the system this session. They include ideas to change the way flu vaccinations are administered, and the licensing of respiratory therapists.
"Absolutely a rising star," says a lobbyist. "Never seen her without a smile. The way she responds and treats people is outstanding. She is amazingly effective."
With the benefit of people skills, she continues to hone her political chops. The lobby views her as a future leader of the House.
"Smart, works hard, and pleasant. The rare trifecta in legislators," says a lobbyist.
Sen. Ellen R. Anderson (DFL)
District 66—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 7.5
Paul Wellstone lives! His progressive mission continues with former volunteers like Anderson, a research director for his 1990 campaign.
Like her late boss, Anderson had to fight to gain respect. "She started out running into the ol' boys' club," recalls one lobbyist. "But she worked her tail off and paid her dues."
As chair of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division, she acts as a point person on energy issues. In 2007, her reform-oriented energy legislation was hailed by the DFL as one of the major accomplishments of the session. But her predilection for renewable resources has some still questioning her willingness to work with big industry.
"Focused on saving the earth and that is about it. Well intended, but..." sniffs one lobbyist.
Thanks to the voter-approved Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, she's the rare legislator this session who has money to spend.
"A formidable member," says a lobbyist. "She knows what she wants."
Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 7.5
Representative Wagenius is the greenest of legislators. She chairs the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, and could be mistaken for Mother Nature.
And the inconvenient truths of her policy command both respect and revulsion in the Capitol.
"She is tough, not receptive to certain audiences, but receptive to logical arguments," says a lobbyist.
Her motherly instincts extend to new colleagues, and she's the first to take newbies under her wing. "She has worked very hard to help to develop other legislators," explains a lobbyist. "She does not just think about developing her power but rather empowering others to lead in the future."
When voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, the money was supposed to boost conservation efforts. Instead, some of her colleagues are thinking the extra cash can allow cuts.
Which means Gaia better get her game face on.
Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL)
District 64—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 6.7
There's a quiet kid in every class. But every once in while there's a quiet kid who carries more punch than the burliest of bullies. Senator Cohen, the silent chair of the Finance Committee, is that kid.
"Dick is one of those guys who is not in a top leadership position, but has a lot of power," says a lobbyist. "He is the consummate operator."
Cohen is also a movie buff and has a Blagojevich-worthy mop. He's on a mission this session to overcome the historic budget deficit. So he's flexing all his muscle this session, going up against the mighty anti-tax governor.
"Not a lot of people mention him, but he is a hard worker and knows state finance phenomenally well," says another lobbyist. "Soft spoken. Carries a big stick and knows how to use it."
Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 7.1
Don't mess with a woman whose glasses would fit right in on a Friday night at the Triple Rock. Kahn continues to represent the most progressive views of the Legislature, and keeps journalists happy with story-ready bills.
This year they included hemp production, legalization of liquor sales on Sundays, booze on Augsburg College's campus, gender-neutral marriage law, lowering the voting age to 16 in local elections, opening the state to sports gambling, and a California style of stopping at intersections for bicyclists.
Like Barry Bonds in his late career, Kahn drops bombs. And lobbyists seem amused, saying she's always good for a wing-bat moment.
"From marrying cousins to stealing literature, the word 'crackpot' seems apt," says a lobbyist. "The shame is that the seat could provide the DFL the ability to add some new blood with new ideas for the state."
But the aging veteran still has plenty of firepower left. As one lobbyist notes: "Phyllis knows where every body is buried and how to work the system. Very effective."
Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL)
District 66B—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 6.8
The good Democrat from St. Paul has long been an advocate for public transportation, and one lobbyist noted that she's finally seeing results.
"Hausman is a public-transit guru."
She chairs the Capital Investment Finance Division Committee, which has taken over her life. "It's a huge responsibility," says a lobbyist. "She tries to be reasonable, but it's very stressful. She's pretty much living and being her job."
Hausman also found herself having to tiptoe on the topic of sulfide mining. She wants to make sure mine owners cough up the necessary insurance and don't spit pollution into the ecosystem. This position pits her against business interests in the Iron Range, who see her as a hindrance to industrial growth.
"Her constituents love her," says a lobbyist. "When she takes on an issue, she has plenty of conviction."
That's good news for supporters of the high-speed rail line to St. Paul—Hausman has jumped on board.
Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 7.0
Every lobbyist has their favorite, and Representative Hornstein was on the top of many lists. But it was more for his humor than his political acumen—the man is a walking SNL skit.
"Frank's an incredibly hilarious storyteller," says one lobbyist.
"He understands the importance of politics growing from the grassroots," says another, before quickly adding: "He is also probably the funniest member of the House."
Hornstein's impersonation of Jesse Ventura is a Capitol favorite. But his impersonation of Paul Wellstone is so accurate it's eerie.
"He has never been cross with anyone," says a lobbyist. "It's miraculous. Never caught him being cranky."
Sen. Patricia Torres Ray (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 7.1
The jury is still out on the Colombian-born senator who made her name as a tireless fighter for people of color.
Her background offers a viewpoint few others can provide. On a proposed law to make it illegal to smoke in a car with children, she made sure the legislators knew it could be used as a way to ask Latinos about their immigration status, simply for smoking.
Lobbyists say she is fearless on behalf of her constituents, and "bird-dogs" the opposition. "She has the potential to be good," says one lobbyist.
But she frustrates many, ignoring dissenting views.
"Doesn't know a lot and refuses to meet with lobbyists that do," complains one. "A perfect combination for an uninformed senator."
Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL)
District 64B—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 6.1
After a stint on the City Council in Duluth, Paymar moved down to St. Paul and was elected to the House, not an easy feat in the provincial city.
While still relatively fresh to the scene, he's carving out a niche as an independent thinker who can handle close political combat.
"Paymar is pretty effective," says one lobbyist. "He's a trench fighter. Very tough and determined. He digs in and hangs tough and gets what he sets out to achieve."
His relatively low ranking may be a result of his relatively low profile. One lobbyist said Paymar doesn't typically call attention to himself.
But this year he's changing that by introducing some legislation with heat. His bills include: expanding the open alcohol container law to include certain off-road recreational vehicles, modifying provisions on the transfer of pistols or semiautomatic military-style assault weapons, and a statewide moratorium on new billboards.
He also co-authored the Freedom to Breathe Act. One lobbyist said the easiest way to piss off Paymar is to light a cigarette in front of him.
Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 7.1
This session has been tough sledding for Loeffler: Healthcare and human services policy is her focus, and those areas are threatened with a cut exceeding $1 billion. That means Loeffler must do the unpopular work of restructuring budget programs, including those that help disabled children.
No matter what happens this session, Loeffler will battle it out. Lobbyists say her work ethic is top-notch. "She's a bulldog," says one lobbyist. "If she is working on an issue, she is passionate about it, she's inexhaustible. Works really hard."
The question is: Will she adapt enough to live up to her full potential? As one lobbyist put it: "If she had people skills, she could be a leader."
Rep. John Lesch (DFL)
District 66A—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 6.4
Lesch received high marks for his intelligence, if not his personality. "Very bright, but diplomacy can be a challenge at times," says one lobbyist.
It's his ego that annoys some. "Not nearly as smart as he thinks he is," says one lobbyist.
After giving glowing reviews of every other legislative member of the Twin Cities, one lobbyist said, "You want one bad guy: John Lesch. You don't know where he's coming from. Not a hardworking guy."
On his Facebook page, Lesch says he enjoys the music of Third Eye Blind and Tegan and Sara, the latter of which shows good taste. He fancies himself an unpublished poet, an unemployed philosopher, and an unrepentant pragmatist—and that comes from his campaign site.
Lobbyists seem to think he needs to bone up on the process. If that doesn't happen, says one respondent, he'll remain "the most disliked member of the St. Paul delegation."
Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL)
District 67A—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 6.8
The workingman's legislator has had to climb the ladder of politics. It's a tough feat, and he's still trying to surmount it.
"I've seen him with a suit and tie or with a welding torch and lunch can," says one lobbyist. "He didn't get holed as a labor hack."
Behind the scenes, Mahoney is focused on reform in workers' compensation. But his most public issue is his proposal involving $33 million to create "The Pond," a 120,000-square-foot, three-level hockey palace.
"He has the reputation of thinking he knows everything, and this always seems true to me," says one lobbyist. "There is an air of superiority when you talk to him, and not the good kind."
Still, many lobbyists say he runs a good committee, and unlike some others inside the Capitol, continues to grow in his skills as a legislator.
Rep. Sheldon Johnson (DFL)
District 67B—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 6.6
The chair of the Telecommunications Regulation and Infrastructure Division Committee is a quiet man—maybe a little too quiet. Some lobbyists worry he's falling asleep at the switch. "He's a low-energy guy," says one.
Johnson did attach his name to a hemp production bill, along with dozens of other legislators. For Johnson, that's like ordering a second round of Wondrous Punch at the Red Dragon.
"He's very quiet, but very thoughtful," says a lobbyist. "He thinks through his subjects. He delves into the topic. But he doesn't go out and brag about it and boast about it. He doesn't introduce a whole lot, but whatever he votes on, he know what it means."
Another lobbyist thinks Johnson lacks strong control of his own committee. Pressed for more details, the the tipster offered: "I'll just say the chair does not rule with an iron fist in that committee."
Sen. Sandra Pappas (DFL)
District 65—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 6.5
Pappas is known as a feisty and determined legislator who chairs the Higher Education committee. She doesn't give up on issues important to her, and insiders say she knows how to use her power within the St. Paul delegation.
But some wish she'd incorporate street smarts into her political repertoire.
"Call it tenacious or call it stubborn, but Sandy has a bit of a blind side to reality on getting some of her bills passed," says a lobbyist.
Pappas caught flak early this session for a tone-deaf move: In a time when receiving bonuses and extra pay are akin to beating a small puppy, Pappas took home $16,416 in per diem pay last year, the most of any Senate member—this from someone who has the Capitol in her backyard.
"Politically savvy, but not a deep thinker," says a lobbyist.
Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 6.6
While the budget is the 500-pound gorilla this session, everybody knows something must be done to stanch the foreclosures across the state. Senator Higgins is one legislator who gives special attention to the issue, representing a district that includes north Minneapolis.
She didn't receive high marks from the lobby, but that may be becasue she's made no secret of her disdain for them.
"I've seen her take lobbyists to task," says one.
Others offer a different take, viewing her as a warhorse. "Well respected by both parties and is definitely an emerging leader," says one lobbyist.
One of her signature projects is a planetarium atop the central library in downtown Minneapolis. It remains to be seen whether she'll be among the stars.
Rep. Cy Thao (DFL)
District 65A—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 5.9
On his campaign website, the Laotion-born Hmong American brags about his Eagle Scout ranking, but some lobbyists think he could use a refresher course on his work-ethic merit badge.
"The laziest legislator in the house," says a lobbyist.
Other than that, the lobby didn't have much to say about Rep. Thao. He's not a major player, unless you care about laws regarding barrel use when baiting bears. Thao is one of the few urban legislators who can handle a rifle.
"A wry sense of humor," says one lobbyist. "Gotten some stuff through."
Big changes will occur to his district when construction starts for the Central Corridor light rail. Of the few lobbyists familiar with him, one said he's close to his community and listens to their concerns. So at the very least, they have someone to hear their thoughts as the huge infrastructure project rumbles through their backyard.
Rep. Karen Clark (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 6.9
The list of bills Representative Clark introduced this session reads like a progressive manifesto: women's economic development, community-organization funding, prostitution prevention and tougher penalties for pimps, culturally based chemical dependency services. She's also looking into how the state can use stimulus money to improve low-income housing.
Lobbyists say Clark has a heart of gold, but they're not so sure about her brain.
"She's not really in touch with reality," says a lobbyist. "Wants to pass something but doesn't take into context the unexpected outcomes. She's a bit naive, but pure of heart."
Others take off their kid gloves when asked about Clark. "No one has been here longer and learned and done less," says a lobbyist.
"Crushes any dissenting views," adds another.
"Forgets there is real impact to her crazy ideas."
She's a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School, and her views are safely in line with Minneapolis constituents', one lobbyist noted. But those views, at times, should be weighed against the welfare of the state. Says a lobbyist, "Her blind ideology keeps her from being an effective legislator."
Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL)
District 65B—St. Paul
WORK ETHIC 5.9
The chair of the K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee came into the media crosshairs early this session when he pushed for a bill allowing students to graduate even if they don't pass state tests.
Mariani has been a supporter of medical marijuana. And one lobbyist said he's extremely dedicated to people who are denied equal opportunity. Another noted he is one of the few legislators who challenges his colleagues to talk about racial issues.
The problem, it seems, is that he has his blinders on.
"Narrow interests," says a lobbyist.
Rep. Jeff Hayden (DFL) District 61B—Minneapolis (rookie)
WORK ETHIC 5.9
One of the few legislators without a formal education (though he plans to finish his B.A. in communications in the fall), Representative Hayden prepped at the city level under Councilman Gary Schiff and is already being tagged as a future leader. Affordable housing is his issue.
"He will be an effective and loved legislator," predicts one lobbyist.
"Seems very sharp indeed," says a lobbyist. "Time will tell."
Rep. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL)
District 58B—Minneapolis (rookie)
WORK ETHIC 6.6
The first-year representative is one to watch. Many lobbyists gave him modest scores only because he's new to the game.
"Promising," says one lobbyist. "But still learning the ropes."
Champion lives up to his surname when it comes to civil rights. That's where he cut his political teeth. He's the director of the Excelsior Gospel Choir and serves as a vice chair on the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee. One lobbyist noted he's a natural orator.
"Appears smart," says a lobbyist. "We'll see how he does."
"Too early to tell with him," adds another. "But could be good."
Sen. Ken Kelash (DFL)
District 63 - Minneapolis (rookie)
WORK ETHIC 5.1
Kelash hasn't made much of an impression during his brief time in the Capitol. "Who?" and "too new to tell" were repeated phrases among the lobby when approached with his name.
So to give the world an introduction: Kelash is a retired carpenter who went to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He has a Master's in Public Administration. He's probably adept with a table saw.
One lobbyist who actually met him gave him a decent review. "No one knows him. He has a right to be cautious as a freshman senator. He struck me to be very thoughtful and intelligent. And he is very connected to the labor world."
Rep. Joe Mullery (DFL)
WORK ETHIC 5.0
Love is left behind when Capitol insiders air their opinions of Mullery:
"By far the worst legislator on this list," says a lobbyist.
"Sloppy, lost; is he a really a lawyer?" asks another. "Terrible policymaker."
"Can't get his own bills out of the committee he chairs. District 58A must have someone better than this," says a lobbyist.
"Another dinosaur that sits comfortably in his safe seat, and merely prevents reform and legislation to help Minnesota progress."
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