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

Nick Vlcek

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.

 

"Anderson-Kelliher? She's just a big-city liberal."

"Rybak!? Are you kidding me? We'd love it if R.T. got the endorsement."

But the mere mention of Thissen's name caused an unsettled pause.

"Thissen...now that is one guy who is really about policy. He could be the dark horse for the Democrats."

That Thissen even had the nerve to run surprised many.

In the winter of 2007, when the political world focused on the fight between Hillary and Barack, he invited friends and peers over to his home in south Minneapolis one Saturday morning. In his living room, he floated his trial balloon about a possible run.

"He laid out his rationales," says Andrea Sachs, a history teacher at St. Paul Academy and a former classmate of Thissen's at Harvard. "A lot of it was the sense of utter despair people were having with Pawlenty. My first thought was, 'This is so awesome! He has to run.'"

Another person who was in the room that morning was Dan Larson, a former state representative from Bloomington. His work at the Capitol overlapped with Thissen's, and what he'd seen had impressed him.

"What strikes me the most about Paul is that he looks for solutions when the conventional solutions are not getting anywhere," Larson says. "He dissects issues in ways that allow for new ideas. He's just a really genuine person, someone to put your faith into. This is someone who could be a phenomenal governor."

Yet Thissen still has plenty more convincing to do. While he's made his way past the basement-dwellers of the field, there's plenty of tough sledding to obtain the DFL endorsement.

Among the doubters is Steven Schier, political scientist from Carleton College. He can't see Thissen nosing his way to the front of such a crowded field.

"He could be the dark horse," says Schier. "But there are a lot of very fast thoroughbreds in front of him. The idea they will all fall flat and Paul Thissen will get ahead is highly unlikely."

    

THE RAMADA INN NEAR THE MINNEAPOLIS-St. Paul Airport is an unlikely site for a power summit. The siren screams of landing airplanes echo outside its entrance, while the interior gives off a feeling of a place that hasn't changed since the 1980s. One half expects to see Dennis Hopper come bounding out of a room, high on inhalants.

On the second floor of the building is a space called the Miami Room, and one morning in late September, it saw all the DFL thoroughbreds gather to make their pitch for the AFL-CIO endorsement.

Standing outside the gaggle of candidates is Thissen's campaign manager, Gia Vitali. With a runner's build and an organized intellect, she studiously keeps her boss moving from event to event. In her hands this morning are Thissen's silver watch and his iPhone.

"He tends to play with them," she explains, like the mother of a problem child.

After a quick announcement, the candidates march into the banquet room and gradually find their way to the stage. Thissen finds his place in the far left seat, right next to Mayor R.T. Rybak.

For the next two hours, the candidates show off a range of oratorical skills. Sen. Tom Bakk speaks from the heart as a card-carrying union man, at times appearing on the edge of tears. Speaker Margaret Anderson-Kelliher talks up her rural roots, mentioning her ability to drive pontoon boats, tractors, and mini-vans. Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton expresses his wish to tax the rich by shouting into the microphone at close range, causing him to sound like a hog caller. And St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman sounds flat—no matter how hard he tries to lift his voice, it comes across like yogurt.

As for Thissen, he speaks with a succinct, nasal intonation, as though narrating a PBS documentary. He also has the bad luck of the draw to follow Rybak. While Thissen provides even-handed, calm, and rational answers to each question, Rybak launches into verbal flights of fancy. While Thissen lectures, Rybak serenades.

Of all the candidates on the stage, Thissen appears the most Minnesotan in his style, a trait not lost among the men and women who listen intently for the entire length of the forum. Many in attendance have met Thissen before, including John Collins, one of the security counselors he visited in St. Peter. Collins thought Thissen did well during his turn today, "but he didn't stand out. I'm concerned about him getting lost among the others for our endorsement."

 

After closing statements, the candidates milled about the crowd, working the room. Among them, Anderson-Kelliher appeared the most comfortable with the art of glad-handing. She lit up each conversation with a smile or a hug, talking to each person as though he were an old friend.

Thissen is more modest. He greets people with a warm smile, and immediately wants to know more about them. It's as though he were the family doctor.

Outside, under the dim gray of cloud cover and steady whirr of highway traffic, Thissen admits he's not the most bombastic of speakers. As he walks back to his Ford Escape Hybrid, he mentions that he experimented with rhetorical flourishes years ago, but decided to stick with his own style.

"The voters can see through all that," he says. "I realized I just have to stay authentic."

   

IN A TINY ROOM WITH A FALSE CEILING, INa squat brick building off 86th and Lyndale, Thissen sits behind a rusty card table.On it are stacks of call sheets and a telephone. Above him, the walls are barren, save for screw holes and a calendar permanently flipped to August.

At about 10:30 a.m., a jet-black field cricket wanders into the room, crawling among the boxes of "Thissen for Governor" stationary and looking as though it's about to give up hope. It settles underneath Thissen's beat-up desk chair, a good choice, as Thissen won't be moving from it for the next hour.

It's time to start calling potential donors and delegates, union members and legislators. Thissen exhales, looks down at the sheet in front of him and dials.

The sheet has the vitals of each constituent, an annotated list of contributions, giving history, and general background information. To Thissen's left is a campaign staffer assigned to keep him focused, constantly feeding him new sheets of people to call.

As it's a weekday morning, most of the calls go to voicemail. So Thissen leaves a rehearsed message, sometimes changing it up, but most of the time keeping to the script from his calls in the car. He's Paul Thissen. He wants to know how you're doing. He's traveling the state. He's been to 70 counties. He wants you to know the campaign is really going great. He'll be in your area and wants to meet up.

He makes three phone calls in four minutes. His speed would impress most telemarketers.

"These phones sometimes don't keep up with my fingers," he says.

But not all of the calls go smoothly. He reaches one person who immediately tells him life is not going well at all. In fact, it's going horribly wrong. So instead of continuing with the normal script, Thissen changes course.

"I was really calling just to check in and see how you are doing," he says.

It's a half-truth, but a better route to take. After a longer-than-usual conversation, Thissen hangs up the phone.

"Life can be tough sometimes," he says.

He takes a long exhale, pens in a note on his call list, and heads right back to another sheet.

"What you are seeing is the nitty gritty of campaigning," says Larry Jacobs, the noted political scientist from the U of M. "Running for state office is a blue-collar job. It's bone tiring. This is the reality of running for office."

Thissen (pronounced "T-Sun") isn't as recognizable a name as "Anderson," and he has had to overcome his disability with sweat equity.

"You can shake your head and say it's wrong that money and name recognition are more important than legislative skill, but they are important," says Jacobs. "Though it's not an ironclad rule. Through hard work and tenacity, and catching some breaks, a candidate like Thissen can overcome the odds. But having watched plenty of campaigns, Thissen is facing long odds."

About 45 minutes into today's round of calls, another staffer enters the room to relieve the first staffer of duty. The new staffer brings in a new notebook, filled with new names. She sits down on the still-warm seat, passes the notebook to Thissen, and the calls continue without pause.

The hour closes out as it started. After close to 50 calls, the first staff member returns to fetch Thissen. He has a meeting to go to, followed by preparation for a half-hour screening. Thissen stands, stretches out his back, and says, "Fascinating stuff, huh?"

   

LOOKING OUTSIDE THE WINDOW OF HIS Ford, Thissen watches low-lying clouds hover like a popcorn ceiling over U.S. 212. Along this rural stretch of pavement that bisects large swaths of farmland, grain silos and gigantic red pole barns tower like castles, and hawks perch atop fence posts like sentinels, watching diesel trucks rumble by.

From the passenger's seat, Thissen continues his endless round of phone calls. As Thissen talks about his campaign with another batch of potential delegates, he clicks his mechanical pen with a steady ticka-ticka, ticka-ticka.

 

Beside him is yet another staffer, Matthew Bergeron, a second-year law student at William Mitchell. The two are on their way to a pig roast at Biscay Liquor and Grill, a local bar and community hall in Biscay, a town that's five blocks long.

Bergeron guides his boss's Ford into the parking lot, which is crowded with vehicles bearing Franken stickers on their bumpers. While this is a reliably red district, the DFL still has a strong showing.

Inside the meeting room, elderly couples sit patiently behind tables angled to face two life-sized cardboard cutouts of President Obama and Vice President Biden.

Thissen walks into the room with a big smile. He has on a crisp blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. No tie today. None needed. The folks here wear polo shirts and jeans, hunting caps and Carhartts.

Almost all the DFL candidates have shown up to give their best stump speech. When Sen. Tom Bakk finishes, he passes the stage onto Thissen, who lends it to Steve Kelley, and on and on and on.

It's here where the candidates start to show their annoyance with each other. As Matt Entenza addresses the group, Speaker Anderson-Kelliher smiles from the back and leans in to whisper, "You're going to have a lot of fun doing a fact-check on what he says...."

Among the attendees is Jean Hassinger, wife of McLeod County's party chair. She's busy serving up fresh trays of brownies and cookies, luring candidates to the food table with her homemade goodies. Beside the sweets is a large crock full of pulled pork, another with barbecued meatballs, a basket of buns, and a jug full of oil-thick coffee.

Moans echo off the walls of the bar. The Gopher football team is putting forth a losing effort toward archrival Wisconsin, and the fans are not happy.

It's in the bar where Thissen escapes to watch the end of the game with Marie Thurn, a woman who works in animal rescue. He has her sign up on his campaign contact sheet.

She can be assured that Thissen will follow up with her. He always does.

On the way out of Biscay, Thissen assesses the success of the pig roast.

"I thought it went well," he says. "People told me I have a gubernatorial presence. But many there told me about losing their work. I just wish I had a better answer for that. With this economy, it's tough. Part of what I can do right now is empathize with them."

   AFTER A WRONG ADDRESS LEADS TO A DEAD end, the car pulls into the Darwin Rod and Gun Club, a small meeting hall alongside Turtle Lake. Inside the gun club, the scent of chili wafts through the air; the cooks were up early, allowing their creations to simmer in crocks. On the walls is a collection of framed Migratory Bird Hunting stamps dating back to 1935, paired with a collection of Miller High Life wildlife-themed mirrors.

Thissen moves through the crowd while sipping a Diet Coke. Most of the folks he's met before on a previous visit to the area. Among them is Clark Gustafson, director of Meeker County Social Services. The person the DFL elects will have a direct impact on his life. Picking a favorite will be tough.

"It's hard because they're all so good," he says.

In a matter of minutes the remaining candidates arrive. Soon everyone is inhaling spoonfuls of chili, smiling and make small talk. When it comes time for the stump speeches, Thissen leads off.

He talks to the group about the ability of Minnesota to become an exceptional state once again, how he will work to return it to the state that was once an example for the nation, and how he doesn't believe people care about the details of work inside the Capitol, they just want to know something is being done.

The audience applauds, and Rybak is quickly called to follow. Rybak smiles out at the crowd, thanks them for the welcome, and immediately takes a jab at Thissen. "Now, I don't agree with Paul. I think people want to know what is happening. In Minneapolis...."

Thissen hears the diss, but he's already preparing to leave. Because he arrived early, he's already met everyone in the room and wants to get a jump on his next stop, Osseo.

On his way back out to the Ford, he talks to Bergeron about Rybak's remark.

"It's okay. I finally got to him," he says.

In the car he elaborates. He doesn't think much of the speeches that Rybak and others give, trumpeting the idea that if given the opportunity to control the state budget, they'd do wonders.

 

"I mean...the budget of Minneapolis is only $1.4 billion. My health committee alone has a two-year budget of $11 billion," he says. "And that budget is infinitely more complex. I don't know why Rybak thinks his management of Minneapolis's budget is such an accomplishment."

For Thissen, budget management is a personal issue. Prior to the 2008 legislative session, he sat on the floor of his family room alone with stacks of papers divided into piles around him. Each pile represented a portion of the Health and Human Services budget. On top was a spreadsheet, detailing the exact amount of funding a particular service received. Over the course of several days, he spent hours poring over the numbers with a calculator. He had a lofty goal of crafting a bill that would provide universal health care for all children in Minnesota. And he had to structure it in a way that would get through the anti-tax veto of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"It was really just a way of making existing money go further, and taking down barriers that prevent children from receiving care," he says, as though it's no big thing.

His wife, Karen, recalls the nights her husband spent in the family room with the budget. Every so often, she'd hear him shout, "I got it! I got it!"

"I joked with the kids that Daddy was having another eureka moment," she says.

The end result of his budget examination was the passage of the Children's Health Security Act. To this day, 40,000 children have received health care because of the number-crunching he did on the floor of his home.

"It's easily, easily the greatest accomplishment I've made at the Capitol," he says.

   

THE FINAL STOP OF THE NIGHT IS AT THE VFW in Osseo for a barn dance. It's dark outside as Thissen walks toward the entrance. People inside greet him warmly. They're clad in cowboy hats and denim, with bandanas around their necks and beer breath wafting from their mouths.

At the front of the long meeting hall is a string band atop a stage; behind them are cardboard cutouts of Michelle and Barack Obama, each wearing a cowboy hat. To the sides of the stage are several bales of hay.

For this event, the candidates have 90 seconds to stump, a time limit welcomed by all. To add Western flavor to the speeches, a female roper in high-waist denim stands to the side and twirls a lasso around her head as time winds down. If the candidates go over their time, she sends the rope their way.

Thissen is the last to go, and he speeds through his speech. People applaud and then get down to more important work: dancing. Soon enough a group snakes through the crowd hand-in-hand, grabbing Thissen to join in. The dance line ends in a circle at the front of the room, and a caller begins to bark out dance instructions with a do-si-do beat: "Promenade. Promenade. Spin left. Spin left. Promenade."

Thissen's face is a mix of hesitation and concentration. But when the first song ends he stays on the floor for another, and another after that. After a half-hour of dancing, he makes his way back to work the room and quips, "That's the best type of dancing, the one where they tell you what to do."

Soon enough, candidates begin to exit. The day was long and there's another full slate scheduled for tomorrow. Only a handful stay for the announcement of the straw poll results—Thissen takes fourth place, tied with "undecided."

As Thissen says his goodbyes and walks back to the car, he fields one last call. It's from his wife, and the conversation is short: He'll be home in half an hour. He slides his phone off, and for a brief moment, drifts entirely into his head.


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