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Designs on higher office: a Q&A with architect-candidates Ray Dehn and Matt Dean

GOP state Rep. Matt Dean, DFL state Rep. Ray Dehn
Photos are by Scott Amundson
Republican state Rep. Matt Dean and DFL state Rep. Ray Dehn discussed the unique design-thinking and problem-solving skills they bring to elected office.

DFL state Rep. Ray Dehn is a prominent candidate for mayor of Minneapolis. GOP state Rep. Matt Dean is a top candidate for Minnesota governor in 2018. While their political views may be widely divergent, they share more than similar-sounding names. Their training and experience in architecture unites them, and it also sets them apart. AIA Minnesota President Meredith Hayes Gordon sat down with the two legislators to talk about the unique design-thinking and problem-solving skills they bring to elected office.

Meredith Hayes Gordon: It’s really exciting that, for the first time in history, there are two architecturally trained individuals running for the most prominent positions in Minnesota government: governor and mayor of Minneapolis. How might you work together come 2019 — if Ray were mayor and Matt were governor?

Matt Dean: Well, if it doesn’t work out for me, maybe you could appoint me to your administration, Ray. We could work together, right?

Ray Dehn: It’s interesting because we have worked together. I think of housing, where we changed some of the standards and regulations, and my biggest obstacle wasn’t Republican house members; it was DFL house members. There are opportunities. The relationship between the governor’s office and the mayor’s office in Minneapolis is critical for our state. Rural Minnesota won’t do well if Minneapolis isn’t doing well, and Minneapolis won’t do well if greater Minnesota isn’t doing well. 

If Matt becomes governor and I become mayor, we’re not going to agree on everything because we haven’t at the state Capitol. But I believe that we’ll be able to have important conversations — to figure things out where others may not be able to.

Dean: We’ve got a very good relationship. We can give each other a hard time, and we can work together. We disagree agreeably. You can get around some thorny areas if you’ve got a relationship to lean on.

And I agree that our state is not going to be strong unless we have a strong Minneapolis and a strong St. Paul. We cannot pit the Twin Cities against greater Minnesota or regional centers. 

Dehn: In many ways, politics does come down to relationships. It’s understanding who people are, what their stories are, what motivates them to run for public office and to choose public service. Nearly everybody is there because they feel a need to make a difference. And that’s true whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent. I mean, running for office isn’t easy. It can be really, really hard.

Hayes Gordon: Architecture school kind of trains you for that, right? Architecture school’s not easy. 

Dehn: You know, architecture school trains you to separate yourself — you, the person — from what your product is. When you’re doing a project for studio, you pour your heart and soul and all your passion into it, but at some point you have to step back and say, “Now it’s no longer mine. It belongs to others.” And I think that’s one of the reasons why education and training to be an architect prepares you well for public office.

Dean: And you burn the midnight oil. You’ve got to do that. If you’re just getting warmed up at about 1:30 a.m. and everybody else is dropping off. . . . It’s amazing how much you can get done if everyone else is asleep.

Dehn: Absolutely.

Dean: I think there’s a lot of crossover. Back in my second year of architecture school, I was working on a project and I just couldn’t get the scheme to work out. I trashed it and started over. I was a little bit behind for a while, and my professor said, “I’m going to raise your grade on this because you did the right thing—you threw it away.” And I’ve thought of that as a legislator. There are times when you realize it’s just not gonna work and you have to start over.

Dehn: Matt’s right — it really does transfer. Because in politics and policy you have to try new things. Sometimes those new things aren’t successful, and you need to be able to recognize it and say, “OK, I think we’re done with that. Let’s try something different.”

Dean: I’ve found that it’s a very smooth transition from the practice of architecture to legislating. We define our profession by problem-solving. We describe a “program” [the statement of a client’s project requirements] as a problem, and we apply solutions to that problem — which is what you do in the Legislature. It’s a problem set.

When you’re designing and constructing a building, you have to get a bunch of people who don’t agree with each other, who have conflicting agendas, to get something done — and by a particular date, for a specific amount of money. That’s exactly what we do.

Dehn: With architecture, you start with a blank slate. Then you have some ideas and you have some parameters within which you have to work. Then you move forward and you get input. Other people say, “This is working,” or “This isn’t working,” and they make suggestions for what you might change.

I’ve yet to see a bill or a piece of policy that’s been perfect when it’s introduced. Usually, it changes along the way. So being flexible to that change but at the same time considering the original intent of what it is you’re trying to do …

Hayes Gordon: Holding to the concept, the original diagram.

Architecture MNDehn: Right — that stays there so that what you started off trying to accomplish is actually what happens in the end. And getting a wide range of stakeholders involved is a fascinating process, both in architecture and in making policy. When I think about being mayor of Minneapolis, that’s what I think about — getting people in a place where they might see something that they didn’t see before. Ultimately, the issues we’re addressing are really complex.

Dean: So it’s very transferable — a lot more transferable, in my view, than the legal profession, for example. The nature and rigor of our training has probably served both of us pretty well.

Hayes Gordon: When did you hear the call of public service, and what really sparked that drive to get into politics? 

Dehn: In 2001, I moved to North Minneapolis and got engaged in the community. I worked on the late Paul Wellstone’s last campaign, and over the years I continued to be active as a volunteer on campaigns. 

But that call really came in 2009 when I was at a convention and the keynote speaker was Angela Davis. She asked everybody in the auditorium who had a felony record to stand up, and I stood up. Then I went to a session where they talked about the difficulty that people with criminal records have getting jobs —what an impediment it was to them succeeding in life. Afterward, I came to grips with the pardon I had received in 1982.

It was time to talk about my past and to talk about a new context for criminal justice. We have to create pathways for people who are convicted of crimes to succeed.

So that was when running for public office was something that came to the forefront for me. Probably very different from what Matt would say.

Dean: For me, I got involved with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce. They have a program for young professionals called Leadership St. Paul, which weaves together public policy and business. I had never really had a lot of experience with that kind of thing. I had worked for a small firm in college, and for a small firm after graduating, and then I started a small firm. Representing clients to city councils and planning boards, I got a little bit more experience with government. And then I got involved with helping candidates, and that’s kind of where I started down that path.

I did think that if I juggled stuff I could do all of it — and I was completely wrong.

Hayes Gordon: Do you still practice architecture?

Dean: I don’t. When I started the firm, I worked with another architect, Greg Caroll. When I ran for the legislature and won, he took over my projects. I billed time as I could. But, tragically, Greg passed away when he was still very young. After that, I got involved in leadership at the legislature, and it became more of a full-time position. So I’m no longer practicing. I miss it. I do want to get back to it someday.

Hayes Gordon: Apparently, it’s a profession you can do until you die, yes? 

Dean: Yeah, that’s my goal.

Dehn: That’s happened for a lot of architects.

Hayes Gordon: We just can’t quit for some reason; architecture becomes part of who we are. I like what you said, Ray, about helping people uncover things that they wouldn’t have seen as solutions; about having an open mind when it comes to new ideas. Architects are also trained to be systems thinkers. We’re constantly jumping back and forth between the tiny detail and the overall vision for the project. 

Dehn: You’re right — and it’s not just thinking about the systems as they exist; it’s the systems and how they intersect, how they overlap. This is critical when I think about the issues around housing. Employment is important to housing, because if people don’t have jobs to afford housing, it doesn’t work. And transportation comes into play for people to get to and from their jobs. And for people to do well, their homes need to be in a safe environment. So it’s all those systems — not in isolation, but in how they overlap. It’s just like in a building, where you have the structural system, the building envelope, the mechanical and electrical systems — they all have to work in order for the building to work. You know that if one system is failing it hurts the whole building. With housing and transportation, it hurts the whole city. 

Looking for those areas where synergies exist, you get a much larger impact. 

Dean: I think from an overall systems standpoint, the political process itself is very broken. It has degraded into dividing into two groups and seeing what happens. If turns out well, you take credit for it, and if it doesn’t, you blame the other side and use it to run against them. And boy are people tired of that. Having an authentic vision and being able to get people behind you outside of a political process is really important right now.

People are hungry for anybody who will get out in front of an idea. Take, for example, health care or education — areas where we really need some reform and vision. These issues are too big to be solved by one party or the other, or in a partisan way. You have to get people behind you that don’t agree with you. To do that, you have to step out in front and be willing to take some risk. If everybody behind you looks like you, you ain’t going very far. So you better be able to lead people who don’t necessarily agree with you 100 percent but are willing to get behind a vision of change.

Hayes Gordon: So finding those commonalities that everybody can relate to and bringing people together.

Dehn: What Matt’s talking about makes some sense. I think that when you’re in public office and running for office, you have to be willing to go out on that branch. 

We’re dealing with an increased rate of change in our society in many different areas, and it’s fearful to some people because they don’t know exactly how it’s going to impact their lives.

Hayes Gordon: Big issues, big change. Agreed. It reminds me a bit of something Minnesota Design Center director Tom Fisher says about architects being futurists, because we’re constantly trying to anticipate what’s coming, what’s changing.

Dean: I do think our profession is one that people can look to. We need people who can think in terms of process and product at the same time. I think we need to do a better job of encouraging architects to engage and to run for elected office.

Dehn: And not just elected office but appointed offices too.

Hayes Gordon: I like that idea, Ray — that I could get into politics without having to run and ask for money.

Dean: I think you could get a lot of people to vote for you.

Dehn: She could get Women Winning behind her, right?

Dean: Let’s start working on your campaign sign.

This story originally appeared in Architecture MN, a publication of The American Institute of Architects Minnesota.

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Comments (1)

There is not a policy issue

There is not a policy issue or solution in this article, which tries to abolish any distinction between a Democrat's view and a Republican's view of how our politics should work and to what ends. As if these two guys were the same because they're architects by training!

And by the way; a good liberal arts education does the exact same thing as an architecture degree: it teaches how to ask the right questions, be objective and flexible as you search for the best way to solve the problem[s] we face. In the blurred thinking this article contains, you'd think that the GOP approach to health care, for example, was the same as the DFL approach.