For years, DFL state Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth has defied political headwinds, winning a House seat in northwest Minnesota that often picked Republicans for president and governor — by a wide margin.
But Marquart’s winning streak is coming to a close. On Wednesday, he announced he will not run for re-election in 2022, finishing his 11 terms in the House, which followed 11 years as Dilworth mayor and two on the city’s council.
The 65-year-old high school social studies teacher, who also chairs the House’s powerful Taxes Committee, said his decision wasn’t because he felt like his district would be too difficult to win in 2022 — or because Democrats might lose their House majority in what could be a good election cycle for Republicans. Marquart said he and his family decided in the summer of 2020 he wouldn’t run again.
He joins a dozen other state lawmakers retiring ahead of 2022. But as one of few DFLers representing a Greater Minnesota district where Republicans have political strength, Marquart’s departure from the Legislature is significant, and it could play a role in who controls the House next year.
“It certainly will be difficult,” Marquart said of another DFLer winning his district, which currently includes Detroit Lakes, Moorhead suburbs and rural farming areas but that could change when legislative borders are redrawn in 2022. “I’m not going to kid anyone about that.”
A DFL legislator from a deep red area
In an interview Wednesday, Marquart said he has always faced tough elections. He first won in 2000, in a district that favored Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore in that year’s presidential race by 17 points. More recently, Marquart won his 2020 race by more than 5 points when the same district broke for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by nearly 19 points. The results were similar in 2016.
Marquart, a political centrist who sometimes votes with Republicans, has long attributed his success to door knocking, getting out and meeting voters to sway their mind in person. “That’s why I thought I was able to survive those really tough years in the district,” he said. “People would say, ‘I know Paul, I don’t agree with him all the time but hey, he’s been at my door, I know him personally.’”
He said following that path would be his primary advice for any Democrat hoping to succeed him. (It’s worth noting that legislative lines will look different after redistricting is completed this year.)
Marquart also said to win voters in rural Minnesota, Democrats should focus on “kitchen table issues,” and stay away from “social issues” like abortion rights. “It’s education — child care is just huge,” Marquart said. “Jobs, even though it’s kind of an employee market, do they have the jobs that (people) have the skills for? Property taxes, I hear that one a lot.”
The number of DFL legislators in Greater Minnesota has dwindled in the last decade, especially in the Trump era. While suburbs and bigger metros have shifted toward Democrats, Republicans have picked up seats in huge swaths of rural areas. Today, most DFL lawmakers from Greater Minnesota represent either parts of the Iron Range or college towns and bigger cities like Duluth, St. Cloud, Northfield, Mankato, Rochester and Moorhead.
House GOP spokesman Andrew Wagner said Wednesday on Twitter that Marquart’s vacated seat would be a “GOP pickup.” With 69 seats, Democrats currently hold a 10-seat majority over Republicans in the 134-member House. (Six legislators aren’t part of either of the two major parties.)
Still, Marquart said even as the GOP has done “very well” in rural Minnesota, he said Republicans have some weaknesses. They’ve been “overreaching,” he said because some high-profile Republicans promote views outside the “mainstream” in a way that average voters might not respond well to, such as casting doubt on the scientifically-proven efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
“The ‘big lie’ for example, kind of on a national aspect, just their tough stand on not recognizing the election winner,” Marquart said, referencing some Republicans who echo Trump’s false claims the 2020 election was rigged. “Or the hard stance they’re taking on vaccinations.”
Marquart said he thinks Gov. Tim Walz has a good argument for re-election based on his pandemic record. The state has fewer deaths per capita from COVID-19 than surrounding states, an economy he said has rebounded sooner than most states around the country and high vaccination rates compared to states in the region.
He also said that even in a party with diverse views, where it can be messy to get things done, Biden and Walz are “trying to do the best they can.” Biden, he said, has laudable goals, like aiming to help address economic issues like the lack of affordable child care.
Believes lawmakers can get things done this session
Marquart said in his last legislative session — which begins Jan. 31 — he plans to urge “restraint” with Minnesota’s enormous $7.75 billion surplus because the budget won’t always be so rosy.
As chairman of the Taxes committee, he said he wants to look into tax incentives and policy that will help retain and attract young people and young families to address Minnesota’s shortages of workers. “We’re looking at child care dependent credits, student loan credits, things in housing, all those things that have to do with young families, young people and workforce development,” Marquart said.
Some around the state Capitol have said they think a large surplus will be divisive and hard to spend because lawmakers and the governor will be gearing up for a hotly contested election season in 2022, when House and Senate seats will both be on the ballot. Two lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate are also running for governor: Michelle Benson and Paul Gazelka.
But Marquart said he thinks the election could make compromise easier. “There’s redistricting, which already makes legislators a little more skittish, because you’re going to have a new district so you want to get things done,” Marquart said. “But also take a look at the governor’s race. You certainly have incumbent Walz who is certainly going to want to get things done. And in the Senate majority you’ve got Senator Gazelka and Senator Benson who want to get things done. So I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to get something done in the end.”
Overall, Marquart said he still has “naive optimism” after 22 years in the Legislature. He said he’s proud of tax cuts and other policies that made it into the 2019 state budget, including a measure to help rural areas with lots of farmland pay for school levies. He also highlighted state funding for all-day kindergarten in 2013 under then-Gov. Mark Dayton.
After the upcoming legislative session, Marquart still plans on teaching this fall at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton High School, where he has worked for 38 years, and wants to spend more time with his family.
“People have asked: ‘Is it the way politics are going and your district or whatever?’” Marquart said about exiting the Legislature. “No, absolutely not. I feel good about it because I’m leaving on good terms.”