Minnesota Senate losing its veteran, respected ‘referee’

Sen. Patrick Flahaven
Courtesy of the Minnesota Senate
Patrick Flahaven, Senate secretary

Sen. Dick Day, former Republican leader in the Minnesota Senate, described the job of the minority party this way: “You run from your office to the chamber, throw a few grenades, get in your car and go home.”

If that’s the case, then it’s been Patrick Flahaven’s job for 36 years to fall on the grenades, pick up the debris and get the Senate running again.

Since 1973, Flahaven, 65, has been the secretary of the Senate. That means he’s essentially been that body’s main referee, the parliamentarian who advises the Senate president on all matters of procedure. Which amendment is germane? Who can speak? Who can’t speak? Who’s on first?

Using the state’s Constitution, state statutes, the Senate’s rules and the 577-page “Mason’s Manual of Parliamentary Procedure,” Flahaven has tried to keep Republicans and DFLers, urban tree huggers and Iron Rangers, young and old from each other’s throats and on task. Additionally, he’s been the administrator of a 212-person staff responsible for everything from printing up ever-changing legislation to supplying tech support to senators and their staffs.

After 36 years, he’s retiring
But Flahaven won’t be around to help bring order to the upcoming session. As of Jan. 1, he’s retiring from the $141,000-a-year position. He’s going to spend more time with his family — and his trombone. The combination of his age and a battle with cancer — he had a tumor removed from his neck last year — led him to believe it was time to go.

For the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 6, his job will be divided. Senate counsel Peter Watson will handle the legislative portion of the position, and JoAnne Zoff, director of counsel/research/fiscal policy analysis for the Senate, will handle administrative chores. A search for a new Senate secretary will begin next summer.

Flahaven must have done his job well. He’s been re-elected to the position by the Senate every two years dating to 1973. Only once was he opposed. That was the first time he sought the job, at the suggestion of the late Sen. Nick Coleman of St. Paul. At the time, Flahaven had been an aide to longtime 4th District Congressman Joseph Karth but was looking for work that would keep him in Minnesota.

“The big bureaucrats in government know how to deal with politicians,” said Day. “They know they’re going to be around long after we’re gone, so they’re pretty calm when they deal with us. I think Pat understood that, too. He’s a good Irish Catholic. So am I. He was congenial, friendly. I do think he bent to the majority, but then, that could just be me.” 

Flahaven is a discreet man about the conflicts he’s tried to resolve, the difficult people he’s dealt with.

Still, there had to be days when he’d come home and scream, “This guy’s a flaming idiot!”

“I won’t admit to that,” said Flahaven’s spouse, Maureen. “But you do notice my laugh.”

He and wife Maureen ultimate political insiders
Between the two of them, Pat and Maureen Flahaven could do a deliciously gossipy book on Minnesota politics. While he was dealing with state senators, she was working for Gov. Rudy Perpich. She spent eight years running the governor’s mansion for the Perpiches. Additionally, she was the chairwoman of some of Nick Coleman’s campaigns for state Senate and Ruby Hunt’s campaigns for St. Paul City Council and is a longtime DFL activist.

But gossip is not their style. It would be a betrayal of trust, she said, to divulge the personal idiosyncrasies of the people they’ve worked for and with.

Theirs has long been a St. Paul house divided. He is THE expert on Mason’s Manual. In fact, a few years ago, he led a national committee on revising the book, designed specifically for legislatures. She is an expert on Roberts Rules of Order because of her work within the DFL.

However, he believes most organizations that try to conduct orderly meetings would be better off using “The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure.”

“Much simpler than Roberts,” he said.

She rises to a point of order on that.

“I know he’s a big believer in the Standard Code,” she said. “But the problem is, many people are at least somewhat familiar with Roberts. If you try to change, there are some who are going to feel as if they’re being disenfranchised.”

Flahaven praises ‘underappreciated’ legislators
What most people don’t know about politicians, Pat Flahaven said, is that they work well together most of the time.

“Minnesota is fortunate to have good legislators, who get along and work hard to resolve conflict,” he said. “Most people may not know that because (media) reporting is focused on the conflict. It takes a special person to be a legislator. Their pay is not commensurate with all they have to put up with.”

What most Minnesotans also don’t understand is that the intense partisanship of elections tends to diminish when a legislative session begins.

“Internally, one day’s opponent may be the next day’s ally,” said Flahaven. “The conflict gets reported but not the amount of work that gets done. And there are many cases where the splits that do develop aren’t partisan. You might have splits between urban and rural, or because of age difference. But in the end, a lot of good legislation get through there.”

The big changes?

In the 1970s, he said, there was a substantial generational change in the Senate brought on by younger members replacing retirees. Change also came because of population shifts, meaning more power going to the metropolitan area at the expense of rural areas of the state. More and more women joining the Senate also has changed the tone of the body.

“As we got more women, it changed the tone and direction,” he said. “Women offer a different perspective and a different style.”

His own style has been to try to stay cool in the midst of the heat.

“You do end up working with the majority a lot because they’re running the show,” he said.  “And you have to understand that it’s the natural role of the minority to object to things. But I’ve always tried hard to always be fair.”

Go back to Day, the flamboyant Republican from Owatonna.

“Roger Moe (former DFL majority leader of the Senate) used to say that we’re like professional wrestlers,” Day said. “We argue like hell in the chamber and then go out to lunch together.”

It was Flahaven’s job to step between the combatants before those arguments got bloody.

“It can’t be an easy job,” said Day. “You’ve always got somebody mad at you.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/23/2008 - 04:23 pm.

    Nice piece, Doug.
    Pat Flahaven represents what is best about politics in Minnesota. When I was there, most of us in the Senate Chamber were focused on the engagement, like the brigades at Gettysburg. But Pat always knew what was going on, and was like the Rock of Gibraltar. Many thanks and best wishes to Pat!
    — John Milton, former State Senator

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