In 2006, DFLers swept back into the majority in the Minnesota House, electing 29 new members.
It was a stunning electoral performance by the DFL, giving the party a majority for the first time in eight years. It also marked the biggest one-night loss of seats by a party dating to 1978, when DFLers lost 32 seats in what became known as the Minnesota Massacre.
The mini-massacre of 2006 is something those new legislators still remind their DFL elders of on occasion.
When committees meet, for example, a member of the Class of ’06 might say, “We’re the majority-makers — remember who made you the chairman,” said Rep. Jeremy Kalin, adding quickly, “We say that in jest.”
But it also is fact.
Now, however, two of those young “majority-makers” — Kalin, 35, from North Branch, and Rep. Karla Bigham, just 31, from Cottage Grove — have announced they are giving up their seats at the close of the session.
Sutton’s optimistic ‘reading of the tea leaves’
Tony Sutton, chairman of the state Republican Party, says he believes those two, along with a couple of veteran DFL senators, are leaving because “they can read the tea leaves.”
“I’m very confident that we’ll take control of the House and maybe even the Senate,” Sutton said. “I think some of these DFLers have figured it out and don’t want to have to get into a battle that they’re likely going to lose.”
Both Kalin and Bigham, however, laugh at the notion they’re leaving out of fear of a great Republican resurgence.
“I announced before I even had an opponent,” said Bigham. “When I was elected, I knew I never expected to make this a career.”
“Not going to happen,” said Kalin of any grand Republican comeback.
The Republicans, they say, are offering “cookie-cutter candidates” who will follow the dictates of party leaders.
They won, they both said, because they paid attention to local issues. In his case, Kalin said he won in a conservative-leaning district by a percentage point because his opponent, incumbent Pete Nelson, voted to support Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the gas-tax bill, ignoring the desperate highway and bridge needs of the district.
“I talked about that vote over and over again,” said Kalin.
Bigham said she won because voters in her district understood that the dwindling Local Government Aid under Pawlenty was creating property tax increases.
“I don’t think there are many ideologues in our class,” said Kalin.
“As a whole,” said Bigham, “I think we’re fiscal realists who make our home districts our priority.”
Kalin, Bigham cite personal reasons for decision
Both young pols insist they are leaving because of their personal circumstances, not out of any sense of disillusionment and certainly not fear.
Bigham, a paralegal with the Hennepin County district attorney’s office, is entering law school. There is not enough time, she said, for a single woman like her to hold a job, go to law school and be a legislator.
Kalin, too, is coming to one of those crossroads of the young. He’s taking his bar exam this summer, and his spouse is an ob-gyn, working in Minneapolis. The two were married during his first year in the Legislature. Together, they decided they wanted to spend more time together.
“There is a sense of sadness,” said Kalin of leaving. “You always have that sense when it’s not clear-cut. I understand I’ll be losing that ability, for now, of making a difference on the inside. I won’t be able to author legislation.”
“There are a lot of benefits to this job,” said Bigham. “But the thing I’ll miss most is those warm fuzzies you get when you can help someone in your district and they call to say thank you.”
They said there are other ways to do public service, and both expect to stay involved and have not ruled out the possibility of again running for office.
Both came into the Legislature on the run, Kalin even gaining national attention for his work on sustainable energy issues.
Although young legislators often have little meaningful power in a seniority-laden system, both say they never felt powerless.
“Youthful exuberance has been an asset,” said Kalin. “There is a certain, slow, byzantine way things get done around here. Sometimes, relentless enthusiasm is needed.”
While many of us sit on the outside, taking potshots at all that doesn’t seem to get done in state government, the two quickly rattled off a list of what they consider meaningful accomplishments in their two terms: beneficial health care reform, substantial investments in transportation, and investments in science and technology projects. They also cite a long list of sustainable energy programs and environmental projects they believe will have lasting impact on the state even though they didn’t make big headlines.
“We did the things we [the Class of 2006] were elected to do,” Bigham said. “It was getting back to basics. Jobs, health care, environment and paying attention to district needs.”
GOP folks ‘sense a win’
Now, they’re headed out the door and the Republicans are filled with optimism.
“The last couple of cycles it was sometimes hard to even find people to put on the ballot,” said the GOP’s Sutton. “We’d end up calling a district chairman, ‘You’ve got to go out there and take one for the team.’ We’ve got good candidates everywhere now. Even in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there’s enthusiasm. Our people sense a win. That 17B seat [Kalin’s], we’ve got four good candidates running for endorsement.”
Kalin disagreed with Sutton’s assessment of the four Republicans seeking his seat. “Karla’s not going to like this,”said Kalin, “but I would have been willing to support a good, moderate Republican who was looking out for the district.”
Indeed, Bigham didn’t like Kalin’s comment. Her eyebrows went up.
“But all four people running are cookie cutters,” said Kalin, who has been wooing a potential candidate he believes would be a strong DFL replacement for him.
“You have to understand the needs of your district, not just do what the party bosses want,” said Bigham.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.