The rookies: the freshmen legislators to watch at the Minnesota Capitol

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Last fall, Roz Peterson, center, become the only suburban Republican candidate to unseat an incumbent in a tough swing district.

Not just anyone gets to carry a controversial piece of legislation, particularly one that’s at the center of a power struggle between the state’s top political leaders. 

That’s why it was so notable when freshman GOP Rep. Roz Peterson was recently put in the middle of a debate over DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s move to give pay raises to more than two dozen members of his Cabinet.

A former school board member from Lakeville who was just weeks into her new job as a state House representative, Peterson carried a proposal to put the authority to set Commissioner pay back in the hands of the Legislature, rather than the governor. 

Peterson made herself a target for Democrats in the process — criticized for a vote she once cast on the school board that made the district superintendent’s salary higher than that of any of Dayton’s commissioners. But Peterson remained unfazed as the pay-raise bill shot through the legislative process, among the many reasons why Capitol insiders cite her as one of a handful of freshmen House legislators to watch this year.

In a highly unscientific survey of Capitol staffers, legislators and lobbyists (who wished to remain anonymous to avoid the appearance of playing favorites), nearly all of the 26 new Republicans and Democrats who were elected to the Legislature last November were mentioned by someone at some point as one the most outstanding new members. But some legislators were mentioned more than others.

For Republicans, none more so than Peterson, a commercial real estate agent who has spent years trying to get to the Capitol. In her first run for her Burnsville-Lakeville area House seat, in 2012, she survived a tough GOP endorsement battle only to be defeated by just 170 votes in the general election by school teacher Will Morgan. Last fall she handily defeated Morgan, becoming the only suburban Republican candidate to unseat an incumbent in a tough swing district. 

She was one of just a few new members to speak at a press conference celebrating the new House Republican majority last fall, and she was quickly appointed to serve on education and health care committees, issues she talked about on the campaign trail. She’s likely to take a central role on other high-profile issues, as well, as the GOP leadership tries to position her to return to the Capitol after the 2016 election. 

For the DFL, a soft-spoken prosecutor stands out

In singling out strong new members, caucus leadership often looks for someone who can speak eloquently about issues and is well liked among members. It also helps if that person can get re-elected. 

Rep. Dave Pinto fits the bill for Democrats; he’s one of just five new freshman DFLers elected last fall in a strong year for Republicans.

State Rep. Dave Pinto

State Rep. Dave Pinto

Pinto’s biggest challenge in winning his strongly-DFL St. Paul House district, which includes the Highland Park and Mac-Groveland neighborhoods, was securing the DFL endorsement over five other activists. Now that he’s made it to the Capitol, he can likely stick around as long as he wants (his predecessor, Rep. Michael Paymar, served there for nearly two decades). DFL insiders are hoping he decides to stay awhile.

After graduating from Harvard with a degree in government and working for former Congressman Bruce Vento and the Clinton White House, Pinto got a law degree and returned to Minnesota to clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 2002, he went into private practice, where he took on a high-profile pro bono case representing a group of LGBT and ally students at Maple Grove High School whose student organization was denied equal status by the district. He joined the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in 2008 and eventually took on the issue of child sex trafficking with his boss, county attorney John Choi. The two helped secure a record 40-year sentence for Otis Washington, who was running a prostitution ring with family members that exploited teenage girls.

In the Legislature, he’s already earned a reputation as a soft-spoken wonk on public safety and other issues. He serves on Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, as well as Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division, and Capitol watchers expect him to be an important part of the debate this session on data privacy issues.

Honorable mentions

Other new faces getting good reviews: 

GOP Rep. Dave Baker
He survived a close race in Willmar against former DFL Rep. Mary Sawatzky and he was given a vote of confidence from his fellow freshman Republicans when they picked him to represent them on the House GOP leadership team.

DFL Rep. Jen Schultz
It’s not easy filling the shoes of a longtime veteran legislator like Rep. Tom Huntley, who made a name for himself as an expert on health care issues in the state House. But Schultz, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, is attempting to do just that, jumping on to the Health and Human Services Reform Committee while also positioning herself to be a strong advocate for higher education. 

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