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How did Joyce Peppin become one of the most important players in the Minnesota Legislature? Very quietly

The House majority leader is the person who makes sure the GOP House caucus can actually back up its ideas with votes.

Republican House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin: “One of the big motivators for me is spending in government, and how can we rein that in.”
MinnPost photo by Mike Dvorak

For more than a week last spring, leaders of the Minnesota House and Senate shuttled back and forth between the state Capitol and Gov. Mark Dayton’s residence in St. Paul, meeting for hours at time to try to hash out a budget.

Occasionally, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt — the public face of his caucus — would come out and say a few words to the reporters gathered on the front lawn of the residence.

A budget bill ultimately passed, after a usually fractious House Republican caucus got behind a plan that could pass in the DFL-controlled Senate. It was a messy end of session, but Republicans managed to walk out looking more unified than they had in years. 

A lot of that had to do with the woman who often appeared alongside Daudt at those impromptu press conferences but seldom said anything: Republican House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin.

The big stick

Peppin, 45, isn’t much for social media, where many of her legislative colleagues like to flock to promote their ideas and continue the debate. And unlike other past majority leaders, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, she mostly stays out of the limelight, spending her days pouring over the details of bills and meeting privately with legislators. A quick survey of fellow Republicans about Peppin turns up descriptors like quiet, wonky” and “conservative.”

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But perhaps the most telling word used to describe her is “workhorse,” a label that gives some sense of how Peppin has emerged as one of the most important behind-the-scenes players in the House — the person who makes sure the GOP caucus can actually back its ideas with votes. “Joyce keeps those trains running on time,” said Jennifer DeJournett, a Republican operative who’s known Peppin for more than 15 years.

GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo, who was elected in the same class as Peppin and sat next to her on the House floor for two years, said she’s the “strong, silent type.” 

“It’s like Theodore Roosevelt said,” he added. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” 

Randall to Rogers

Peppin got interested in politics the same way many modern day Republicans did — she saw Ronald Reagan on TV.

The youngest of five children growing up on a hobby farm in Randall, Minnesota, Peppin’s family wasn’t political, but they tuned into the news in the evenings. When she was in fifth grade, more than 60 Americans were captured and held hostage for 444 days by a group of Iranian students at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Peppin remembered watching the situation unfold.

“Reagan came into office, he got sworn in and the hostages were released, just like this. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is really influential,” Peppin said. “Of course, that’s not exactly what happened, but I was 10 years old. I was kind of inspired. And then there was ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ and him being this great communicator. A lot of those world events really inspired me, and Reagan was at the forefront of that.” 

Peppin was the first in her family to go to college, studying political science and speech communications at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. The campus, located in a DFL stronghold, had a moribund College Republicans group, so Peppin met with her adviser and brought it back to life. She was voted the school’s student lobbyist, traveling to the Capitol to push for money for the campus library. After that experience, Peppin thought: “Maybe I could work here some day.”

And she did. Right out of college in 1992, 21-year-old Peppin was hired by former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who was running the GOP’s campaign activities at that time. “Right away you could tell Joyce was always extremely prepared and ready to work,” Sviggum said.

She worked on five legislators’ campaigns, some of which were successful that fall. It was also when Peppin met her future husband, Gregg, who was working on the House Republican coordinated campaign activities. Sviggum took them out for pizza one day on the campaign trail. 

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After the election was over, Peppin took a job on the House communications team, where she worked for the next five years. She briefly left the Capitol to do corporate communications for U.S. Bank, but it wasn’t long before Peppin found a way to get back into politics.

In the early 2000s, Peppin had just had her second daughter and was volunteering as the local Senate District chair in the northwestern suburb of Rogers, where Peppin and her husband had moved to start a family. One of the district’s Republican legislators, Rep. Arlon Lindner, wrote a letter to the editor blaming Peppin personally for allowing a Republican to challenge him in the 2002 election. When 2004 came around, Peppin thought: “You know, I think that I’m going to run against you.”

She did, beating him for the Republican endorsement and in a three-way general election, where Lindner ran as an Independent.

‘Workhorse, not a showhorse’

Initially, there were some hard feelings from Republican legislators over Peppin’s decision to challenge an incumbent, but she soon fell into a comfortable role in St. Paul. She earned a reputation as one of the more conservative members of the caucus, authoring several pro-life bills in her first years in the Capitol. Her previous experience working in the House gave her a leg up on other freshman members, and it led her to the more wonky work of looking at how state government is financed. 

When Republicans took back the majority of both the House and Senate in the 2010 election, Peppin was appointed chair of the State Government Finance Committee, where she passed a bill to create the Sunset Commission. The idea behind the commission was to kill off (or “sunset”) state agencies and boards that had lived out their useful life (Democrats repealed the commission shortly after they regained control in 2013). 

Though they had complete control of the Legislature, Republicans soon started to show their divisions, with the party’s dealmakers often at odds with those who refused to spend more on the budget than they thought was fiscally prudent. Peppin was part of the latter, the “Not a Penny More” caucus, an informal group of legislators who refused to vote for a two-year budget that exceeded $34 billion. They wore penny pins on their lapels to identify themselves to Democrats and fellow Republicans.

“One of the big motivators for me is spending in government, and how can we rein that in,” Peppin said.

Peppin was combative on the floor with Democrats when she needed to be, but she was also known for digging into policy, for her attention to detail and for her preparedness. Or as former Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert described her: “A workhorse, not a show horse.” 

Peter Glessing, a lobbyist who previously worked as a staffer directly under Peppin, said she would drill him on the details of proposals coming through the Legislature. “As a staffer, it sometimes made me feel like I wasn’t doing my job, but really it just spoke to the level of detail she knew about these bills,” he said.

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Getting on the same page  

In 2014, Peppin had just finished up at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and was working on the campaign trail for Republicans. A few weeks out from election day, it looked like Republicans might reclaim control of the House, and Peppin was asked by a few members to consider running for majority leader if that happened. 

For many Republicans, Peppin was a nice contrast to then-Minority Leader Daudt, who was poised to become speaker of the House. Daudt, while considered an adept spokesman for the caucus, was relatively new to the Capitol and didn’t have the years of policy work under his belt like Peppin. She also had the sort of conservative credentials Daudt lacked, something that managed to quell concerns among some members — and some Republican activists — that he was too moderate.

While the Speaker of the House technically represents the chamber as an institution, the role of the majority leader is more of a managerial one for their party. The majority leader chairs the House Rules Committee, which chooses what bills come up the floor for debate. And behind the scenes, the majority leader and caucus whips are also tasked with corralling enough votes to pass the majority’s bills.

“You kind of set the tone for what takes place on the floor,” said former DFL House majority leader and speaker Bob Vanasek. “You defend the partisan position that your caucus is taking.”

Other past majority leaders, like Pawlenty, often used the role as an opportunity to take the floor. But Peppin’s style is most often compared to another prominent former House majority leader, Congressman Erik Paulsen, a quiet math whiz who prepared for debates by doing his homework on the policy side.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing last session. Democrats accused Republicans of suppressing their debate on the floor and ramming major budget bills through the process the final days of session. The final budget deal wasn’t struck until 72 hours before adjournment, a delay Democrats partially blamed on the resistance of Peppin and other more conservative Republicans in budget negotiations. After Dayton vetoed several of the budget bills, lawmakers had to head back into a one-day special session in June. 

During the deal-making process, Sviggum said that even the speaker and the majority leader in the same party often butt heads. “I know that [Peppin and Daudt] talk through a lot of issues. Occasionally the speaker and majority leader are not on the same page, but they have to be when they come out of their office,” Sviggum said, remembering his dynamic with Pawlenty, who was majority leader while he was speaker.

“If there have been disagreements between them, they’ve done a very good job of keeping it kind of in the family, and that hasn’t always been the case with House Republicans,” said Michael Brodkorb, a former Republican operative and Senate staffer who now blogs about party politics. “They’ve been able to walk out and row in the same direction.” 

‘We can’t be completely right wing’ 

After a decade as a rank-and-file member in one of the House’s more conservative districts, Peppin said the hardest transition in her new role was to take her own personal political beliefs out of the equation — to try and represent the views of the whole caucus. “The state as a whole isn’t as conservative as I am,” Peppin said. 

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“I think it took me a bit of time to learn that it’s not just about my district and my role,” she added. “I have to think about other districts.” 

That’s part of the reason Peppin said she does the more behind-the-scenes work, meeting regularly with members to make sure everyone is comfortable with a bill, not just the members who make the most noise. She said she communicates often with Daudt, who compliments her strengths and weaknesses as a leader, she said. “I’m kind of a details person,” she said. “The speaker is very good at looking at the big picture.”

She’s only the fifth woman to ever serve in the job of majority leader in the House, a volatile chamber that has flipped control the last three cycles.

In a few months, she’ll pivot to another role: helping her party keep the majority this fall. But for now, her job is to keep House Republicans on the same page. “We can’t always move forward with bills that are not going to be supported by the majority of Minnesotans, even though some individual members might like to do it,” Peppin said. “We have to continue to provide balance in Minnesota. We can’t be completely right wing.”