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The wild card

How Tony Cornish — one of Minnesota’s most colorful politicians — has become one of its most important, central to some of the most contentious debates in the state. 

Those who’ve worked with Rep. Tony Cornish over the years say there’s more to him than the guns, the ties, the camouflage suits and the handcuff lapel pin.

Tony Cornish’s office is so full of plaques, photos and taxidermied animals that he had to organize the space thematically.

There’s his “heroes wall,” directly behind his desk, where he keeps his John Wayne cardboard cutout and his plaque of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, complete with the famous line, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” There’s the family wall, covered with pictures of Cornish’s three children and 13 grandkids. And there’s the hunting wall, the centerpiece of which is a stuffed timber wolf that was found on the side of the road, though there’s also a black bear and a coyote — and a possum hanging from the ceiling. “Everything in here was either shot or run over,” he said proudly.

Finally, facing his desk is the law enforcement wall, honoring Cornish’s time as a police officer, deputy sheriff and longtime conservation officer in rural Minnesota. If Cornish could have an office with five walls, the other one would no doubt be dedicated to his sartorial signature: the 66 ties that say things like “God’s not dead,” “Guns welcome on these premises,” and “All Lives Matter.”

“I just do that to agitate the liberals,” he laughed.

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Cornish, a seven-term House Republican from Vernon Center, near the southernmost border of the state, has made a name for himself in St. Paul over the years for both his persona and his politics. A staunch supporter of gun rights and a reliable conservative, he’s the chairman of the House’s Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee — a powerful position that’s put him in the middle of some of the most heated debates in the state: from guns and criminal justice reform to prison overcrowding and police body cameras.

Recently, he drew the ire of gun-control supporters because of his refusal to even hear bills they support in his committee. And last week, protesters temporarily shut down Cornish’s public safety committee over a plan to have the state reopen a private prison facility, a move the lawmaker supports. 

But those who’ve worked with Cornish over the years say there’s more to him than the guns, the ties, the camouflage suits and the handcuff lapel pin (or, occasionally, the Taser lapel pin). A fiscal conservative, he’s also friendly with organized labor and often conflicted over environmental issues and refuses to take any special interest money for his elections. A tough-on-crime former cop, he’s also the grandson of a convict who thinks the state needs to do a better job of helping ex-offenders.

“He’s not a guy that insists on holding a partisan position on legislation,” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, an attorney who has worked on numerous public safety issues over the years. “He has his position that’s very important to him, that may or may not coincide with his party. On issues of guns, he’s absolutely unyielding, but it’s not necessarily a partisan distinction; it’s just what he believes.” 

From south to north

Cornish grew up on a small farm near Vernon Center in southwestern Minnesota with four sisters and four brothers, graduating from high school in the tiny town of Garden City in 1969. 

For several years after high school, he raised hogs and cash crops on his family farm until he took his first job in law enforcement, as a police officer in Amboy, another tiny town just a few miles south of Vernon Center. He served there several years until he was recruited as a deputy sheriff for Blue Earth County. Then, in July of 1980, an opportunity opened up with the Department of Natural Resources to be a conservation officer, a job Cornish had dreamed about since he was young.

“The guy who eventually did my background check on me to be a game warden was pictured on the front of a magazine cover holding a fawn,” Cornish said. “I looked at that and said, ‘Boy, I’d really like to do that.’” 

At the time, Cornish was worried he wouldn’t qualify for the job — he never went to college — but, back then, all he needed was a background in law enforcement. He moved north to work at the DNR’s Northome station, where the biggest problems were timber wolves, beavers, bears and poachers. “I told them, ‘Well, that’s just for me,’ ” he said.

He would go on to spend more than two decades as a conservation officer in northern Minnesota, and his stories from his time on the job tend to sound like a scenes involving the people on his “heroes wall”:

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“I’ve been charged trying to track a wounded bear that had come after three of us on the trail. I had to draw my pistol and shoot it about 11 times, because the pistol isn’t the best thing to shoot a bear with, especially a 9 mm.”

“I was shot at a couple of times and I was cut once by a sex offender.”

“Two different times, I had to do a pit maneuver to hit someone and run them off a road in a high speed chase.”

‘I rely mostly on opinions’

Cornish says he wasn’t particularly political during his years working in the wilds of northern Minnesota. He always voted in the general election, but he never went to Republican political caucuses or conventions. His first experience at the Capitol was actually as a lobbyist, representing the game wardens union in the 1990s. 

But in 2002, the state’s political maps were redrawn, and the district of a longtime incumbent Democrat came to include Cornish’s hometown, Vernon Center. Instead of running again, Rep. Henry Kalis opted to retire, and his decision left open an attractive pick-up opportunity for Republicans. Former Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum recruited Cornish to run for the House.

“I said ‘Sure,’ much to the chagrin of my family,” Cornish said. That fall, he beat DFL candidate Sandy Lorenz by just 571 votes.

In St. Paul, Cornish was happy to fall into a public-safety niche. He was a strident supporter of the rights of gun owners, authoring bills to expand conceal-and-carry laws; to allow homeowners to use deadly force if anyone enters their property; and to allow county prosecutors to carry weapons. He pushed back on efforts to move sex offenders out of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, which includes a facility in St. Peter, in southern Minnesota.

In his largely rural district — which includes parts of Blue Earth, Le Sueur, Waseca and Watonwan counties — he built and is maintaining his popularity by being responsive to local issues, like pushing for funding for the hydroelectric Rapidan Dam on the Blue Earth River and for the Wells Depot Railroad Museum. “I don’t take [political action committee] money and special interest money, so I rely mostly on opinions in my district,” he said.

He ran unopposed in 2012 and 2014, and earlier this year he briefly considered running for Congress in the First Congressional District against DFL Rep. Tim Walz. He ultimately decided against it, mostly because he decided he had it so good in the state House. After Republicans reclaimed the majority there in 2014, Cornish was elevated to chair the body’s top public safety and crime panel.

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“He’s very consistent; he digs into an issue and he thinks it through,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who has served with Cornish since he was elected. “Our caucus is very fortunate to have him in that leadership role.”

In that role, he’s become the public face of opposition to gun control in Minnesota, pushing back on efforts from Democrats to close loopholes in gun-show sales and expand background checks. This session, DFLers in the House and Senate have introduced bills to expand background checks to all gun buyers, but Cornish said he doesn’t plan to hear any gun bills – for or against – in his committee. When asked if there’s room to compromise on this issue, Cornish replied, “not an inch.”

“This isn’t about gun rights, it’s about gun wrongs,” said the Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of gun control group Protect Minnesota. “One would hope that a former law enforcement officer and the chair of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee would be in favor of enforcing the law and preventing the crime of illegal guns sales.”

Cornish’s high-profile stance on guns tends to reverberate beyond that single issue. Last week, a bill was up for a hearing to reopen a private prison in Appleton, Minnesota, owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, to deal with Minnesota’s looming prison overcrowding problem. Groups like Black Lives Matter, ISAIAH and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change filled the hearing room to protest everything from CCA’s record to the notion that the state would put money into opening a new prison instead of investing in rehabilitation programs.

Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, barely got through his introduction of the bill before opponents began yelling from the audience. They called the prison a form of slavery, and interrupted testifiers with shouts of “Amen” and “black lives matter.” Cornish tapped his gavel and asked people speaking out of turn to wait until it was there time to speak on the bill, and he soon became the focus of commenters’ ire.  

One person suggested that Cornish, who strongly supports the proposal to reopen the prison, would financially benefit if it happened. Cornish tapped his gavel. Another person accused him of trying to shut down the meeting. Cornish tapped his gavel. One woman stood up from the back of the room and asked Cornish to stop the hearing, saying he did not have the right to hear a proposal that would lock up her children in Appleton.

“You do not have the right,” she said. “I have a son, he’s been shot by a child. Now you tell me where you want to help the kids, in Appleton?”

“Ma’am, would you please sit down?” Cornish asked.

“I do not have time to sit down; I’m trying to save my kids!” 

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After three minutes, Cornish recessed the hearing temporarily before reconvening to hear more opposition. After another hour of testimony, the committee passed the proposal, moving it on to the House Ways and Means Committee.

A ‘thoughtful’ legislator

Beyond his unwavering support of gun rights, Cornish is not a conservative purist, and has been willing to buck his party on certain issues. He earned the endorsement of Education Minnesota in 2010 and 2014, the state’s largest teachers union and a major backer of Democrats, after voting against an alternative teacher licensure proposal that the GOP supported.

A long time conservation officer, Cornish also considers himself “a little bit green” on the environment, often trying to find agreement between farmers and environmental groups on issues like clean water. “I’ve got a farming background in riverbottom land, and votes are tough to take sometimes on water issues: irrigation, conservation and buffers and things like that,” said Cornish, who’s been endorsed by Conservation Minnesota in the past. “A river runs completely around our farm, it’s kind of a peninsula. I was raised on it and we swam in the river and probably drank from it and out of the creeks that run into the river.” 

In addition to his support of the plan to open the prison in Appleton, Cornish is also pushing back this year on a plan from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission – an independent state board that sets recommendations for judges – to drastically change how long some drug users and sellers spend in prison. According to the commission, the plan would lower the state’s prison population by a projected 523 beds, helping with prison overcrowding.

Cornish is confident the state has only locked up dangerous drug dealers — people who should remain behind bars, in his view — a belief that has put him directly at odds with not only Democrats, but with many across the nation who would like to change the way the criminal justice system interacts with black people.

But Cornish feels he can be misunderstood by the public. In 2014, Cornish supported the one of the only gun control bills to pass in Minnesota in years, which allows the state to take guns from convicted stalkers and abusers. It also prevents someone subject to an order for protection from possessing a gun. He’s also the lead author on a bill to restore voting rights for felons who have completed their jail or prison time but are still on probation or parole. Supporters of “Ban the Box” legislation, which prevents companies from asking about a job seeker’s criminal history on initial applications, say his support was key in passing the proposal. He also supports the Department of Corrections’ Challenge Incarceration Program, an early-release prison program in Minnesota. 

“I’m not a lock ‘em up and throw away the key type of guy,” he said. “I also don’t believe in letting people go just to save money. Either let them go on their record or not. I’m not as conservative as I look. I still believe in redemption and salvation and second chances.” 

‘More partisan than he actually is’

Part of Cornish’s belief in redemption is personal: His grandfather struggled with alcohol and addiction and spent more than a year in the Stillwater prison in the 1930s for not paying back $47 owed on paint supplies. When he got out, Cornish said there was no support system in place for him. 

“He had no health care or no job, no driver’s license, no support group. He had a probation officer who never visited, and you could see his high from being released, saying, ‘I’m going to change my life and I’m going to do it all over.’ You could see month by month it go down hill, and he turned back into booze and he died a broken man,” said Cornish, who keeps his prison diary. “If he had had any of those things available now, it would have been a lot better.” 

Such sentiments tend to surprise those who only know Cornish from his pro-gun pronouncements.

“As someone who spent their whole life working on criminal justice reform, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh we should give up, there’s no way Cornish is even going to listen to anything we have to say,’” said Sarah Walker, founder of the Second Chance Coalition. “It forced me to change my ideas about a guy who wears a handcuffs pin on his lapel, and what I found his he’s a thoughtful legislator. He’s often viewed as far more partisan than he actually is.”

Yet Cornish also isn’t afraid to wield the power his position affords him. People like Lesch, who want to see legislators pass a bill to guide law enforcement’s use of police body cameras this year, are worried about Cornish’s strongly held opinions on the issue. The public safety committee didn’t move any legislation last session after Cornish expressed concerns about making video data public, especially in incidents that take place in a private home. Cornish also wants video data destroyed after 90 days if it’s not part of an investigation.

“There have been several points in the bill where he said it’s going to be my way or the highway. Well there’s a traffic jam on the Tony Cornish highway. There’s several bills like that that he has strong opinions on and they are backing up on there,” said Lesch. 

But, Lesch said, there’s definitely still hope: “He digs in, but he can be persuaded to dig out, on occasion.”