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State Sen. Scott Jensen is not running again — and he has a lot to say about the Legislature: ‘This is a really bizarre place’

photo of scott jensen
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Jensen lamented how partisanship is such a driving force for lawmakers. “We lick our finger and hold it up and say, ‘Well, which way are the winds blowing and who's going to benefit from this?’”

It wasn’t exactly a shock when state Sen. Scott Jensen announced that he wouldn’t be a candidate for reelection. During the 2019 Legislature, the Chaska Republican was in the middle of several sessions’ biggest issues, but he had also expressed some frustration with the legislative process.

In a Facebook video posted Sunday, he spoke of the personal side of the decision not to run in 2020. He said he asked his wife Mary Jensen, a veterinarian, what the hardest part of his time in the Senate was for her. “It wasn’t really the lonely nights waiting for me to get home,” Jensen said she told him. “It was probably more when I was home. I was preoccupied and engaged with stuff other than her and the family and the practice of medicine.”

Mary Jensen has been working through some health-related problems — neck surgeries and pneumonia — and the couple has four grandchildren under the age of two and a fifth grandchild expected. “My life balance says that 2020 won’t see my name on the ballot,” Jensen said in the video. 

But in an interview this week, Jensen spoke as much about the political aspect of his decision as the personal. He spent 10 years on the non-partisan Waconia School Board in the 1990s, but his 2016 run for the state Senate was his first partisan campaign. And when he won, 67 percent to 33 percent, he joined a GOP caucus that had just taken control of the Minnesota Senate. 

What he found when he got there, though, was that St. Paul can be a frustrating place for someone who’s not immersed in partisan politics. “I’ll be very honest: This is a really bizarre place,” Jensen said of the statehouse. 

‘I thought, I can’t be having this conversation’

Jensen said he thinks he kept some perspective by continuing to work as a doctor during the session, arriving at the Capitol after seeing patients early in the morning at the clinic he founded in Watertown. 

“Those days just had a better rhythm to them,” he said. “I started with normal people, people with real needs, people who weren’t ready to hunt bear.”

Jensen said the decision-making process as the Legislature could often be frustrating. “A year ago I thought, is this really a place that’s interested in getting the work done, that really could and should be done — or not?” Jensen said. “Our two big driving forces down here … should be what’s good policy and what’s good information. But instead, we default to anecdotal stories, which frequently have no real pertinence other than being an anecdotal, flukish story. It really shouldn’t drive our agenda. But it does.” 

He said he once got into a debate with another GOP senator about how prescriptions are issued and filled. As a physician, Jensen has written tens of thousands of prescriptions, but his colleague said he knew better — because he had spoken with a pharmacist in his district. “This person’s telling me, ‘No, that’s not how it works.’ And I thought, I can’t be having this conversation,” Jensen said.

Jensen also lamented how partisanship is such a driving force for lawmakers. “We lick our finger and hold it up and say, ‘Well, which way are the winds blowing and who’s going to benefit from this?’” he said. “And the last thing we want to do is let that person on the other side of the aisle benefit because, heavens to Betsy, if they do, they might use it for a campaign issue and that might make it easier for them to win. And so you know, the actual merit of what we’re trying to do, that should be driven by information and policy — it goes right out the window. That’s crazy.” 

Jensen compared the effect of power on legislators to addictive drugs. “We talk about opiates … but being down here has a similar influence that a narcotic has. Our minds become dulled. We’re not able to focus as sharply on what we’re trying to do.”

‘All bets are off. I’m going to do exactly what I think we should do’

So shouldn’t someone who comes at the job differently try to stay and make changes? Perhaps, Jensen said. But he said he made his decision to leave for personal reasons. “I would say the number one priority for me in terms of deciding not to run has nothing to do with politics and has everything to do with Mary and my four grandchildren, the one on the way — and my medical clinic and my patients.” 

But he also said he thinks he can have an impact before his term expires. “I’ll get to work this next 18 months as a ‘lame duck’ — but also with less obligations to stay within the guardrails,” he said. “Not that I was the kind of person that always felt I needed to stay in the guardrails anyway, but I think that I can really say, ‘Okay, that’s just not right.’”

As an example, Jensen cited the failure of the Legislature to pass a ban on LGBTQ conversion therapy for minors during the most recent session. The GOP Senate blocked the bill, and despite Jensen’s offer to broker an agreement, it didn’t happen.

“We should have done something on that,” he said. “Virtually every counseling, psychiatric, psychological organization in the country acknowledges that some sort of force-fed conversion attempt with a preordained agenda and anticipated outcome in the pediatric population is just one of the really best ways to drive someone over the top and into a suicidal posture.

“And we did not take an action … I think that I get to now say, ‘All bets are off.’ I’m going to do exactly what I think we should do: as a physician, as a person, as a physician who takes care of patients with depression and anxiety. So for me, I get to have that perspective for a full session.”

Jensen said he was able to work with DFLers partly because he assumed the GOP would be in the minority after the 2016 election. He was prepared to seek allies among what he assumed would be DFL Senators running committees.

“I fully expected [Mendota Heights DFLer] Matt Klein to be the doctor I’d go to and say, ‘Matt, can we do this bill together?’ And instead it was Matt Klein coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, can we do this bill?’ So I would hope that Matt Klein does indeed feel like I always treated him fair and with the respect that he hoped for.”

photo of legislative hearing
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Sen. Scott Jensen co-chairing a meeting of the attorney general's task force on prescription drug price with co-chair Nicole Smith-Holt.

The GOP’s ‘horrendous quarrel’ over recreational marijuana

Jensen raised eyebrows on both sides of the recreational marijuana issue, first by cosponsoring a legalization bill with DFL Sen. Ann Rest of New Hope and Melisa Franzen of Edina — and then testifying at a hearing that he wouldn’t vote for the bill. But Jensen said he was clear with the DFL sponsors that he was willing to help it get heard because he wanted the Legislature to find answers to questions about marijuana use and its safety. 

Then, after the bill was heard but voted down on a party line vote, Jensen endorsed a DFL move to convene a task force to study the issue over the interim. “In our caucus, the position was: ‘We don’t dare call a task force, because if we do the next step will be full legalization of recreational marijuana,’” Jensen said. “We got into just a horrendous quarrel in our caucus. Someone stood up and said, ‘We’re not going your way, doc, cause you’re wrong.’ And I said, ‘I’m wrong because I want to learn more about this?’ And they said, ‘Yep, because the next step will be recreational marijuana legalized.’ I said, ‘How can you make that jump? There’s nobody in this room, me included, that has said I’m for legalization. But I’m certainly for preparing for the future.’ That was the end of the discussion.

“I think the standard modus operandi is to circle the wagons. So whether the discussion is marijuana or guns or abortion: ‘circle the wagons; here they come. You know, we’ve got to defend at all costs.’ And that’s not my tradition … I know it’s a terrible cliche, but I really do buy into the idea that the dumbest question is the unasked question. I mean, just ask the question.”

Asked to run again

Jensen, who grew up in Sleepy Eye and earned undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Minnesota, passed seven bills during the 2019 session, all without a single ‘no’ vote. Among those bills was a measure to establish new regulation of pharmacy benefit managers and another to allow primary care providers to contract with individual patients for regular health care. 

He was also supportive in getting a new fee on opioids to pay for the state’s response to the addiction crisis. In 2018, he was one of the Senate Republicans who supported some changes to background checks for gun purchases. He also worked with the four-member Doctor Caucus on health care issues and endorsed a bipartisan replacement for the provider tax, something most Republicans wanted to sunset and not be replaced.

Jensen is hardly a liberal, though that hasn’t prevented some conservative groups from labeling him as one. He ran in 2016 on traditional GOP issues, including reining in the “unelected” Met Council and controlling spending and reducing taxes. He is anti-abortion, and received a perfect score from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce in 2017 and 2018 (the chamber’s 2019 scorecard won’t be released until August).

But he has been at times the DFL’s favorite Republican (something that didn’t inoculate him from an attack by DFL Chair Ken Martin when he spoke about the influence of Big Pharma on the GOP caucus)

Jensen said he doesn’t think the GOP will have trouble holding his Senate seat, so he was able to rebuff those who asked him to stay to preserve their majority and assure the GOP a voice in redistricting. 

“Honestly, if we have a good candidate who’s thoughtful and willing to be respectful of both parties and is on the conservative side of things — especially in regards to the Second Amendment and pro-life — that person should win that district. They don’t need me to win that district unless they run someone who’s hyperpartisan and burns bridges and treats people disrespectfully. “

Jensen said he was called by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and asked to run again. But if he decided to step away, Gazelka asked, could he decide by the end of summer to give the GOP time to find another candidate. “I thought what he said was reasonable,” Jensen said. 

But he decided to move up the announcement to help whoever might try to replace him “We have one of the bigger county fairs in the state of Minnesota and it’s in about two and a half weeks. And I thought, ‘Well, if I was interested in running, the [Carver] County Fair would be a great place for me. Have a couple of t-shirts made, walk around, press the flesh and do a little bit of an exploratory thing and see if it’s something I want to do.’

“And so I thought, ‘Well, then why wait?’”

Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Stephen Phillips on 07/26/2019 - 12:07 pm.

    Finally – a thoughtful representative (DFL or REP) who actually thinks on his own of what benefits the most, and is not what has come to represent a “politician” by any means, but an independent mind!

    Although not affiliated with my party of choice, those of his governmental standards who depart will be sorely missed – by the constituents of all persuasions that they represent in such honorable fashion…

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/26/2019 - 12:12 pm.

    What a shame that our political system punishes people who try to do their jobs while rewarding partisan hacks. How did we create a system of such perverse incentives? Surely this does not best serve voters.

  3. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/26/2019 - 12:24 pm.

    As one of his constituents, my experience was that Jensen wanted it both ways — credit from everyone for appearing open-minded and independent (I’m going to co-author a bill I don’t actually support!) despite never casting an actual meaningful vote that crossed his caucus.

  4. Submitted by Darryl Carter on 07/26/2019 - 12:39 pm.

    Thank you, Peter, for this story. And thank you, Senator Jensen, for your straight talk. Please hold your ground against the inevitable blow-back.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/26/2019 - 03:15 pm.

    Republicans have gotten lazy. Instead of deriving policy from facts, they simply make up things that justify their policy. It’s no wonder a medical doctor whose success in his line of work depends a lot on knowing what the fact are, has a problem with this.

    Something doctors know is that just because you don’t like a fact doesn’t make it untrue.

    • Submitted by Richard Owens on 07/26/2019 - 04:42 pm.

      Well said Mr. Foster. This is also my take on Dr. Jensen’s approach:

      The physician training “Best Practices” requires facts and experience. That IS the scientific method, and it doesn’t require adherence to an ideology, but simply the openness to a need for a method of discovery and assessment of outcomes.

      I’m also not surprised that the good doc has a “bedside manner” that conflicts with “legislative confrontation and provocation”. You can’t get good information when these factors are brought into the policy-making.

      Republicans should learn from this kind of leadership and notice how destructive the Daudt-style “in-your-face” not only prohibits good fact-finding, outcomes assessment and consultation, but requires everybody take side before the facets of the political landscape are even in focus.

      It’s sad that Republicans chase away their best and brightest with the demand of being brash, curt and disrespectful to the process and the loyal opposition. MN Rs- you chase away best and let the worst speak for you.

      Dr. Jensen, we look forward to your legislative independence and cooperation.

      What a shame you couldn’t have joined the legislature as a DFLer. I think you would have had a better team to work with.

      • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 07/27/2019 - 08:54 am.

        Obviously two issues kept him in a caucus he sees as ideologically driven. Abortion and Guns. Its really too bad, but it seems like he had to sell out everything else in support of those to issues.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/26/2019 - 06:04 pm.

      Actually, evidence based medicine is a very recent thing in the practice of medicine, an industry under great influence of drug manufacturers.

  6. Submitted by Josh Lease on 07/26/2019 - 03:38 pm.

    I disagree with Sen. Jensen on a lot of things, but I’ll miss him in the legislature. He had important things to add to the discussion of healthcare, was interested in adding science and research-based information to legislation, and was someone who you could talk to about an issue without feeling like he was insulting you or you were gonna end up insulting him.

  7. Submitted by Robb Empson on 07/26/2019 - 04:32 pm.

    I am in Senator Jensen’s district and I am very sorry that he will not run again. This is a strong Republican area and I fear that the next person in the seat will be a far right wing conservative who blindly follows the GOP party line. I have had several interactions with Senator Jensen and have found him to be accessible, open minded and very fair even tho we were on opposites sides of the issues. Sorry to see you go Senator and may fortune smile upon you..

  8. Submitted by Brent Stahl on 07/26/2019 - 06:41 pm.

    Sounds like a decent fellow. Perhaps he is in the wrong caucus. Policy analysis hasn’t been a Minnesota Republican strength for many years.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 07/28/2019 - 08:46 pm.

      I agree, but then the DFL needs to be also accepting of moderates; the Jensens of the country appear to feel pushed into the Republican party and seem to be the reason we can’t win more Governor house seats or more of the electoral vote.

  9. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 07/26/2019 - 09:20 pm.

    A perfect example of how our current political climate drives away competent people and leads to the low quality of so many of our representatives.

  10. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 07/26/2019 - 09:52 pm.

    Senator Jensen seems the kind of citizen legislator we need more of. The fellow Dr. Jensen got into an argument on prescriptions because someone a few steps removed from real knowledge told him so is the kind we need less of. Give his sort the choice of a disagreeable proven fact vs. an agreeable piece of apocryphal horse crap and the horse wins every time.

    In business, science, academia the process to get to the top has several steps where competence must be proven. In politics, get lucky, win one election and next thing you know Michelle Bachmann is running for President.

  11. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 07/27/2019 - 08:28 am.

    Even though I do not agree with everything Doctor Jensen espouses, I thank him for his thoughtful service to our state. His kind of legislator is rarer than ever these days. Today we find ourselves in the grip of political operatives for whom the easy insult or obfuscation is the norm, instead of thoughtful engagement. More “real” representatives like Senator Jensen are desperately needed. Who knows, that might lead to an improved level of legislators at all levels.

  12. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/27/2019 - 10:02 am.

    So apparently he was cool with the leader of his party race baiting as means too political power? Is that part of his pro-life agenda?

    I assume if Don Trump’s racism were a factor in his decision, he’d have mentioned it. Because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

  13. Submitted by Donna Williams on 07/28/2019 - 02:22 pm.

    The news that Scott Jensen will leave the legislature has two sides. On one hand Dr. Jensen has been an effective advocate for certain health care measures and at times seems to take a bipartisan approach. However his commitment to science-based medicine is questionable and may be subject to political manipulation.

    During a Senate Health and Human Services committee hearing last spring (4/10/2019) he denied the effectiveness of the standard medical treatment for lymphedema, apparently in order to dispose of a bill that might add to the budget. His incorrect medical claim is easily verified as wrong by state and national lymphedema experts and organizations. Not to mention the millions of patients who benefit from the lifesaving treatment he debunks. Sen. Jensen also referred vaguely to articles he’s written which do not seem to exist.

    Dr. Jensen is also on record as sympathizing with an anti-vaccine position for measles related diseases. In all, it is troublesome to think that some of the patients in his medical practice may have received treatment based on misinformation, ignorance or prejudice. One wonders if his fellow physicians, particularly in the legislature, are aware of his opinions and whether his views have been challenged, and if not, why not.

  14. Submitted by Mark Gruben on 07/28/2019 - 06:07 pm.

    Speaking of the Republican Party, Dr. Jensen said, “I think the standard modus operandi is to circle the wagons. So whether the discussion is marijuana or guns or abortion: ‘circle the wagons; here they come. You know, we’ve got to defend at all costs.’” I believe this is what’s hurting the Republican Party in this state – the idea that they can’t, or shouldn’t, engage in debate with the Democrats on anything, because to do so would be to surrender. Thus, they have definitely earned their title as “The Party of ‘No.'”

  15. Submitted by Dave Paulson on 07/28/2019 - 06:35 pm.

    He should just come out and say it – The whole GOP gestalt right now is “I don’t want to think about it and I don’t want to talk to you, my mind is made up and you are my opponent who must get no points”

    Look at Gazelka’s (“the reasonable one” as first introduced in his position) statements on their red meat issue. EX “The Democrats are poking us in the eye, that will go nowhere!” on introducing background checks and red flag laws (the majority of Minnesotans want) for debate.

    Not only will we not discuss this – it is an insult to us that you ask.

  16. Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/29/2019 - 10:18 am.

    Shocking, Government is broken…. Who could have guessed that one. The Left’s solution is more Government, unfortunately the GOP is not far behind in growing Government. Our country was founded on the basis of freedom from an oppressive Government. I just can’t see how growing Big Government helps us achieve a life of freedom.

  17. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/30/2019 - 04:49 pm.

    A thoughtful conservative – Minnesota once had many. It is too bad that there are more among those who serve in conservative districts.

  18. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 08/06/2019 - 09:20 am.

    The GOP caucus has been rigidly ideological and dogmatic the past three sessions, which the good Dr. found out. Policy does not matter, all that matters is the next election. Policy is an arm of ideology, as are facts. And that continues with orcwithoutt him.

    The press has totally missed this, focusing on the horse race aspects of everything. If the Democrats disagree on facts internally, it is portrayed as weakness, the GOP totalitarian approach is seen as strength. Both views are the exact opposite of the truth. Diverse opinions leads to better decisions, totalitarian politics go to the highest bidder.

  19. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 07/28/2019 - 03:22 pm.

    You know CS, not to be argumentative, but representatives etc. are suppose to represent all their constituents not just their personal flavor, point being, you appear to clearly have verbalized why our governments don’t work well, its all about personal agenda, not whats good for the county, district, state, country etc.!

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