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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’

In an interview, Jensen sounds off on partisanship, the corrosive effects of power — and the dumb ways decisions are often made at the Minnesota Legislature.

photo of scott jensen
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?’”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

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. 

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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.” 

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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.

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“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?’”