State Rep. Lisa Demuth of Cold Spring was recently elected House Republican Minority Leader, a prominent job for a legislator whose career in politics began almost on a whim.
In 2007, only one person filed to run for three open positions on the ROCORI school board in central Minnesota. After Demuth (pronounced DAY-myth) failed to convince her husband to mount a write-in campaign by clipping a newspaper article and leaving it on his dinner plate, she launched one herself.
“I thought, this is super important,” said Demuth, who had two kids enrolled in the district.
She spent 11 years on the school board before winning a legislative seat in 2018. Four years later, she’s set to replace Rep. Kurt Daudt as the top House Republican in Minnesota.
In some ways, Demuth’s rise actually mirrors how Daudt came to lead the GOP caucus.
Daudt first won the gig after the 2012 election, when the DFL won full control of state government and voters rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Daudt was relatively new to the Capitol and seen as collegial when the GOP faced an image crisis.
A decade later, Republicans in November were stung by another disappointing loss in the Legislature, this time one that many Republicans say was due to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning abortion rights afforded by the longstanding Roe v. Wade ruling. Daudt was expected to be Speaker of the House if the GOP had won a House majority after a campaign largely based on “tough on crime” policies.
Demuth is from Paynesville but lived for part of her childhood in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities metro. Demuth in 1988 moved back to the Paynesville area, where she owns a commercial property with her husband, who is also president of a plastics company.
At the Legislature, Demuth most recently served on education, child care and health care committees. The 2021 scorecard from the American Conservative Union — one measure of ideology based on legislative votes — ranked her as somewhat less conservative than the average Republican over her tenure in office. Only five House Republicans had lower lifetime scores from the American Conservative Union than Demuth at the time.
On occasion, Demuth has joined with the DFL, including by supporting a bill that would ban discrimination based on hair type championed by many Black legislators. As Republicans pushed for tougher sentencing laws and more police funding, she has pushed to spread a program run by St. Cloud police known as a Community OutPost, or COP House, that aims to improve relations by functioning in many ways like a community center.
Demuth also has made history in her position as the first Black lawmaker to lead a caucus and first woman to lead state House Republicans, facts she has downplayed in favor of touting her credentials as a politician and a leader.
MinnPost interviewed Demuth by phone on Thursday to ask about the 2022 election, her path to minority leader and her hopes for the upcoming legislative session in January. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: Why did you want to lead the caucus and what was your pitch to members? Why did you think it was time for a change and what do you think that you’ll bring that (outgoing) Minority Leader Daudt or others wouldn’t bring?
Lisa Demuth: I continue to have respect for Leader Daudt and Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu Brindley. They have been the ones in leadership since I came in at the beginning of the ’19 session. And I have high respect for them. I have never had the opportunity to serve while we’ve been in the majority. And so when I came in, being in the minority, that’s an opportunity to still serve my constituents and learn what I need to. When we were in the minority again in 2020, again carried forward. But I fully expected that we would’ve been in the majority this time. And I had already spoken with Leader Daudt prior to the election and I would have supported him as speaker. I appreciated the leadership that he brought and how he brought our caucus together.
Well, when the election night went different than we all anticipated, it started to change my thinking. Had we been in the majority, I had considered running for majority whip. So I was already looking at a level of leadership. I hadn’t made a full decision on that, I was still completely focused on my campaign and winning, but those were things that were in the back of my mind. So when things changed the night of the election, over the next two days, I just thought ‘we need to do something a little bit different.’ And so the message that I brought to my caucus when it came time to elect our leadership was: My style of leadership is very collaborative.
And I also look at the opportunity of working together when possible with the House majority, but then also where we disagree, being able to respectfully verbalize that and stop some of the most concerning things that may come through.
One of the questions that was posed to me and has been since I was elected in this position is as a female and as a Black woman I would be that different face. And I specifically told my caucus, I said, ‘If you would potentially vote for me as leader because of that, please don’t.’ Because I never want to look back over the next two years and wonder if it was just to check a box. But if you think I can effectively lead our caucus for the next two years, serve our communities, serve Minnesota, and get us into the majority, please vote for me.
MP: You talked about every voice needing to be heard and valued, working together and disagreeing respectfully. Do you think that was lacking in the previous leadership or are there policy differences you think you would want to steer the caucus in a different way?
Demuth: I don’t think not hearing the voices, I don’t think that was lacking in the past. I think we did all have an opportunity to be heard. My tone is very different than Rep. Daudt. I am more calm and conversational, but I can step up and when needed to be loud, I can do that. So it’s not a lack there, it’s just a different perspective. We’re different people.
I think policy, what we heard from Minnesotans as far as the importance of tax relief, public safety, making sure that the areas of either waste or fraud within our government are not swept away, but they’re focused on and changed. Those things still remain true. And those are some of the focus of our caucus going forward.
MP: I wanted to ask you about election night. Give me a little bit of your diagnosis. Why do you think that you gained some ground in Greater Minnesota and why Democrats have struggled in those areas, but also conversely, why do you think you all struggled more than expected in the suburbs and what do you think you need to do to win back in those areas?
Demuth: I think we gained ground because our message and our method and the way that we would want to get there serves Minnesotans well. So, ongoing tax relief to make this a better climate for families with record inflation. Families are struggling right now. So I think the message of tax relief, also addressing crime, looking at increased penalties for fentanyl and for carjacking. The carjacking piece, even if that hasn’t made its way all through Greater Minnesota, people are looking at that and concerned about it. So those messages play well, and I think that is important. That’s what we were hearing at the door.
I think we did underestimate the impact of the Dobbs decision [by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade].
So going forward on that, one of the things that we need to do is looking at the fact that Minnesotans are probably, when it comes to abortion, probably somewhere in the middle. A lot of Minnesotans are concerned about a total ban. But I also know there are a lot of Minnesotans when you say there are no guardrails and the DFL potentially wants to take us to a place where abortion would be available with zero restrictions up to the moment of birth — Minnesotans aren’t really there, either. So, I think we did underestimate that.
MP: You supported a fetal heartbeat bill, were the lead sponsor on that. Do you think that kind of bill goes too far now? Do you expect to sponsor something like that again?
Demuth: Personally, I am pro-life. Our caucus is pro-life. My reasoning for sponsoring that bill is I was told by a number of people within first responders in different conversations that, for them, they keep doing their life saving methods and the way that they are working, as long as there is a heartbeat, there’s life. And that really rang true in my mind. So when I look at the fetal heartbeat bill, as long as there’s a heartbeat, there is life. That is my personal stance.
But like I said, Minnesotans are kind of in the middle. So I think more discussion as we go forward. Again, we are a pro-life caucus, but we need to make sure that we’re not being extreme up to the moment of birth. We need to put some guardrails and some safety in there.
MP: We’ve got this big surplus (probably) coming up. It could change. But presuming we’ve got some kind of large surplus going forward, if you were in control of government, what would you do with that money?
Demuth: We don’t know where that (economic) forecast is gonna land when it comes out next week. The concern, for me and for my caucus, is that we wouldn’t look at using that surplus in ongoing spending.
MP: So would that look like one-time tax relief to you? I realize that you are in the minority but just for the sake of contrasting visions do you have any sense in a perfect world for what that might be like?
Demuth: We have not come up with an exact plan. Our caucus again, being in the minority, we’re still putting together some priorities. We’ve had some conversation. They’re not necessarily, being the minority, they’re not gonna be elevated to the level that we’d like. But having some input on that, you know, would there be a way to use one-time spending, the cash, on bonding, potentially? We know that this is a bonding year, is that something that we could envision?
The DFL has talked about paid family leave. We don’t want to hurt our businesses and Minnesotans as it would be proposed in the past, but is there something else with a surplus? Is there a way to look at that area that wouldn’t raise taxes but we could do a little bit of something with that?
MP: I was remembering when Republicans rolled out their public safety plans, they had some of the stuff you mentioned — police funding, tougher sentencing — but you were often there championing the St. Cloud Community OutPost (COP House) program. Why do you think that’s a critical element?
Demuth: When I had a chance to learn about the COP House in St. Cloud, it was in the summer of 2020, and after the death of George Floyd and everything that we watched as a state and as a nation. And the world, everybody was watching us. That was also very personal to me because I grew up not far from there. From the time that I was in 7th through 11th grade, my family and I, we lived on 31st and Elliott. And so, as I watched that all unfold, my thinking was how can we do this different? How can we learn, how can we make sure that our communities are safe and start moving us forward?
So, I had reached out to chief Blair Anderson from the St. Cloud Police Department who just retired as of yesterday. But I reached out to him and I thought I could maybe have a 15-minute conversation with him. And it ended up being well over an hour and a half. Some of the things that he saw, some things that were working in St. Cloud, some things he had learned from his other areas in law enforcement.
I pulled a few of my colleagues together and he was kind enough to pull a number of people together from the St. Cloud area. And we had a meeting, we had a great conversation, and then we had a chance to tour the COP House. And that was based out of the model that was done in Racine, Wisconsin, and they brought it to St. Cloud. And what I liked about it was it was a way to have law enforcement right within a community and kind of move away from maybe the stigma of law enforcement.
But they also have an ambulance service there. There’s tutoring for kids, there’s sports available, it’s supported by the community. I think they had like an ice cream chest there that kids could have. I mean, just making it a fun place. So we toured it, and walked through, and I thought, you know what, if we could get a model like this into other areas of Minnesota that would be most benefited by it, that is something that I think could help all of us. It would help the law enforcement in that area as a positive presence.
MP: I wanted to ask you about Greater Minnesota. Republicans control most legislative districts in Greater Minnesota, and so when they’re in the minority, Greater Minnesota has lost quite a bit of political clout. What would be your message to Democrats on what they should do to listen to Greater Minnesota and if there are any policies you think are really important for Democrats to pursue?
Demuth: First of all, it starts very simply to me as being able to build the relationships with our DFL across the aisle. Build those relationships, so when we have things that come up in our areas or that are a priority to Greater Minnesota, we’ve built the personal relationships. That is so necessary in the Legislature to be able to say, ‘This is what matters in our area.’
I think of some of our schools that the funding is not covering what they need. Maybe they’re property poor and it’s just an area that school funding is very difficult, some of our smaller schools. The transportation sparsity that our schools face because they are busing around lakes and through the country and all over — that is very difficult. That’s something that if you don’t live in Greater Minnesota, you wouldn’t necessarily think of it.
Also, our township roads. We hear from our townships over probably any meeting and our counties how difficult it is to maintain those township roads, especially as farm equipment is getting heavier and the restrictions in the spring that are there. Making sure that we take those messages both in manufacturing and agriculture, in small business, in schools, and letting our counterparts in the DFL understand how we are impacted in a different way in Greater Minnesota. Having the conversations and then turning that into legislation that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle but is prioritized.