New Senate GOP leader shaped by family’s work ethic, hardscrabble immigrant story

Jeremy Miller, 38, was elected majority leader and his bipartisan record faces a test

By: - September 30, 2021 6:00 am

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, coaches fourth through sixth graders in the Morrie Miller youth tackle football league Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 in Winona, Minnesota. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

WINONA — In 2019, Jeremy Miller was on a run in downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, stunned at the poverty, grime and decrepit conditions of the unsheltered residents, many of whom are veterans and struggling with substance addiction. 

He was there on business, attending a scrap recycling convention. Miller, who is a regular runner, met up with the Skid Row Running Club and bore witness to the immense need of the unsheltered community in one of the country’s largest cities. 

“I called Janel, my wife, and I said, ‘I just had this experience — it’s not an experience we see in Winona,’” said Miller, the newly elected state Senate GOP majority leader. “I told her about it, and said, ‘We have to do something about this.’”

So they launched a hat company. Some of the proceeds of Be Good hats help provide meals and assistance to veterans experiencing homelessness. 

The philanthropy, work ethic and entrepreneurship the Millers showed are a hallmark of the family, according to interviews with neighbors, friends and Winona leaders who know them. But so is an older style of public spiritedness: His father served as mayor and his uncle served on the local school board. In his office at his family’s scrap metal recycling facility, Miller displays photos of himself with both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. 

Miller was an inaugural member and co-founder of the “Purple Caucus,” a bipartisan group of senators who sought to find common ground. Another member: Newly elected Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina. 

López Franzen was recently the passenger in a rollover car wreck, and she said Miller was the lone Republican Senate colleague to call to offer well wishes. 

Miller’s reputation for bipartisan cooperation will be tested right away. 

Lawmakers are currently negotiating issues ahead of a potential special legislative session, including drought relief for farmers and the distribution of $250 million in bonus pay for essential workers who risked their health during the pandemic. 

DFL Gov. Tim Walz says he will not call lawmakers back to St. Paul without prior agreement that Senate Republicans won’t vote to oust Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who is now a target of Senate Republicans opposed to vaccine and mask mandates. Under former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who stepped aside to run for governor, Senate Republicans sacked two of Walz’s commissioners in 2020.

Miller offered no assurances that the GOP caucus would not take aim at Walz commissioners, nearly all of whom remain unconfirmed by the Senate even though many have served for three years. 

Even as he seeks to build a working relationship with Walz and his fellow Democrat House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, Miller will have to wrangle his conservative caucus and prepare for an election in which Republicans are likely to face redistricting headwinds. 

If anyone can be, he’s prepared for the role. He was the second-youngest senator ever elected in Minnesota — giving him more than a decade of experience at just 38 — and quickly cut a reputation for pragmatism amid partisan gridlock. He was elected Senate president this year, presiding over the upper chamber and minding its rulebook. 

Miller family long-established, widely known in Winona

Despite his younger age, there’s a seriousness to him, likely borne out of the family history of building a scrap business as Polish-Russian Jews in rural southeastern Minnesota, his father, Jerry Miller, says.  

Jerry Miller’s father and uncles arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the century from Russia. “When they came here, they were Jewish, they couldn’t speak English. No one would hire them, so they started to peddle. They went into the alleys and started picking up junk stuff and that evolved into what we are today.”

Jerry Miller, 81, said the family business evolved from ingenuity with what others thought of as junk: “They could take something somebody threw away and they could do something with it, and create a little bit of profit.” 

Jeremy’s grandmother, Esther Miller, emigrated to Winona by way of Minneapolis in 1926, according to a written family history. She was raised in Poland in a “two room house built from clay” with a straw roof. And, as Jews, they faced persecution. 

Eager to make a better life for his family, Esther’s father, Jacob, left for Canada, eventually leaving for Minneapolis in 1918. It would be several years before he could send for his wife, Rose, and three daughters, Esther, Pearl and Minnie. “Our father had been gone so long we doubted that he was real or existed at all,” she recalled in the family history. 

William and Esther Miller operated Miller and Salvage Supply, which later became Wm. Miller Scrap Iron & Metal Co. Photo courtesy of Miller family.

As the oldest of three girls, she secretly attended school during World War I because Jewish families were not permitted to be educated. “Mother had only daughters so I, being the oldest, was admitted to hidden quarters in a basement to join with the boys to sneak an education,” the family history reads. “I was the only girl and what a ‘tom boy’ I was.”

She met Jeremy’s grandfather, William, of Winona, and the two married in 1937. She moved to Winona and they had their first son, Jerry, who was born in 1939. 

They started a tire company before Esther and William spun it off into Miller Salvage and Supply in 1950. 

When William Miller died of a stroke in 1962, Esther continued the scrap recycling business on her own, eager to keep the business afloat until her sons, who were still in college and high school, were old enough to run it themselves. Running a scrap metal business as a woman in the middle of the century was rare. A headline in the Winona Daily in 1971 still referred to her by her late husband’s name, calling her “Mrs. William (Esther) Miller.” In 1983, she was named “Businesswoman of the Year” by the Winona Business and Professional Women’s Club. 

George Boryzkowski, a Winona council member, who served with Jerry Miller when he was mayor of Winona, said the Miller family is known for their work ethic and desire to help the community.

“The Miller family here in Winona is hard working. They don’t back away from nothing,” he said over coffee at The Lost Oasis cafe. “They (also) do a lot of things for people that you don’t even know about. Maybe somebody’s down on their luck, and they just happen to see you, and they know that, they’re gonna help you out somehow.”

A Senate leader from a Minnesota regional hub

Miller, who represents three counties in the Senate, brings a regional and border economy perspective to the Capitol. He was a key sponsor of legislation that allowed for Sunday sales of liquor, arguing that Minnesota was losing revenue to Wisconsin when Minnesotans would drive across the state border to buy alcohol on Sundays. 

Throughout Winona, signs abound advertising jobs, including one at a local Perkins diner that promised cooks would be hired on the spot. 

Christy Ransom, executive director of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, said she looks forward to continuing to work with Miller on issues like tax cuts and opposing workplace mandates. Workforce shortages are also causing issues, she said. 

“We have restaurants that have shortened hours or closed certain days. We have retailers downtown that no longer have the college kids and high school kids in the same numbers (as before),” she said. “When you look at the big manufacturers, we’re looking at 60 to 80, maybe even 100 employees that they’re trying to hire at any given time.”

Miller, too, feels the same pinch, as he and Janel plan to launch another business venture together: a casual pizza, beer and chicken wing restaurant in Winona. 

But Miller’s real challenge might lie in good time management amid the newly earned responsibilities of managing a caucus. 

Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, now a Republican strategist, said Miller’s  reputation for listening to all sides and helping reach consensus will benefit him as leader, especially one who will have to unite different factions.  

“I remember when I started as leader thinking we’re all Republicans and we’ll agree on everything,” she said. “Your members are just tough. They have districts that look very different. Stillwater looks very different from Sartell.”

Aside from serving as chief financial officer for Miller Scrap, he will be leading his caucus into reelection next fall under newly redrawn maps. 

Redistricting is expected to alter the balance of power in the Legislature. Republicans are dominant outside the Twin Cities metro, but their areas have lost population or are growing slower than the cities and suburbs. That potentially means fewer safe Republican seats and a game of musical chairs. Rochester, which is represented by two Republican senators but has been trending Democratic in recent years, will likely present another challenge for Miller and the Republicans after redistricting. 

For now, however, Miller has carved out time to coach his son’s youth football team after he was recruited to volunteer his time on a league supported by his family’s foundation, the Morrie Miller Athletic Foundation, which benefits youth sports in Winona. 

He spent an afternoon on a recent Thursday coaching his son’s team, while juggling media interviews, phone calls and minding a pending business transaction. 

Did he have time for TV or any other hobbies? “My hobby is being a state senator,” he joked. His only hobby, he said, is to make time for a daily run, usually a few miles, to manage his stress and clear his head, which can generate new ideas. 

“Some of the best ideas that I come up with, whether it’s business or legislative ideas or other ideas, come when I’m running,” he said.

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