Revolving door at Minnesota Capitol creates windstorm

Former legislators are haunting the halls, now repping clients for cash

By: - March 15, 2023 6:00 am

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

A bevy of former lawmakers roaming the Capitol this session aren’t just catching up with old friends — now they’re lobbyists trying to influence former colleagues on behalf of Google, Delta Airlines, Apple and big tobacco and mining companies.

Legislators say they’ve been lobbied by many of their former colleagues, including the recently departed, like former Sens. Patricia Torres Ray, Chuck Wiger and Jeff Hayden, all Democrats.

Legislators becoming lobbyists isn’t a new phenomenon, but heavy turnover at the state Capitol — combined with DFL trifecta’s break-neck pace — has clients turning to legislators-turned-lobbyists who are still plugged into the game.

“There’s a lot of money these days in being a Democrat who knows people,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. 

Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, said ex-legislator lobbyists who recently left office have an advantage in information and relationships — and questioned the propriety of the arrangement.

“The people of Minnesota place a certain amount of trust in you to be acting on their behalf, and now very shortly after leaving the Legislature — still armed with that body of information and relationships that you have — you’re acting for financial gain and on behalf of some client,” Klein said. “I think there’s some ethical concerns there.”

As the executive director of Common Cause in 1999, David Schultz testified in favor of a “revolving door” bill that would force former legislators to take a break before engaging in lobbying. Otherwise, former legislators will “cash in on friendships and knowledge and relationships that they have with legislators to give their clients special advantage or special access to the legislative process or to leaders,” said Schultz, who is a political science professor at Hamline University.

And that special access for clients who can afford to hire a former lawmaker could mean less access for average Minnesotans. 

Minnesota remains one of a few states without a statewide revolving door policy. These laws prohibit former lawmakers or state officials from becoming lobbyists for a certain time period — often one year — after leaving office. 

At the federal level, U.S. House members must wait one year after leaving office before registering as lobbyists, and U.S. Senators cannot lobby their former colleagues for two years.

For years, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has introduced legislation to enact a policy for Minnesota lawmakers and state commissioners — to no avail.

Marty is trying again this session, and on Monday he introduced a bill (SF2864) that would prohibit legislators, constitutional officers and state agency heads from lobbying for seven years after leaving their position. He argued it’s appropriate and better for public perception of the lawmaking process.

“It’s human nature. People are your friends, and you’re going to be more open to find the time to talk with them and so on,” Marty said. 

The line between lobbying and advocacy

Other lawmakers are engaging in advocacy around the Capitol, even if they’re not directly lobbying. Former House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who was a key player in the effort to legalize THC gummies and beverages last year, is chair of the MN is Ready campaign, which is fighting to pass a full legalization bill this year. After failing to win a primary for Hennepin County Attorney and leaving office last year, Winkler formed his own THC beverage company with two partners, set to launch soon. 

Winkler said he’s not lobbying his former colleagues. 

Former Senate Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen decided not to seek reelection last year despite her leadership status because her former district was radically altered by redistricting. She’s the co-founder and president of a public affairs firm called NewPublica; she declined to share information about the firm’s client roster. She also serves as a board member for FairVote Minnesota — a voting rights nonprofit.

López Franzen, who isn’t registered as a lobbyist, said she’s been at the Capitol a few times this session and attended a few events, like one that advocated for enacting the Equal Rights Amendment, but only as a private citizen and not a lobbyist.

“I haven’t triggered any reporting requirements under campaign finance law,” López Franzen said. 

Minnesota has two thresholds that require a person to register as a lobbyist. First, if a person is paid over $3,000 in a calendar year to represent corporations or groups, then they must register. The second requires a person to register if they spend over $250 of their personal funds in a calendar year for lobbying purposes.

In addition, legislators cannot lobby while they are in office.

The ex-legislator lobbyists

Republican ex-legislators are lobbying this session too. Former Rep. Tony Albright, who resigned in August, now lobbies for Apple, Carver County and the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners, among others.

Former GOP House speaker and minority leader Kurt Zellers is a registered lobbyist for Neurocrine Biosciences, a San Diego-based corporation that develops treatments for neurological diseases.

Torres Ray, a Minneapolis Democrat who didn’t seek reelection in November, lobbies for multiple Minnesota organizations, including LatinoLEAD, MicroGrants and the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table. 

Wiger, a Maplewood Democrat who also didn’t seek reelection, is a lobbyist for the BARR Center, an education nonprofit. 

Hayden, a Minneapolis Democrat who lost his 2020 DFL primary election, is a Capitol fixture and works for the influential firm Fredrikson & Byron, whose clients include Google, the city of Minneapolis, Protect Minnesota and both the YWCAs of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Former Sen. Tom Bakk, who didn’t seek reelection in November, broke away from the DFL in 2020 and began caucusing with Republicans as an Independent. Bakk developed a reputation during 30 years in the Legislature  for mastery of the state budget and the inside game of the legislative process. 

Bakk now lobbies for Twin Metals Minnesota, Altria Client Services LLC — formerly named Philip Morris and one of the world’s largest marketers and producers of tobacco and cigarettes — and Essar Capital Americas.

A 25-year campaign

In 1999, the state House passed a revolving door bill that prohibited a lawmaker from lobbying for one year after they left office. The bill, authored by then Rep. Steve Sviggum, passed the Republican-controlled House with bipartisan support. Marty was the Senate bill’s chief author, but the bill stalled in the DFL-controlled Senate.

At the time, Sen. Roger Moe was already a legendary majority leader, having served nearly two decades in the role.

Moe’s now a lobbyist for a long list of clients, including Delta Airlines, the Red Lake Nation, Conservation Corps of Minnesota and the American Crystal Sugar Company.

The revolving door between public interest and private gain can trigger questions about a lawmaker’s motive even when they’re in office, said Schultz, the Hamline University professor.

“How do you know a legislator is making decisions based upon, ‘This is good legislation’ versus ‘This gets me a job with ‘X’ hospital chain,’” Schultz said.

The Minnesota House does have a provision stating  former members cannot register as lobbyists within one year of leaving office. However, Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board Executive Director Jeff Sigurdson noted that House rules apply to current members only, so it’s unclear how that rule is enforced for someone out of office. The Senate has no such rule.

Even though the Legislature came half way to passing revolving door legislation nearly a quarter century ago, Schultz isn’t optimistic about one passing the DFL trifecta this year.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if a few legislators are thinking, ‘Well heck, I’m getting paid $48,000 a year. (If I) do this a couple of terms, I can turn around and get a job as a lobbyist being paid two or three times this. Why should I cut my own future income off or potential job opportunities off?’”

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.