The players who made the big plays: Minnesota lawmakers worth watching
Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, and Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, congratulate each other after the Senate adjourns the 2023 legislative session. Photo by Senate Media Services.
More than 60% of Minnesota lawmakers were elected for the first time in 2018 or later, which means an often younger, more diverse, more urban and suburban set of Democrats — many of them with firmly progressive commitments — have their hands on the levers of power.
They are joined by some longstanding veterans who’ve been around for decades — in a couple of cases elected the same year as Walter Mondale’s 1984 Minnesota victory — and know how the place works.
That combination — the dynamic, high-energy newbies and seasoned veterans — helped Democrats push through the most ambitious legislative agenda in a generation.
We compiled a list — admittedly totally arbitrary, and by no means comprehensive — of the people who seemed to be at the center of the action at key moments this year, and who seem likely to be players in Minnesota’s public life in the years to come.
—J. Patrick Coolican
Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, were both nursing narrow majorities in the days after the midterm election, but they decided to take their shot anyway.
“We realized we have a lot more in common than we do differences,” Dziedzic said about the Senate DFL caucus. She was elected majority leader as a compromise candidate after the Democrats’ surprising November victory.
Dziedzic and Hortman started planning right away for a shock-and-awe campaign right out of the gate, passing into law a slew of progressive policy priorities while they waited to see how much money they’d have to build their two-year budget. So by the middle of the session, the right to abortion was in law, and they’d already passed drivers’ licenses for undocumented people, free school lunch and climate regulations, among other bills.
Then, they came to an early agreement on budget targets, which allowed a robust debate on what to do with the money — spend it? give it away? both! — while enabling a rare on-time finish.
Most remarkably, as all this was happening, Dziedzic underwent surgery to remove a tumor and with it her spleen, appendix and uterus as part of cancer treatment. Recovering in her northeast Minneapolis home, Dziedzic successfully shepherded through the Democratic wish-list with a 34-33 majority that included at least two potential iterations of Joe Manchin — Democratic Socialist Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis, and moderate Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin. (Luckily, it turns out they’re friends.)
Dziedzic, as she does, deflected credit: “It was a team effort. It wasn’t just me. It was multiple people having multiple conversations,” she said.
Hortman, who’s been the House DFL leader since 2017, had been working toward this moment for years. She said the House DFL caucus has focused on time outside the Capitol talking directly with voters to understand their priorities. She said they were able to get to this moment passing a progressive agenda through organizing, fundraising and supporting electable candidates.
Republicans were surprised by the DFL’s aggressive legislating, but they shouldn’t have been, Hortman said: “We did exactly what Minnesotans asked us to do.”
The taxperts square off
Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, gives off Rage Against the Machine vibes, but she’s also known for her policy chops and strong convictions.
She refused to hold hearings on any of the three dozen local sales tax bills, arguing they were inequitable because they hit low-income Minnesotans harder, and they privileged cities and counties with big retail bases large enough to raise revenue off a sales tax increase.
“It’s about principle to me,” Gomez said.
Gomez pushed for a fifth income tax tier on wealthy Minnesotans and a way to capture more of the foreign income of Minnesota’s multinational corporations. The big goal: Redistribute money downward via a highly progressive child tax credit and other provisions.
As a first-time chair of the House Taxes Committee, Gomez more than met her match in her Senate counterpart, Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope.
Rest, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1984, has a degree in business taxation from the University of Minnesota, another in public administration from Harvard and a master’s from the University of Chicago. Her toughness went viral in February, when she scolded many of her colleagues for violating parliamentary rules.
Rest was committed to smothering individual income tax increases in her bill during a year of surplus, and she mostly prevailed when the House and Senate had to hammer out a deal.
It wasn’t always pretty: House DFL members failed to show up at one of their scheduled public meetings, and Rest decided to continue with the meeting despite their absence.
“I regret that the House is not here, but our very, very strong directive from both the House speaker and Senate majority leader is that we are here to get our work done and they expect results,” Rest said during the meeting. “The Senate is prepared to do that.”
Gomez eventually capitulated to the Senate’s position on the local sales tax increases, and she had to let go of a fifth tier on the wealthy and the international tax provision.
Look for more friendly debates over tax policy next year.
Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown
Sen. Grant Hauschild, 33, worked for former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and in the Obama administration’s ag department, so he knows the dicey politics of being a Democrat talking to rural voters.
The DFL freshman from Hermantown said his Capitol Hill experience gave him perspective on how to handle the whirlwind of the 2023 legislative session, but it was still jarring, especially representing a more rural area when there are fewer and fewer rural Minnesota Democrats all the time.
In the end, he decided to go all-in: “This was a punctuated moment in our history to be able to do the big things to make our state really a model for the nation.”
Behind the scenes, it wasn’t always easy.
“What you have to determine is are you willing to take down something that your convictions truly believe in just to get your way on a small piece of it?” he said. “I was much more willing to work collaboratively behind the scenes with the authors of the bills, with stakeholders on either side to navigate those changes rather than blow things up. Because that’s not the way I operate.”
For example, he believes in paid family leave, but helped negotiate a narrow exemption for seasonal employers, like resorts.
“Bills weren’t brought to the floor to fail,” Hauschild said.
His most memorable experience was deciding how to vote on gun safety legislation — where he was a key vote on bills that mandated background checks for all private gun sales and gave courts the ability to take guns from people deemed a danger to themselves and others.
“I was truly undecided,” he said.
He said he was leaning against voting for the bills until he had conversations with sheriffs, talked to moms scared to drop their kids off at school and heard from constituents at town halls.
Hauschild is a hunter who grew up with guns on the walls of his boyhood home near Fargo. He went trap shooting every weekend in the summer, and understands families that pass down gun culture.
He decided he couldn’t face his own children — Henry, 3, and Isla, 1 — if he didn’t do everything he could to protect them.
“I just decided I can’t live with myself if I don’t do something,” he said.
As a swing-district Democrat, Hauschild was routinely targeted with ads and even billboards in the Twin Cities blasting him.
“I had heat on me on every issue,” he said. “So I constantly was feeling pressure … I actually think that’s good.”
It forced him to do his homework and talk to both sides, he said.
“I’m always willing to have tough conversations, to talk to my critics, or to talk to those on the other side — perhaps to the frustration of some of my caucus members who I’ve brought along to those meetings to have those tough conversations with me.”
Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul
When Minneapolis police pressed George Floyd’s neck and body into the pavement at 38th and Chicago, Clare Oumou Verbeten was devastated and demoralized.
She grew up in Roseville — near where Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop — and felt like Minnesota was becoming known as a place where “Black folks get killed by police,” she said.
Oumou Verbeten felt like the Legislature needed more people talking about a holistic approach to public safety and addressing racial disparities in housing, education and health care.
“I love Minnesota. It’s my home, it’s where I grew up … but when you dig deeper, it’s not the best place for Black folks and people of color.”
So she ran for the Senate.
She won, and now, at age 28, she just finished with a remarkable run of legislative victories. Among her bills:
- A ban on most no-knock warrants, like the one that got Amir Locke, 22, killed.
- Free phone calls from prison in an effort keep prisoners connected to family and community so they won’t reoffend when released.
- Decriminalization of drug paraphernalia, even if it has drug residue on it, to stop the spread of disease and keep people out of the jail treadmill.
- A five-year cap on probation, applied retroactively.
- Codification of new rules passed by the state’s police licensing board that will give the board the power to take problem cops off the streets.
- The Take Pride Act, which modernized definitions in a 30-year-old law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
She doesn’t worry about Republicans using the legislation against her — she was honored to champion the bills.
“This is what I ran on,” Oumou Verbeten said. “If I’m not representing my community and our values anymore, I trust they’ll do the right thing and they’ll elect somebody else, right? Like that’s what democracy is.”
Her mother — who is from Senegal — owns a small cleaning business; Oumou Verbeten often cleaned with her mom, including the DFL building. Years later, her mom marched into the DFL headquarters and asked them to give her daughter an internship.
She went on to work as deputy director of party affairs.
Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids
Rep. Zack Stephenson is probably best known for his work spearheading the cannabis legalization bill that takes effect Aug. 1. The Hennepin County prosecutor and former staffer to U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar was the House point person for the legalization measure that passed through dozens of committees on its way to passage.
But Stephenson played a central role on many other high-profile bills this session. As chair of the Commerce Finance and Policy Committee, he oversaw a $64 million budget bill that, among other things, put a cap on payday loan interest rates, enshrined some of the country’s strongest right-to-repair consumer protections, and created a prescription drug affordability board.
Stephenson also authored a rebate package for electric vehicles that passed as part of the energy and environment budget, and he wrote another bill that criminalized the dissemination of certain deepfake images. In a headline-grabbing move in support of the latter bill, Stephenson delivered a ChatGPT-written speech in support of it. He was also the chief author of a ban on political donations from corporations owned in part by foreign entities.
The red-bearded Stephenson has the speaker’s ear: He ran her first successful run for the House in 2004, when he wasn’t old enough to drink, and remains one of Hortman’s key political strategists.
Looking ahead to the next legislative session, Stephenson said the big item he wants to return to is a proposal to allow sports betting. “Budget items had to take priority this year,” he said, and the time pressure meant that sports betting had to be tabled.
Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield
Michael Howard, a third-term House member from Richfield, was a lead architect of the largest housing bill in state history. The $1 billion package will fund new affordable housing development across the state, homeownership opportunities for first-generation buyers and provide rental assistance to thousands more families. Howard has served on the House housing committee since he was first elected in 2018.
Howard knows how to craft a message and work with the media, having previously served as communications director for the House DFL Caucus. He’s used those skills to pitch an ambitious plan year after year to provide housing vouchers to all low-income Minnesotans paying more than 30% of their income on rent. Although he didn’t get universal rental assistance, he was able to get funding to increase the number of rental vouchers in the state by about 12%, paid for in part with the state’s first dedicated funding stream for housing — a .25% sales tax in the Twin Cities metro area.
Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis
Rep. Sydney Jordan of Minneapolis was only just elected in 2020, but her fingerprints are on a bevy of significant bills that passed this session: free school meals for students; hundreds of millions in funding to replace lead service lines; and a ban on “forever chemicals” in non-essential products.
Jordan also was chief author of bills that received less attention, including one that increased funding for schools to improve air ventilation, which could have a big impact on student health and learning. Another new law lowers the threshold at which people are considered to have elevated blood lead levels, which will unlock services for more people exposed to lead, a harmful neurotoxin.
Jordan’s background is in political organizing. She currently works as the organizing director for Save the Boundary Waters, an environmental advocacy group focused on blocking sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters. She previously worked for the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and was the political director for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s first campaign.
Jordan has yet to oversee a committee of her own, but a gavel can’t be far off.
— Max Nesterak
Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth
Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, oversaw one of the most significant legislative sessions for organized labor and workers in Minnesota history as chair of the Senate Labor Committee.
Minnesota lawmakers passed laws mandating paid sick leave, creating a paid family and medical leave program, banning non-compete agreements, banning captive audience meetings and granting nursing home workers greater power to negotiate wages and working conditions.
McEwen, a second-term legislator endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, was the lead author of new laws that make general contractors liable for wage theft on their projects and allow hourly school workers to collect unemployment benefits during summer breaks — a first in the country.
She also authored the Protect Reproductive Options Act.
McEwen, a lawyer who has been a public defender and represented workers with disabilities, has deep roots in Duluth, where she lives with her husband and two children in the home her great-grandparents built.
— Max Nesterak
Sen. Omar Fateh, DFL-Minneapolis
One of many iconic photos of the legislative session shows Fateh being carried on the shoulders of Uber and Lyft drivers after passage of a bill that would have set minimum pay rates for drivers and establish greater protections against wrongful termination.
Fateh, who identifies as a Democratic Socialist, used his leverage in the 34-33 Senate to force a vote on the bill, which passed both chambers but was vetoed by Walz, who created a task force to study the issue.
No doubt Fateh and the drivers will be back next year.
But the Uber/Lyft bill wasn’t even his most high-profile legislative accomplishment. As chair of the higher education committee, Fateh passed a bill to provide free tuition to Minnesota’s public colleges and universities for any family earning less than $80,000 per year, which is about the Minnesota median family income. The bill should ameliorate exploding student debt while also helping the state’s public institutions, which are suffering from falling enrollment. Undocumented people are eligible, too.
—J. Patrick Coolican
Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth
No Ways and Means chair has ever convoyed through so much spending as Olson — more than $70 billion in all. And it was her first term with the gavel. Olson holds a master’s degree from the Luther Seminary in congregational and community care, which has made her well-suited for a key role in the House DFL’s “Minnesota Values Project,” their voter outreach effort that helped shape their session agenda.
Social issues like abortion and trans rights and marijuana legalization got a lot of buzz this session, but the two-year budget Olson moved through the Legislature may have the most lasting impact on Minnesota.
— J. Patrick Coolican
House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, were both new to leadership, which could not have been easy. Even as Republicans were just getting used to their grim new status on the wrong end of the trifecta, Democrats were getting off to a blistering start.
Republicans often seemed shell-shocked and struggled to stop the DFL momentum. Their “victory” at the end of the session entailed $300 million in nursing home spending — surely important to constituents, but also just the kind of government spending that Democrats usually crave.
Demuth and Johnson need to raise money and coalesce around a winning message while recruiting candidates who can win in the suburbs.
Both Demuth and Johnson also confront unruly caucuses, including some members whose primary goal is raising their own political profiles by going viral via right-wing jeremiads on the floor of the House and Senate and social media.
Given the lackluster condition of the state GOP, the caucus leaders will be largely on their own as they guide Republicans out of the wilderness.
Demuth and Johnson may have a saving grace following the most progressive legislative session in memory: A panicked business lobby likely willing to spend heavily to turn the tide back.
Given the Democrats’ narrow majorities, wealthy interests putting real money into the 2024 House and 2026 Senate campaigns could be worth billions in the long run.
Editor’s note: If you disagree with our selections or have your own candidates, drop us a line.
—J. Patrick Coolican
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