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First-year Minnesota legislators get informed, overwhelmed this session

ST. PAUL -- For 26 Minnesota state representatives, the long hours in committee hearings, caucus meetings and floor sessions have not been business as usual. Such is the life of a freshman legislator, where, according to Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-N...

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First-year Minnesota Rep. Kelly Fenton of Woodbury (left) holds a news conference during the 2015 legislative session with Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie. Rookie lawmakers often are seen but not heard. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)



ST. PAUL -- For 26 Minnesota state representatives, the long hours in committee hearings, caucus meetings and floor sessions have not been business as usual.

Such is the life of a freshman legislator, where, according to Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, every moment is a new experience that both informs and overwhelms those new to the office.

“Some of the best advice I received about being a new member was that if you are going to have to drink from a fire hose, don’t grit your teeth,” said Heintzeman, a small business owner and father of five children. “You try to relax a little bit and just make sure you are able to absorb as much as you can, because at a certain point, you just can’t fight it. New, important information and experiences are always flying at you.”


Whether a member of the majority or the minority party, several members of this session’s freshmen class said they were both energized and confounded by the legislative process.

It used to be, veteran legislators thought first-termers should do more listening, less talking. Many members of freshman class of 2015 didn’t get that memo and have emerged as vocal advocates for issues they care a lot about.

“I never bought into that,” said Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, an economics professor and director of health care management at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She came to the House of Representatives ready to roll up her sleeves and put her experience in the health care reform field to work.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, served as a committee vice chairman, an honor usually afforded more seasoned lawmakers. His background in municipal utilities and experience as a small-business employer served him on the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee. When the avian flu hit his constituents hard, the committee met in his home district.

“It was a terrific honor to have the whole committee go to Willmar,” he said.

Additionally, Baker was chosen by his freshman class to represent them with House leadership. He considers that a compliment because his classmates have expansive knowledge, above average communication skills and ask a lot of questions.

“They’re a smart bunch of people,” he said.

Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said if anyone would have asked her four years ago whether she would be working as an elected member of the Legislature, she would have doubted that prospect. But after working on a state Senate campaign and then being hired as a staff member for the Republican Senate Caucus in 2011, Fenton found herself learning, and appreciating, the legislative process.


“It’s still a whole new experience to be here as an elected member,” Fenton said.

As a majority caucus member, Baker has a newfound appreciation for sitting down to eat lunch.

A hospitality business owner, Baker considers himself good at managing his time between running a hotel, restaurant and cruise line.

“But this was amazing," he said. "I didn’t realize I’d need to schedule in time to use the restroom."

Now he is able to multitask in a way that makes returning to Willmar during the heart of tourist season seem easy.

“I’ve never felt more challenged or more stimulated at a job” and being a legislator has been “the greatest job of my life,” he said.

As a DFLer, Schultz said, time is on her side this biennium.

“It’s been useful to be in the minority because it’s been a little bit slower and I’m able to learn more, meet more people on both sides, understand how the process works and do a lot more constituent services," Schultz said. "Since I’m a new legislator, that’s really important to me.”


As they hone their skills on and off the House floor, many beginners said being a legislator isn’t quite what they thought. Some admit they have regrets.

“I voted for the 24-hour rule for amendments on the House floor,” Schultz said about a rule that does not allow impromptu amendments to bills. “If I did that vote over, I would not vote for the 24-hour rule. I think it hinders debate. People come prepared to shoot something down right away rather than having the full discussion.”

Even though the legislative process can present frustrations and fatigue, there is an appreciation for the complexities in carrying a piece of legislation through the various stages, even before it receives its third reading on the House floor, Fenton said.

“The process is much slower than people think,” she said, “but that’s a good thing, because as your bill moves through committees, you are making it better and better with each critique and each stop along the way.”

Visits from constituents are what re-energized Heintzeman throughout the session and what he values most about his first few months as a House member.

“To see that there is some hope in their faces … that does mean a lot to me that those kind folks believe that I can make a difference here for them,” he said.


Session Daily is a nonpartisan online publication of Minnesota House Public Information Services at www.house.leg.state.mn.us/SessionDaily .



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Rookie Minnesota Rep. Dave Baker of Willmar (right) never expected that part of his job would be to organize a May 2015 turkey burger grill to show Minnesotans that turkey meat is safe even during a bird flu outbreak. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

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