Some new legislators aren’t new at all

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporterThe start of the legislative session will see a wave of new lawmakers who aren’t really new.
Cutline: Former Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, seen on the House floor, is one of a double handful of former area lawmakers returning to the State Capitol in January. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

A double handful of former area lawmakers — legislators with office-holding experience ranging from a couple of terms to decades — will take the oath of office in January with no more fanfare than given the most inexperienced freshmen.

They don’t care.

“It’s always an honor to serve,” said former Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, a two-termer sent back to the State Capitol after a loss by voters two years ago from the swing-district paradise of Dakota County.

The area legislator returning to the Capitol with the longest legislative history is former Rep. Ron Erhardt.

Erhardt, of Edina, ran afoul of Republicans, under whose banner he served for 10 terms in the House, by voting to override former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation-finance bill.

In a closely watch race, Erhardt, whose stripes may have changed but not his core beliefs, he has often said, defeated his Republican challenger as a newly minted Democrat.

“I’m not going to be vindicative,” Erhardt said of dealing with Republicans.

But he may razz House Republicans, who, like Senate Republicans, now the minority, from time to time, Erhardt explained.

A former Republican transportation committee chairman, Erhardt will now chair the House DFL Transportation Policy Committee.

The area lawmaker whose been away the longest is former Rep. Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park.

Johnson, who served seven terms in the House before retiring with her husband to surf-fish from a retirement home in Texas, is returning to the State Capitol more than a decade after cleaning out her desk.

Unsettled local DFL politics brought Johnson back into the fray to defeat Republican Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, just short months after Johnson returned from Texas with no intentions of running for anything.

“They’d (voters) be shaking their heads in agreement with me,” she said of her campaign pitch that the deliberative process was broken and needed to be mended.

Johnson, who served 14 years in the House, feels a certain tentativeness in returning to St. Paul.

It’s a big change, she noted.

But some of her future Senate colleagues, such as Senator-elect Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo, and Senator-elect Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, are people she served with previously or knows.

“I think Democrats are very concerned about that,” Johnson said of pushing the DFL agenda too strongly, of overreaching.

“And I think that’s healthy,” she said.

Another returning DFL lawmaker with a sentiment that might not be expected from a former U.S. Army Sergeant Major is former Rep. Jerry Newton.

“I feel like a first grader waiting for school to start,” chuckled Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, of the start of session.

Newton, with an extensive record of public service, is returning to the State Capitol after a loss and hiatus of two years.

Like Johnson, Newton suggests Democrats focus on the state budget and state economy over other issues.

“I think it would be wrong to think that we have one,” Newton said of a mandate.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

Democrats should move cautiously on social issues, such as same-sex marriage, Newton advised.

“We have to approach things carefully,” he said.

Newton looks to pursuing legislation ranging from school funding shift remedies to pedestrian safety on Hwy. 10.

Other former area lawmakers returning to St. Paul after voluntary or voter-mandated departures includes former Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-Fridley, who served six years in the House before leaving for other pursuits.

Two former lawmakers from Dakota County also returning are former Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, back after a loss and two years out of office.

Former Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, is also back after a loss with legislative directory citing her newly won third term as “nonconsecutive.”

To the north, former Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, another DFL casualty of the 2010 election, won reelection and is heading back to the State Capitol for a third term.

House Speaker-elect Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, doesn’t expect returning former House members to be gun shy.

“I don’t think so necessarily,” Thissen said of being overly cautious.

“I think they ran again because they know we have some big challenges to face. And I think they’ll be willing to take on those challenges in a realistic way,” Thissen said.

“I think because they’ve been on both sides of an election, they can speak with some credibility on the decisions we have to make — there’s no question about that,” he said.

The new legislative session begins Jan. 8.