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Leaning his lanky frame over his office table, the tip of his tongue resting lightly on his upper lip, House Speaker Paul Thissen studied the remarks prepared for him to give to the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council.
Included was a small joke to share with the agriculture community, already skeptical of the Minneapolis representative. Thissen swiftly nixed it. The extra-introverted speaker said he tried a joke in a speech once — “Nobody laughed.”
Thissen has little time or inclination for the chummy warmth that has colored the leadership of speakers past as he tackles serious, high-stakes challenges.
Among them: a tax bill passed by the House on Wednesday that is starkly different from those proposed by the DFL-led Senate and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, with its surcharge on the wealthy and the first liquor tax increase in a generation. Next week, Thissen will personally round up votes for a controversial bill to legalize gay marriage that would leave a lasting imprint on Minnesota — and which could cost him his majority.
The House has changed hands three times since 2009. To retain power, Thissen must satisfy the party’s urban core without alienating rural DFLers while still protecting swing district suburbanites. In doing so, he has staked out positions on a higher minimum wage, higher taxes and spending priorities that are at odds with Dayton and DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook.
As he looks for consensus and compromise, Thissen doesn’t schmooze and doesn’t twist arms.
He relies instead on a coolly intellectual, fact-based style that has brought him a Harvard degree, partnership at the prestigious Lindquist and Vennum law firm, and a political seat second in power only to the governor — all by age 46.
Thissen makes no apologies for a manner that even those who know him best describe as reserved.
“The caucus right now is looking for someone who is going to be more about getting the business done,” said Thissen, who helped turn a 62-member minority into a 73-member majority in the 2012 elections.
His preference, as always, is to get straight to that business.
“Most people know ultimately pretty much where they are going to end up,” he said. “It just takes a long time to get there. I would rather just get there.”
Message, not personality
Even his fans acknowledge that Thissen is a different kind of speaker.
“He does not put his personality out there,” said Rep. Deb Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, a strong Thissen ally. “It is about the message and it is about the work that we are doing here. It is not about him as a person.”
Asked about himself, Thissen laughs. “I’m Minnesotan,” he said. “I’d rather talk about someone else or something else than myself.”
That doesn’t mean he’s a pushover.
Thissen can be blunt with others, telling legislators respectfully — but in no uncertain terms — when their needs fail to line up with his priorities or when agency requests are in doubt.
While he shares some goals with the Senate and governor, Thissen has not been afraid to move the House in a different direction, proposing a stiff increase in the cigarette tax, making repayment to K-12 schools a high priority and pushing for direct property tax relief to homeowners.
“There are not a lot of differences,” Thissen said. “But where the differences are we have a popular position on stuff, and that helps.”
Bakk doesn’t see it that way. “The popular thing is not always the right thing on taxes,” he said. The Senate tax plan features a sales tax on clothing and an income tax hike that reaches further into the middle class than does the House or Dayton.
Thissen has been willing to mix it up on other fronts, too.
He purposely put Minneapolis Rep. Jean Wagenius, an ardent environmentalist seen as hostile to the farming industry, in charge of the environmental and agriculture budget plans. Rural interests were outraged. He met repeatedly with agricultural interests to soothe hard feelings but stands by his decision. He notes that in the aftermath, warring interests have been more exposed to the others’ perspectives.
Thissen, along with House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, moved to cut $150 million from health and welfare programs, stunning interest groups that thought their day had finally come. At one point, Thissen’s own Health and Human Services Finance Chairman, Tom Huntley of Duluth, threatened briefly to quit his post over a proposed cut. Thissen said he understood the hard feelings but said he needed to put “the head above the heart on that.” Huntley remained, but so did the cut.
Former DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher calls the speaker’s post “the hardest elected job in the state.”
Thissen, she said, “has a lot of members to balance and he also has this relationship with the governor ... and he has to manage that.”
Republicans have seen another side of Thissen.
“He seems like he is very much into the policy and putting his own personal fingerprints on all of the policy, which is probably a difficult thing to accomplish,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “I don’t know if he is going to have the best results trying that. You can’t control everyone, and you can’t control everything.”
Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said the Thissen-led House has gone out of its way to muzzle the minority, even imposing a new requirement that requires floor amendments to be filed in advance — a move Davids said stifles debate.
“They can do anything they want to, just go by your own rules,” Davids said.
Moving through long days at the Capitol, Thissen swigs Diet Cokes, at least a half-dozen daily. His calm belies the high caffeine intake. DFL Rep. Joe Atkins of Inver Grove Heights said that in the 10 years he’s worked with Thissen, he has seen the speaker angry only once, and even then there was no yelling.
When Thissen’s not herding DFLers, he’s helping to squire his three children — ages 9, 11 and 14 — through their busy lives. His typical week is littered with their activities — play rehearsal, piano practice, soccer, clarinet lessons, drum lessons, basketball and hockey — interspersed with Thissen’s own high-level meetings with business groups, legislators and activists.
Many of those meetings have been on perhaps the most delicate issue the House faces this session: whether to legalize gay marriage.
Bakk, confident the Senate has the votes for legalization, has said he will let the shakier House take up the issue first.
That has focused all eyes on Thissen, as he broaches the topic with one DFLer after another.
Thissen says he is consciously trying not to “impose a vision” on how members should vote. Instead, he asks, “What are you thinking about? What are you hearing? What are you feeling?” Then he listens.
“He never puts on any pressure,” said Rep. Jay McNamar, a DFL freshman from Elbow Lake who is on the fence about his vote. “He always lets you make your decisions. And you know what? That’s admirable.”
Although he is not keeping a detailed list — this week he was caught unaware when DFL Rep. Kim Norton removed her name from a civil union alternative to marriage — Thissen said he talked to 20 members whose votes on same-sex marriage have been in doubt. Even so, he remains unsure he has the 68 votes needed for passage.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know.”
With other political leaders, saying “I don’t know” could be a ruse, but allies say that’s not how Thissen operates.
“I think it’s easy to see legislative leaders as being game-players and dealmakers. … I think you would be misreading Paul Thissen if you saw him as somebody like that,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
Thissen said the outcome should satisfy Minnesotans.
“The end product, even though things will be messy along the way, will be a good product for Minnesotans,” he said. “And that, I hope, is what they will judge us on.”