Rep. Paul Thissen, the Minneapolis DFLer who was speaker of the Minnesota House during a brief but intense period of progressive legislative victories a few years ago, said Wednesday that he is running for governor.
Thissen, in his eighth two-year term from a safe DFL district in southwest Minneapolis, will formally launch his campaign on Thursday. He said in an interview that as governor he would tackle two big challenges.
“The biggest job of the next governor is going to be standing up for everyday people in the face of economic changes,” he said. “And, figuring out a way to govern so people feel like they actually have a voice in their future again.”
Thissen will have to persuade the DFL activists who decide the endorsement at next year’s party convention to overlook recent political history. Under his leadership, House DFLers lost their majority in 2014 and even more seats in 2016. DFL activists are particularly worried about the 2018 election, with Republicans in position to seize full control of state government for the first time in nearly half a century.
A son of schoolteachers who went on to graduate from Harvard and the University of Chicago Law School, Thissen became speaker in 2013 after leading DFLers to a sweeping victory in House elections the previous November.
In the ensuing two years, with the DFL fully in control of state government, the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton raised income taxes on the wealthy, paid back money borrowed from school districts and increased their funding, froze public college tuition, legalized same-sex marriage and medical marijuana, raised the state minimum wage, paved the way for unionization of thousands of personal care attendants and took on other issues like school bullying and women’s economic equality.
“It’s no wonder Thissen led the House DFL into the minority under his failed leadership — Minnesotans simply can’t afford his style of government,” said John Rouleau, executive director of the GOP-aligned Minnesota Jobs Coalition. He cited several other highlights of Thissen’s stint as speaker — the creation of Minnesota’s MNsure insurance exchange and approval of a $90 million in state funds for a state Senate office building that became a favorite target of Republicans.
Thissen said he learned lessons from a series of DFL House race losses in 2014 that followed the party’s burst of activity at the Capitol. “We haven’t shown up in all the places we need to be,” he said, referring to areas of greater Minnesota where the DFL lost legislative seats that it had held for years. “And, we need to better about respecting everyone in the state.”
He first ran for governor in 2010, and finished a surprisingly strong third at the DFL convention; he took over as the leader of House Democrats in 2011 and relinquished the post at the end of last year. He said he has traveled around Minnesota as much as nearly any elected official in the past decade, having conversations with DFL activists and regular voters.
This experience has converted him to a new kind of localism, he said. Rather than creating programs to solve problems, state government should set goals, come up with the money and then let local people figure out solutions, Thissen said.
Thissen, who is married and has three children, cited an ongoing dispute between Dayton and GOP lawmakers about whether private or public preschool is the best way to prepare children for school. Instead, he said, the state should fund regional hubs and let different areas of the state decide what they think is best.
“As far as we possibly can, we should let people at the local level figure out the path forward to reach our common goals,” he said. While leading to better solutions, this approach would give Minnesotans a sense that they are in control of their own destiny, he argued.
On the changing economy, Thissen holds more conventional DFL views. He would offer two years of free public college to help young people gain skills needed for an economy being reshaped by globalization and automation. He said he would strengthen unions in current and emerging industries, seek to improve access to child care for working parents and address wealth and racial disparities.
About those disparities, which census data have shown to be large and persistent in Minnesota, Thissen said: “That has to be a lens through which every policy decision is viewed.”
Thissen once chaired the House Health and Human Services Committee, giving him expertise in a tangle of complex and expensive government policy. He used his perch to expand health coverage for children. But more recently, rising health insurance premiums on the individual market — which Republicans say is the consequence of a poorly conceived Minnesota law adopting the Affordable Care Act — are believed to have hurt the DFL in last year’s election.
Thissen joins a large DFL field running to replace Dayton, who decided against a third term: U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, state Reps. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and Tina Liebling of Rochester, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and State Auditor Rebecca Otto are all running. Attorney General Lori Swanson is also considered a strong candidate if she runs.
On the Republican side, Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who was the party’s 2014 nominee, have announced they are running. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, is a potential candidate, among a few others who could get in the race.