The names Kurt Daudt and Paul Thissen are on only 1.5 percent of Minnesota’s Nov. 8 ballots. But every ballot gives voters a chance to fill a seat in the 2017-18 Minnesota House. That means every voter will help decide who will occupy the big chair below the Lincoln portrait next year — Daudt, the current Republican speaker, or Thissen, the former DFL one.
If it has happened before that a state House speaker and his predecessor have figuratively wrestled over the gavel in the way Daudt and Thissen are now — on this very page! — as leaders of their respective campaign teams, I can’t conjure when. (If you can, please drop me a line here at legislative trivia headquarters.)
The palpable rivalry between these two partisans adds sizzle to what for Minnesota newsies is the year’s biggest election question: Who will control the state House?
Yes, control of the state Senate is also in play. But the Senate has been in DFL hands for all but two of the past 44 years. That makes it a rock of state government stability compared with the volatile House, where party control has switched in four of the past five elections.
That explains why electioneering factors into every move the House collectively makes — and why too often it doesn’t move at all.
As human emblems of the contrast between today’s Minnesota Republicans and DFLers, Daudt and Thissen will do.
Daudt, 43, hails from the northern fringe of the metro area and lives on the Isanti County farm his grandparents homesteaded. His campaign website features the one-term speaker in hunting garb kneeling before five dead pheasants in a photo prominently labeled with his A+ National Rifle Association rating.
He often shows up to work in an open-collared shirt and blue jeans, conveying a laid-back manner that — most of the time — he reinforces when he speaks. His four citations for vehicular moving violations since becoming a legislator betray an intensity he hides well.
Daudt attended the University of North Dakota to study aviation management but did not complete a degree. Instead, he parlayed his interest in cars into a car dealership job and his interest in politics into a seat on his township board. By the time he was elected to the House in 2010, he had already put in a dozen years in local and county elective office.
When news broke earlier this year that he had been sued three times in recent years over unpaid credit card bills, Daudt responded that he understands the financial struggle of average Minnesotans because he’s one of them.
That can’t quite be said of Thissen. The DFL House leader, who will turn 50 in December, also has a homesteaded farm in his family’s Minnesota story. But he grew up in Bloomington as the son of two teachers, and his educational journey took him far, to Harvard and the University of Chicago Law School — where he was an editor of the Law Review, graduated with honors and occasionally played a little pickup basketball with a prof named Obama.
He’s been a high-flier as an attorney, clerking for a judge on the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, working for Briggs & Morgan, then the state Public Defender’s Office, and now Lindquist & Vennum, where he is a partner and looks the part.
Thissen is completing his seventh term in the House representing a south Minneapolis district; he’s been his caucus’s leader since 2011. His professional specialty, health care law, dovetails nicely with his legislative work, which included a stint as chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee.
He is so policy-focused that his campaign website opens with a pop-up about student loan debt. Policy matters belong front and center, he would argue, since they affect Minnesota lives.
Daudt countered in an interview last week that the speaker’s chair is better filled by a “big-picture guy” and “a common-sense person” than a policy wonk.
When Daudt was about to take the big gavel in December 2014, I wrote that he aimed to reform House operations. He wanted to turn House committees into mini think tanks, setting their own agendas rather than merely responding to whatever comes, and using sound public-policy research to solve problems.
If that happened, it’s been obscured by the fact that not many problems were solved at the Legislature in the past two years. And that failure is tied to two consecutive years of end-of-session haste and discord — things a speaker can do much to influence, if not control.
Daudt noted — correctly — that he’s been dealt a more difficult hand than Thissen played as speaker. State government was entirely in one party’s hands in 2013-14. End-of-sesssion deals are harder to achieve when government is divided, as it has been on Daudt’s watch.
He allowed that he still has reform on his mind. He’s open to procedural changes in 2017 that would lessen the likelihood of a chaotic conclusion to the session, he said, offering no specifics.
Thissen, by contrast, has advanced a detailed nine-point package of changes he intends to push, geared for better order and more transparency. His proposals include my favorites: Confine budget bills to budget matters only, and limit all other bills to a single subject, as the state Constitution requires. No more 600-page omnibus (translation: big as a bus) bills plopped into public view for the first time less than five hours before the adjournment deadline, as happened last May 22.
No Minnesota ballot will give voters a chance to choose directly between these two leaders and their intentions for lawmaking reform. But the House race that’s on every ballot is their proxy. Voters should recognize that behind each of those races lies a consequential question: Which speaker is more likely to run an orderly House?
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.