There’s a lot wrong with the way politics works today. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re talking Washington, D.C., or St. Paul. The bottom line is usually this: Legislative seniority and partisan scheming overrule life experiences and conversation.
So how does a first-term senator go about making changes in the way the Legislature functions? How does he or she move crucial conversations forward when fellow legislators prefer otherwise? And how does a first-termer work to explore critical but controversial topics in a manner that avoids having meaningless rhetoric dominate the dialogue?
It’s not easy.
First-term legislators don’t have much in their toolbox to counter the gamesmanship and gridlock of every day capitol life. Without seniority or a committee chair’s gavel, a senator lacks the powerful negotiating chips that may translate into a seat at the table of backroom deal making. Of course, good old relationship building and persuasion may be helpful, but they can only move the needle so much.
So, what tools do I have to influence the legislative process when real-life experience, logic and openness do not suffice?
I vote in committees and on the Senate floor — and while a vote may possess hammer-like influence in a narrowly held caucus majority, its influence dwindles to thumbtack significance as the session grinds on and omnibus bills grow huge.
I serve as chief author for bills I would like to shepherd through the legislative labyrinth, although such efforts can be squashed with the mere shake of a chairman’s head. (For example, my bills regarding term limits, shrinking the Legislature, and no per diem payments for special sessions have been denied the chance to progress to the Senate floor.)
I serve as a co-author for ideas I want to encourage along their way. Topics for such work stem from virtually every legislative committee and the challenges each encompasses.
But I also have another tool, albeit a somewhat controversial one, that can help create a bipartisan push to discuss challenging topics that might otherwise never see the light of day. I can serve as a strong advocate for an open discussion by lending my name as a co-author from the majority party to a bill from an across-the-aisle senator — even though I may oppose the bill as written.
I have indeed been willing to travel this odd path to focus attention on issues I consider “sea change” developments for society or critical concerns for Minnesotans.
Matters such as Minnesota Care buy-in options, public-safety challenges, decriminalization/expungement of minor marijuana violations, election reform/voting rights, ballot inclusiveness for third parties and many others may be highly divisive and cause angst for elected officials, but nevertheless these concerns deserve a public “airing out” so citizens can engage more thoroughly and let their representatives know how they feel.
If and when I choose to sign onto a bill as a trailing co-author — and do not intend to support it with my vote — I make this known to the chief author. I view this maverick strategy as similar to seconding a motion in a business meeting for no reason other than to learn from the discussion of a proposal I am likely to oppose.
I understand the gravity and risk associated with appearing to support a viewpoint when in fact my interest is in triggering a brainstorming and listening opportunity that may lead to good policy. I tread this path carefully, selectively, and not frequently. I have even traveled this road with bill authors from my own party.
Before my arrival in St. Paul, I did not appreciate the capacity of seniority to simply quash even the potential for a robust discussion. Perhaps I am naive, but I believe the voters in my district sent me to St. Paul to engage in the political process, have tough discussions with members on both sides of the aisle and see what I can do to make a positive impact for Minnesota.
So, there you have it — my freshman senator’s toolbox seems woefully inadequate to get the work done that needs to be done. If I don’t have the tools to make the difference my constituents expect, I believe the least I can do is attempt to pull back the curtain to help them understand the system and how the best of intentions might count for very little.
As a first-term legislator, I have learned to “play the cards you’re dealt” and observed firsthand that “you’ve got to see it to believe it.” I have also benefited from the toolbox of colleagues when they have provided encouragement in times of resignation, kindness in times of anger and advice in times of confusion.
But my most powerful tool going forward are the words of theologian James Freeman Clarke: “A politician thinks of the next election, a statesman of the next generation.”
Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, is a member of the Minnesota Senate. He was elected in 2016.