State Rep. Dean Urdahl’s exhaustive knowledge of Minnesota history informed his work as legislative champion of the massive State Capitol renovation, but it’s his calm approach to political work that the Republican leans on as he nudges the Legislature toward passing a major public works bonding bill this year.
The bonding bill is one of the Capitol’s most politically tricky issues, requiring votes from both Republicans and DFLers to pass. “This is probably the biggest challenge I’ve had,” said Urdahl, a 16-year legislative veteran from Acton Township in Meeker County who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee.
At a recent hearing, a parade of state agency officials and local stakeholders criticized Urdahl’s $825 million bonding bill for being barely half the size of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s $1.5 billion proposal.
“Even though many of you would like more, $825 million still is a lot of money,” Urdahl said. A bonding bill that Senate Republicans released Wednesday matched Urdahl’s price tag but differed in some details.
A Litchfield native, Urdahl taught American history for 35 years in New London-Spicer schools. He lost his first three bids for public office before he was elected in 2002. He quickly won respect from Capitol colleagues for a congenial, nonpartisan approach — helping him take on a series of initiatives he calls his “crusades.”
In 2006, Urdahl’s crusade was to improve school lockdown drills. In 2010, he sponsored a bill that created the commission that oversaw the more than $300 million, multiyear Capitol restoration. This year, Urdahl is pushing a measure to require high schools to offer civics courses to juniors and seniors.
“He’s been a proponent for getting things done at a conservative cost,” said Litchfield Mayor Keith Johnson.
Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said Urdahl’s passion for history and ability to work with both parties helped him shepherd the Capitol restoration effort at a time when many Republican lawmakers disapproved of the project.
Some Republicans believed restoring the Capitol was a Twin Cities-focused project that Minnesotans would see as politicians “feathering our own nest,” Dean said. Urdahl helped shift that perception onto the historical importance of keeping the Capitol in good shape. “That’s a very cool accomplishment to have, and it was not easy,” Dean said.
Urdahl must now persuade 81 House members to sign off on his bonding package. The state Constitution requires passage by a three-fifths majority. That’s 81 votes in the House, where there are 77 Republicans.
Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul, DFL lead on the Capital Investment Committee, said Urdahl has been receptive to the DFL’s bonding priorities. But she said he may have to address “gaps” in the bill before winning Dayton’s support.
Despite the passage of a $988 million bonding bill in 2017, Urdahl said lawmakers must pass another this year to prevent state infrastructure from falling farther behind.
Urdahl will return to his hobby farm near Grove City once the session adjourns, where he will begin a book of legislative recollections. “The names will be changed to protect the guilty,” he joked.
Ryan Faircloth is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.