State Rep. Jim Abeler's voice Tuesday quivered a bit with emotion, but his words and decision were clear: He won't be back in the state House next year, no matter how his bid for U.S. Sen. Al Franken's seat ends. He's "all in" as a Senate candidate, he said.
The eight-term Republican from Anoka went so far as to introduce to reporters the Republican he hopes will succceed him in the House, 26-year-old Abigail Whelan, a former legislative staffer.
Abeler is the 14th House member to announce that he or she won't seek reelection, and one of three who are bowing out of the 134-member body to seek higher office. With up to four more lawmaking weeks ahead, that list is likely to grow.
But few departures are likely to be met with as much bipartisan regret as Abeler's -- in part because it will coincide with the retirement of DFL Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth, and comes not long after the 2011 departure of former state Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, for a Hennepin County post. Those three were longstanding legislative masters of health care policy who did much to make Minnesota a leader among the states in health insurance coverage at an affordable cost.
Legislative policy batons get passed with every election, and sometimes get dropped. That's the nature of the institution, and a challenge for legislative leaders. It falls to them to structure committees with succession planning in mind, so that junior legislators are ready to shape major bills when senior legislators step aside or their districts show them the door. It can be a tough assignment. With matters as complicated as health care, expertise builds slowly, and legislators' willingness to acquire it is not universal.
As for Abeler, he says he's eager for a chance in the U.S. Senate to apply his bipartisan style and health policy principles -- protect the client, not the delivery systems -- to national efforts to control costs. Only the occasional break in his voice revealed that he's also sad to go.
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