In first term as House speaker, Thissen tackles challenges with a fact-based style.
Leaning his lanky frame over his office table, the tip of his tongue resting lightly on his upper lip, House Speaker Paul Thissen studied the remarks prepared for him to give to the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council.
Included was a small joke to share with the agriculture community, already skeptical of the Minneapolis representative. Thissen swiftly nixed it. The extra-introverted speaker said he tried a joke in a speech once — “Nobody laughed.”
Thissen has little time or inclination for the chummy warmth that has colored the leadership of speakers past as he tackles serious, high-stakes challenges.
Among them: a tax bill passed by the House on Wednesday that is starkly different from those proposed by the DFL-led Senate and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, with its surcharge on the wealthy and the first liquor tax increase in a generation. Next week, Thissen will personally round up votes for a controversial bill to legalize gay marriage that would leave a lasting imprint on Minnesota — and which could cost him his majority.
The House has changed hands three times since 2009. To retain power, Thissen must satisfy the party’s urban core without alienating rural DFLers while still protecting swing district suburbanites. In doing so, he has staked out positions on a higher minimum wage, higher taxes and spending priorities that are at odds with Dayton and DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook.
As he looks for consensus and compromise, Thissen doesn’t schmooze and doesn’t twist arms.
He relies instead on a coolly intellectual, fact-based style that has brought him a Harvard degree, partnership at the prestigious Lindquist and Vennum law firm, and a political seat second in power only to the governor — all by age 46.
Thissen makes no apologies for a manner that even those who know him best describe as reserved.
“The caucus right now is looking for someone who is going to be more about getting the business done,” said Thissen, who helped turn a 62-member minority into a 73-member majority in the 2012 elections.
His preference, as always, is to get straight to that business.
“Most people know ultimately pretty much where they are going to end up,” he said. “It just takes a long time to get there. I would rather just get there.”
Message, not personality
Even his fans acknowledge that Thissen is a different kind of speaker.
“He does not put his personality out there,” said Rep. Deb Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, a strong Thissen ally. “It is about the message and it is about the work that we are doing here. It is not about him as a person.”
Asked about himself, Thissen laughs. “I’m Minnesotan,” he said. “I’d rather talk about someone else or something else than myself.”
That doesn’t mean he’s a pushover.
Thissen can be blunt with others, telling legislators respectfully — but in no uncertain terms — when their needs fail to line up with his priorities or when agency requests are in doubt.