Jon Tevlin: Kriesel's honesty is a breath of fresh air at Capitol

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2011 - 12:18 AM
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Rep. John Kriesel speaks to House members.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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John Kriesel may be the only representative in the Minnesota Legislature who believes two men should be able to marry each other AND shoot someone who trespasses on their property. It's one of the things that made him one of this session's more interesting policymakers.

Every year the political parties hand out a playbook to freshmen and warn them to hold to the syllabus. Most do. Kriesel apparently brought his own, and luckily for his constituents, it contains chapters on fiscal responsibility, but also on compassion. It contains entries on common sense and sticking with your convictions, yet also recognizing the necessity of compromise.

I doubt there is a legislator I agree with on every issue, and Kriesel is no exception. He is, however, different. Time and again, he has dared to say unpopular things and shown a refreshingly nuanced view of what government should and shouldn't do.

Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, was the guy who broke with his fellow Republicans on the attempt to put a gay marriage ban into the state Constitution. His eloquent and passionate speech on the floor of the House brought cheers from gay marriage supporters outside the chamber.

That day, Kriesel distributed a photo of Andrew Wilfahrt, a gay Minnesota soldier killed in Afghanistan.

"I cannot look at this picture ... and say, 'You know what, Corporal? You were good enough to fight for this country and give your life, but you were not good enough to marry the person you love,'" Kriesel said. "This amendment doesn't represent what I went to fight for."

It took courage, but what do you expect from a man who lost both of his legs when a land mine blew up his Humvee in Iraq, a guy who spent eight days in a coma and couldn't remember his wife's name when he woke up?

Kriesel said some people called to say they won't be giving him contributions again, "but I would do the same thing again."

After all, it's hard to pose a threat to a guy whose biography, "Still Standing," includes this passage, from the bomb blast:

"I've never seen human bones before, especially not my own. The right leg looks more like fresh hamburger than a leg. God, my left arm is twisted into a pretzel; blood is running out of wounds around my mouth and, worst of all, my flak vest opened up during the blast, allowing my abdomen to take a direct hit."

In his book, Kriesel says he grew up a "ridiculous smart-ass" who gained a familiarity with the principal's office. He said he made the honor roll one year "just to prove that I could," but didn't apply himself in school. He joined the Army because he's a boots-on-the-ground kind of guy, and he proved that again in the Legislature.

I caught up with Kriesel by phone as he was driving to St. Louis with his family for a buddy's wedding, and asked him about his first impressions of political life.

Kriesel laughed, then told me about how his prosthetic leg fell apart on the House floor the last day. He was eager to get out, but was stuck in his chair until a maintenance worker arrived with allen wrenches to put him back together. "It was kind of symbolic of the session," he said.

Given the rancor often seen on television, "I was surprised by how well everyone gets along," he said. Yet, "there is too much pressure to go with the party platform," he said. "If that's what people want, then we should just elect the party and have robots vote."

Kriesel, for example, refused to buy the argument that the government doesn't need any new revenue. He sees Gov. Mark Dayton as being too attached to simply taxing the rich and faults some in his own party for insisting on no new revenue in tough times. That's why Kriesel pushed for a casino in downtown Minneapolis.

An occasional poker player who takes an annual trip to Las Vegas, Kriesel dismisses the notion that gambling is evil.

"I don't believe the government should be in the business of keeping people from themselves," he said. "If people want to spend money on it and help the state, we should let them."

That kind of thinking is what Kriesel and his buddies called "situational awareness" in combat.

I asked Kriesel what disappoints him about politics so far.

"I spent 10 years in the military first, and the guy next to you is your best friend for life," he said. "Every person is selfless and doing what's good for the country, even giving their lives. You come here -- there are a lot of good people -- but there are also people doing things for selfish reasons and political aspirations. It's sad."

Kriesel's refreshing candor can be frequently found on Twitter, where he shoots out opinions to a growing audience.

After crackpot Bradlee Dean gave a screwy invocation on the House floor, Kriesel wrote: "Lesson of the day: Do not allow someone who shows up in a track suit to give the opening prayer."

He poked fun at end-times predictions, and during discussion on a bill that would prevent someone from suing a fast food company if they got fat, he wrote:

"All this 'cheeseburger bill' talk is making me hungry."

His Twitter account lets Kriesel be himself, and probably stay sane. "I made a promise to my family and friends that I would be the same guy they knew before I got elected," he said. "I intend to keep it."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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