“I dare you to go talk to that dude in the hat,” the school bus lobbyist is telling me.
We are sitting at Tin Cup’s in St. Paul, where a handful of legislators and lobbyists convene every Tuesday to joke, gripe and gossip. The lobbyist is Tom Keliher, and he says the man alone at the bar is “mad at his wife, and probably just got fired from his job.”
“Do you know him?” I ask.
“No,” he says. Over a bottle of Budweiser, Keliher is trying to prove a point — this is a “working man’s bar.” It proudly proclaims itself a dive on the sign out front.
That is, in fact, why one of the regulars prefers it. Rep. Tom Anzelc, who is also at our table, says it reminds him of home. The DFLer lives on a lake in the woods in Balsam, 200 miles north of St. Paul.
“It’s a neighborhood bar,” said Anzelc. “We’re from northern Minnesota — we’re working-class people.”
He’s there with Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, who works at a paper mill and likes to tell colleagues, “Make as many copies as you can.”
There’s no one hangout for lobbyists and legislators at the Capitol, and the social scene can be spotty. Anzelc believes this is because so many legislators live in the metro and can drive home after a day at the statehouse.
People used to hang out at the Kelly Inn bar, walkable to the Capitol but now undergoing renovation. Anzelc used to stay there during sessions, choosing it as the site for most of his meals and meetings with lobbyists.
Anzelc laments the legislative session’s lack of progress. He worries about returning to his constituents without the bonding projects he supports — a pedestrian bridge in Grand Rapids, a water project in Clear River. If they don’t like what the Legislature is doing, they are sure to let him know on the 16-foot fishing boat he uses for constituent meetings.
Tin Cup’s is hardly a place for deal-making, however — just casual camaraderie. Another member of the group is Loren Solberg, a former 28-year legislator who’s lobbied for Itasca County and some bonding projects. There also are lobbyists from the League of Minnesota Cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.
“We break down the day,” says Keliher. “Who we like, and who we don’t like.”
“No, we don’t talk about who we don’t like,” Solberg interjects.
“I do!” jokes Keliher.
He tells me that in his years as a lobbyist, he’s represented tobacco, alcohol and gambling interests. Now he lobbies for the school bus industry.
“What have you done for the school bus industry this session?” I ask, having never followed the matter.
One of the industry’s legislative accomplishments is raising the violation for driving through a school bus stop sign from $300 to $500, “making it one of the most expensive traffic violations in the state,” Keliher says.
He takes a sip of Budweiser and stretches. He hasn’t been to Tin Cup’s in a decade. The group doubles to about 14 this evening, but he remembers when the crowd would jam together six or seven tables. “This used to be quite the watering hole 20 years ago.”