Anyone who's served in the Legislature as long as Sen. Warren Limmer is destined to be different things to different people.
To his Republican colleagues, the Judiciary Committee chairman from Maple Grove embodies their desire to move with deliberation on major changes to Minnesota's criminal justice system.
To Democrats, and the many activists and advocates who think such changes are desperately needed in the wake of George Floyd's death and decades of racial inequities in law enforcement, Limmer is the chief obstacle to progress.
Democrats and their allies spent $1.5 million this year trying to unseat Limmer. He narrowly survived, making him one of the few remaining Republican lawmakers from Hennepin County. As the Legislature prepares to resume on Jan. 5, Limmer returns to the helm of a committee that has stymied progressive wish lists in recent years on hot button issues like recreational marijuana and gun control.
And any hopes for expanding on a sweeping package of police accountability measures passed last summer, in the aftermath of Floyd's killing in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, rest on Limmer.
"There's an old saying that nothing is ever finished in the Legislature and quite honestly this is a good example," Limmer said of police accountability measures. He then preached patience: "At the same time, I think this is Senate tradition talking, but I don't think we have to rewrite Minnesota criminal law every single year. Which we seem to be doing in recent years."
Limmer's counterpart in the House Democratic majority, Rep. Carlos Mariani of St. Paul, has taken a starkly contrasting approach. As chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, he led marathon hearings on police accountability measures, and offered up public safety bills stuffed with new policies.
"I approach this with a sense of urgency that I wish he would have and he doesn't have it," Mariani said. "It's frustrating."
A 65-year-old real estate agent first elected to the House in 1988 and to the Senate in 1995, Limmer said he views the Senate's mandate as designed "to cool the passions of the House." Soft-spoken and collegial, his disposition belies the level of frustration he has stoked among colleagues across the aisle.
"Quite frankly, that's the response of someone that comes from a privileged place," Mariani said. "If you're Black and a Minnesotan, another year is life and death. Inequities have been here a hell of a long time, they didn't just show up."
Limmer and Senate Republicans agreed, in a special session in July, to a ban on chokeholds, more data collection and independent oversight of police. That even those changes were made underscored the urgent feeling among many lawmakers for a need to respond to Floyd's death and the historic outbreak of civil unrest that followed.
It was also a dramatic departure from Limmer's preferred pace — and it's not likely to be repeated in the 2021 session. With a looming $1.3 billion budget deficit, Senate Republicans are setting low expectations for major policy debates. And Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, gives his committee chairs wide latitude over which policies progress and which do not.
"They want to plow through legislation that may be considered a little out of the ordinary — it's not mainstream," Limmer said. "New ideas that maybe only they think will work and they hadn't really sold the product to anybody."
What that also means is likely little to no additional debate on gun restrictions avidly sought by Democrats and advocacy groups; Limmer now says he believes any momentum for that has "faded."
Other Democratic goals face similarly uphill climbs in Limmer's committee: Democratic Gov. Tim Walz's desire for big changes to the juvenile justice system, plus Democratic proposals to change state law around bail practices and voting rights for felons.
Jason Flohrs, state director for the libertarian-leaning Americans for Prosperity, has occasionally found himself arm-in-arm with progressives pitching bills that have met Limmer's blockade. But he said he appreciates Limmer's "thoughtful approach" toward pushing parties toward bipartisan compromise.
"For some of those budgetary reasons and partisanship, it is going to be a tough year at the Capitol," Flohrs said. "We're going to try to put as much effort and conversation and resources into really exercising this coalition building muscle that some folks seem to have forgotten about."
Gazelka calls Limmer a "key ally." In the Senate chamber, Gazelka said, he strategically placed Limmer's seat near his own so that he can lean on him for advice during floor debates.
"He has such a wealth of institutional knowledge and perspective on institutional issues," Gazelka said. "That's why I want to have him there, because somebody that has been there just two or four years, they don't know what they don't know."
The future of policing amid recent spikes in violent crime in the Twin Cities is certain to hover over any debates in the upcoming session over public safety, criminal justice and state spending in this areas.
In terms of his own agenda, Limmer identified the spread of COVID-19 in the state's prisons as an area in need of immediate attention.
Limmer predicated a higher rate of attention-grabbing policy proposals from both sides in the Senate this year, with he and colleagues back up for re-election again in 2022. His approach to gun policy proposals last year offers a preview of how he may tackle additional polarizing subjects.
Criticized for not holding a vote in committee on gun restrictions in previous years, Limmer staged an all-day hearing in Hibbing before the 2020 session to take testimony in an area with a high population of hunters and sportspeople. Until that point, Limmer said, talk about background checks and red flag laws largely came "from a left perspective" in the Metro. He tweaked Walz's "One Minnesota" slogan with a characteristically understated critique.
"I think that was vitally important because whatever we pass into law here, the people in the far reaches of Minnesota are going to have to follow it," Limmer said. "It's vitally important to reflect perhaps all of Minnesota, not just 'one Minnesota.' "