New Southwest legislators energized, realistic

State Representatives Frank Hornstein and Paul Thissen are freshmen at the state legislature, but savvy about working the system — and surviving being in the minority

"Did he do his Wellstone?" asked Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Kelliher — a Bryn Mawr state representative just elected Minority Whip, the number-two House Democrat — was talking about one of her newest colleagues, Rep. Frank Hornstein.

Indeed, Hornstein had done his Wellstone — and his Jesse Ventura. A cheerful, outgoing man, the Southwest Minneapolis legislator does impressions for his guests and colleagues, and occasionally for visiting journalists. "I can’t quite get Pawlenty," he lamented. "Not distinctive enough."

In an election year that saw nearly a third of legislative seats change hands, Hornstein and Paul Thissen are the two freshmen House members representing Southwest. The pair took their seats as progressive DFLers in a House that is more Republican and more conservative than it has been in decades.

Hornstein’s District 60B includes West Calhoun, Linden Hills, Fulton, ECCO, East Harriet, Tangletown and parts of CARAG, Lyndale, Kingfield and Lynnhurst. Thissen’s District 63A covers Armatage, Kenny and parts of Lynnhurst and Windom, as well as Richfield.

Differing styles

Hornstein is a community activist and former member of the Metropolitan Council who sees elected office simply as another phase in pursuing his interest in environmental action, community development and social justice.

"It’s a chance to affect these issues in a new and different capacity," he said. "For me, it was my experience working for Clean Water Action, which does grassroots organization, lobbying, and election work. That’s where I first got into the significance of electoral politics and how it relates to community organizing. At about that time, Paul Wellstone first ran, and the two things sort of merged for me."

Hornstein speaks with the passion and commitment of a community organizer, on top of his facts and eager to promote his issues. Thissen (pronounced TEE-sen) is different. A Harvard-educated lawyer, he did his advocacy from within the system, working for refugees seeking asylum, representing battered women and the disabled. He has worked most recently as the pro bono director of a large Minnesota law firm. He speaks thoughtfully, obviously careful of the impact of his words.

On being outnumbered

In conversations with the Southwest Journal, the two seemed realistic about their positions in the minority.

Asked how he felt being so outnumbered (80 Republicans to 53 DFLers), Thissen laughed. "First of all, I’m new here, so I don’t know any better," he said. "But there are a lot of new members on both sides of the aisle. We’ve actually spent quite a bit of time together, even before the session, in orientation, and I’ve found a lot of those folks to be very dedicated to public service — and smart, and interested in solving problems. We have different views on how to go about doing that, but the fact that there is so much new blood and new ideas, I think, is a hopeful sign."

Hornstein is less sanguine. "It’s clearly very discouraging," he said. "I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say so."

However, he is also hopeful: "I do think we’re going to see the pendulum swing in 2004. Having said that, there are some issues where I’m seeking common ground with Republicans. One bill I’m going to introduce will give tax breaks to people who purchase hybrid electrical vehicles or other energy-efficient automobiles. There are a number of Republicans who have said that that’s a good idea, so I hope we can advance on that. No, I’m not giving up on passing legislation. I want to be effective in trying to get some good, bipartisan legislation passed."

State Rep. William Kuisle (R-Rochester), chair of the Transportation Finance Committee, of which both Hornstein and Thissen are members, seems optimistic about his two freshmen from across the aisle. "They both push their issues, and there’s nothing wrong with that," he said. "But they seem willing to look at both sides, and that’s all I ask. I believe that there will be some positive results for transportation coming out of this session."

Kuisle compliments Hornstein and Thissen for volunteering for subcommittee work. "They stepped forward, which means extra work. It’s nice to see people who will do that," he said.

Kelliher likes Hornstein’s priorities. "Frank has done some terrific work already, building bridges," she said. "He has concentrated on building relationships, and that’s what this work is all about — relationships."

Policy disagreements

Some bridge construction has been more challenging. One of Thissen’s first skirmishes was over House File 1, a bill pushed hard by Gov. Pawlenty to require immigration status to appear on drivers’ licenses.

Thissen felt the bill would unfairly single out immigrants by putting their status on what has become the state’s default ID.

"I offered an amendment that would have taken the status check-off," Thissen said. "Instead, the license expiration date would be equivalent to the visa expiration date, which accomplishes essentially what the bill’s sponsors want to do — remove the driver’s license from being an alternative identification for folks, without interfering with real law enforcement activities."

He paused philosophically, and concluded, "I don’t think we picked up any Republicans. I don’t know what’s driving that."

Hornstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, was less philosophical. "The first speech I gave on the floor was on House File 1," he said. "I spoke out against that, and I’ll continue to speak out on issues related to immigrants and justice and fairness and decency."

He liked Thissen’s amendment, saying, "Most Democrats supported it, so Pawlenty was a little bit inaccurate in his State of the State, when he said that a lot of Democrats supported his bill. Some did, but they wanted a fair and more decent bill."

A city under fire

Both men seem keenly aware that representing Minneapolis at the Capitol can be an uphill battle. "I think, unfortunately, Minneapolis has become a symbol," Hornstein said. "In fact, many people ran against the city of Minneapolis. The very basis of their campaign was ‘Minneapolis gets too much compensatory money for low-income kids; it gets too many human services.’ I think it’s become a symbol and, at times, a scapegoat for the problems. That’s the challenge that we have."

Thissen agrees, to a point. "I think there was a concern about the way the city was managed," he said. "And I think there’s just a misunderstanding on the part of some legislators from outside the city on what the city’s all about, what it’s trying to accomplish. How it’s different from the suburbs in a cultural sense. I think that what the city is doing right now, the current administration, the city council and the mayor, in terms of trying to get their hands around the budget priorities, is going to help a lot with the legislature. I don’t necessarily agree with [city leaders] on everything, but they’re making some hard decisions, and that’s what the legislature–and I’ve talked to some suburban folks about this–is looking for."

Thissen and Hornstein have said that they intend to invite legislators from the suburbs and outstate areas to tour Minneapolis schools. Thissen said, "I don’t think that the successes of the City of Minneapolis Public Schools and the challenges that they face and what they need in real terms have been communicated as well as they could."

The two Southwest newcomers are already regarded highly by DFL leadership. According to House Minority Leader Matt Entenza (DFL-St. Paul), "In a couple of terms, those two guys will be running this place."