New majority leader strives for low profile, focus on the issues
As Sen. Larry Pogemiller prepares to step into the role of Senate majority leader when the Legislature convenes in January, he has maintained an unusually low profile.
The Minneapolis DFLer envisions himself providing behind-the-scenes leadership rather than serving as the face of the Senate, as others in the position have done. Minnesotans are more likely to see Sen. Tarryl Clark (DFL-15), the newly elected assistant majority leader from St. Cloud, at press conferences than him, Pogemiller said. As an early piece of evidence to support that claim, he was conspicuously absent from a press conference held in late November, where Clark joined newly elected speaker of the House Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A) to answer questions about the state's budget surplus.
Pogemiller's move in maintaining a lower profile is part of a broader plan to decentralize power in the Senate and fully engage more legislators in the lawmaking process, he said. He wants to see the lawmakers who worked on legislation explain it to the public rather than having caucus leaders do so. And with a lengthy to-do list for the Legislature in front of him, he hopes all legislators and state leaders will focus more on the issues and less on the personalities of those around them.
“We need more work horses and less show horses,” Pogemiller said while leaning back in a chair at Taraccino Coffee, 224 E. Hennepin Ave., a cozy coffee shop just blocks from his home in the East Bank neighborhood and nestled in the district he represents at the Capitol.
Yet the 55-year-old Pogemiller's own personality has drawn as much attention as the issues he lists as top priorities for this year's legislative session. The Star Tribune has described Pogemiller as “pugnacious,” the Rochester Post-Bulletin labeled him a “combative, hard-nosed, liberal political infighter,” and the St. Cloud Times dubbed him an “obstructionist” who doesn't always get along with other lawmakers.
“He certainly has a reputation of being a very strong personality in the Senate,” said Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60). “But I think some of that may be overstated because he's advocated so tenaciously for progressive tax policy [as chair of the Senate tax committee] and progressive education policy when he was the K-12 [Education Budget Division] chair.”
Dibble said it's also important to remember that Pogemiller chaired those committees in political environments that were often difficult terrain for DFLers - most recently with a Republican governor and GOP-controlled House to work with. Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-59B), who represents part of the same district as Pogemiller, said his dedication to the Legislature and sharp negotiating skills should make him a keen leader in the Senate.
“I think he'll grow into the job and really surprise all of the people who are making such harsh comments about him right now,” said Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-58).
Pogemiller brushes the characterizations of his personality aside with a wry smile.
“It comes with the territory,” he said. “But I'm surprised at the amount of interest in the personal stuff. One of the problems with politics in general is the personalization of everything. I want to get the focus back on the ideas and the interests of the people.”
High on Pogemiller's priority list is to work toward a reconstruction of the “Minnesota Miracle” of 1971. The measure boosted school funding and reduced property taxes by raising income and sales taxes, a fiscal policy that remained relatively unchanged until the property tax structure was revised in 2002.
Minnesotans are again feeling the squeeze of rising property taxes, Pogemiller said, and at the same time local governments are struggling to pay for basic city services for residents. City officials in Minneapolis have experienced that dilemma firsthand as they balance the need to channel more funding into public safety with the needs of other city services such as libraries.
“The major thing is to construct the state and local fiscal relationship in a way that protects taxpayers and allows local government to provide necessary services,” Pogemiller said.
In addition to working to increase funding for education and lower property taxes, Pogemiller said there is also widespread consensus in the Legislature that other priorities will include working toward health-care reform and an improved transportation system.
Those issues, however, will also need the support of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who narrowly won re-election in November. Pogemiller freely admits that of all six governors he's worked with during his 26 years in the Legislature, his relationship has been most strained with the Pawlenty administration. But Pogemiller is optimistic that his working relationship with the governor will improve in this upcoming session, in part because the election that put DFLers solidly in control of the State Legislature and nearly cost Pawlenty his job can be seen as a referendum on the direction of the state. The Senate will have 44 Democrats and 23 Republicans and the House will have 85 Democrats and 49 Republicans in this upcoming session.
“Even though the governor survived, it is clear to everyone that the direction of the state will change,” Pogemiller said.
Pogemiller said he never aspired to be the Senate's majority leader. But once Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-13) lost his re-election bid, Pogemiller said his ascension to the position was “fairly natural.” The Minneapolis DFLer said he despite some characterizations of his persona, he has reached across partisan lines to get work done at the Legislature. As chair of the Senate tax committee, Pogemiller said he sent 16 major bills to the Senate and all had some level of bipartisan support.
Minnesotans who have lingering doubts about his ability to lead the Senate can come to their own conclusions in January, Pogemiller said.
“By and large, the proof will be in the pudding,” he said.
Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.