Tables have turned

Southwest’s Thissen tapped to lead House DFL minority

In the Minnesota House of Representatives, the leader of the party in the minority is often likened to a bomb thrower with the job of hurling attacks on the party in power as it governs the state. 

Starting in 2011, Republicans will control the Minnesota House, and they’ll be tasked with finding a way to balance a state budget facing a $5.8 billion deficit. Based on their campaigns, they intend to do it without raising taxes. 

It will be the job of Southwest Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-63A) to draw contrast to that idea, and he intends to do it without throwing bombs, unlike some of his predecessors. 

“We don’t have to be bomb throwers to do that,” Thissen said. “I think we’ve had too many of those in politics in recent years. But I think if you stick to the facts and are specific about getting from the general rhetoric to what the specifics really mean, that’s going to be really important for us.”

Thissen, a state representative who lives in the Lynnhurst neighborhood, was picked by his DFL colleagues to lead them as they serve in the minority of the House after Republicans re-gained the majority 72-62 after the Nov. 2 election.

His new role will be a transition from his former one. Thissen is known as more of a policy expert who, with sharpened pencil, authored legislation to provide health care to 40,000 Minnesota kids. Now he’s charged with leading the loyal opposition to the Republicans and holding them accountable for the bills they pass. He’ll also have to unite a diverse DLF party that has members in urban, suburban and rural districts. 

But the husband and father of three has no plans to change his mild-mannered approach to governing and leadership. Instead, he plans to continue to focus on the issues and assertively remind the people of Minnesota as to the implications cuts to the state budget have on them, their aging parents, their kids and their communities. 

Thissen’s colleague in the district just north of him, State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B), has watched Thissen grow from a freshman representative in 2002 to a candidate for governor in 2009 and now into the leader of his caucus. 

“He’s always been really sharp on policy issues, there’s no question about it,” Horstein said. “But you know he’s always been really strong on framing issues and putting issues in a way that are understandable and clear.”

Hornstein said Thissen’s articulate message was a major factor in propelling him from a relatively unknown gubernatorial candidate into third place for his party endorsement for governor. 

That voice will also serve the DFL party well as it fights for raising taxes to balance the budget, Hornstein said. 

 “I don’t think one has to do that in a way that is necessarily antagonistic or mean spirited, but he will assertively — I am confident — state the differences between us and the Republicans,” he said. 

The new job is another step up for Thissen as he continues his quick rise in politics. 

Thissen, 43, a son of two teachers, was raised in Bloomington and graduated from the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield. He got his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1989 and his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1992.

His education path loosely followed another fast-rising political star. President Barack Obama was at Harvard Law School during overlapping years with Thissen. Then, when Thissen was in his third year at the University of Chicago, Obama signed on to be a professor there. 

His only contact with Obama came in Chicago, where Thissen, a high school athlete with plenty of height, matched up against Obama in a couple games of pick-up basketball. 

“I don’t remember it being remarkable one way or the other,” Thissen said when asked how he performed on the court.

His performance in the political realm, however, has been remarkable to spectators. 

Thissen, an attorney, was first elected in 2002 and he represents the neighborhoods the furthest Southwest in Minneapolis as well as part of Richfield. He was tapped as chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee in 2007. 

He ran for governor in this year. He was relatively unknown before the race, but managed to finish third in a wide field for the DFL endorsement.

“He’s been busy,” said Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College. “He is an ambitious young guy. You don’t run for governor at his age with his experience unless you have a very high degree of ambition.”

Schier says Thissen is a good fit for the job. 

“I think he’s smart and he’s articulate. He’s a substantive fellow, very interested in policy, very hardworking,” Schier said. “So I think first of all he’s got the abilities to do it and second of all he’s got a very strong motivation to do it.”

Schier said there may not be a better time to take over as DFL House leader. As early as 2012, Thissen, if the DFL regains the House, could be in position to be House Speaker. 

“This is a great time to come in as a party leader and here’s why: Expectations are low. You’ve hit your bottom. It’s unlikely things will get worse while he’s leader,” Schier said. 

Thissen shied from talking about his political future. 

“The job right now is to govern the state,” he said, “to run this caucus in a way that represents our DFL values and to win back the majority in the state house, and that’s what I am concentrating on right now.”

Reach Nick Halter at [email protected]