Large rookie crop settles in at Minnesota Legislature

ST. PAUL -- In a way, Sen. Dan Skogen's early experience as a legislator seemed familiar. "It reminds me a lot of that first day on any job," the Hewitt Democrat said of the learning process. But in so many other ways, it really isn't. Skogen and...

ST. PAUL -- In a way, Sen. Dan Skogen's early experience as a legislator seemed familiar.

"It reminds me a lot of that first day on any job," the Hewitt Democrat said of the learning process.

But in so many other ways, it really isn't. Skogen and Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said that if they've learned anything so far, it's that the responsibility and scope of their new jobs mean looking before you leap.

"You don't just jump in there and think you're going to change the world," Gimse said.

The steady, measured approach seemed to be the rule among rookie legislators as their first week in St. Paul tapered off.


On Wednesday, 53 new legislators were sworn in alongside senior members at the Capitol. They comprise more than a quarter of all legislators.

"That's a lot," said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, who helped guide the rookies during training sessions.

The new crop -- 44 were part of a Democratic tidal wave in November's election -- means a flood of fresh faces in St. Paul.

And as they've learned over the few days, you can't just show up, be sworn in and start writing bills.

For legislators outside the Twin Cities area, the journey usually begins with finding an apartment. And don't forget basic furnishings for the place. Or silverware. Or light bulbs.

Then there's the office. You could go the route of Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls. She outfitted her space early with artists' work from her district -- or you might find yourself wanting for acoustic aesthetics, like Gimse.

"My walls are still pretty bare," he said. "It'll be nice to take some of the echo out of there."

Picture-hanging aside, Gimse and many others expressed confidence in their ability to carry out basic functions as legislators.


That's thanks to what was roundly described as useful freshman orientation sessions, which the legislators-to-be attended late last year.

Though a staple for incoming House members, last year's tutorial was the first time Senate rookies were included.

The first session came days after Election Day and covered the bare essentials for House representatives: getting identification cards, time management and how to be effective legislators, Simon said.

Next was the first-ever joint House-Senate retreat. That conference was more intense, legislators said. It included instruction on interacting with lobbyists and breakout sessions where freshmen learned how bills are passed.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said learning the ropes came a lot easier after the retreat.

"It made me able to get my arms around this thing," he said.

During the retreat, legislators ate, socialized and bunked with one another. To help narrow political differences, lawmakers from opposing parties were instructed to share sleeping quarters.

"I think it did" help break down political barriers, said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. "I hope those kinds of things pay off."


He feels comfortable but is quick to note that he's not taking the primer as the be-all, end-all of state politics.

"I'm sure we barely skimmed the top of what our responsibilities are," Ingebrigtsen said.

Lourey echoed that cautious approach. The son of 16-year former legislator Becky Lourey -- whose legislative run ended after a failed gubernatorial campaign -- the younger Lourey said he hasn't learned the job through osmosis.

"People assume I know more about the detailed operations than I really do," he said.

What he has learned from his mother, however, is what a major commitment it is to be a lawmaker, Lourey said. The advice he said she passed on to him was one of flexibility: "Make sure you listen and stay open -- not to get too entrenched with any one mode of thinking."

Skogen said he got similar advice, as well as a note to watch his diet.

"It's going to be a year of me listening more than talking," he added.

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Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said she's been preparing for the legislative session since the day after the election. That's included consultations with U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., for talks on energy and biofuels.
"Every day is a learning day," Olson said.


Part of learning the ropes comes from listening to seasoned veterans, said Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury.

"We all want to get out of the gate fast," Saltzman said, but added that sage advice should be heeded.

Upon joining up with her caucus members, she said she felt an immediate sense of camaraderie.

"I felt welcome here right away," Saltzman said.

The Legislature is a lot to absorb, even for a former county attorney, said Rep. Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls.

"So far we're getting a big learning curve," he said.

Still, Olin said he's picking up quickly and "getting antsy to get to committee."

"I think this is going to be a great experience," he said.

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