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MN VOICES | Kate Knuth leaves legislature, stays with commitment to environment
State Representative Kate Knuth is concerned about over-politicization of environmental issues facing Minnesotans. While she is leaving the legislature, she plans to continue serving the state, especially in the field of environmental policy.
After three terms as state representative for District 50B, Kate Knuth announced February 29 that she would not seek a fourth term. Instead, she will complete her Ph. D in Conservation Biology and continue as coordinator of the Boreas Leadership Program at Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
For Knuth, her decision to serve in the legislature was an expected contribution to society. Her father and uncle served in the state House and her mother served as a public school superintendent. “I also grew up in a family and I think I grew up in a place in Minnesota where public service is valued and it’s sort of expected as something you do if you’re living a good life,” she said.
In a March 21 commentary for the StarTribune, Knuth said renewable energy is a key environmental policy issue. Additionally, Minnesota lacks any domestic oil, coal, natural gas or uranium, so the state will benefit greatly from developing and exporting renewable-energy technologies. Also, she wrote, “solar investment will spur clean-energy development and manufacturing jobs in our state.”
Her commentary was critical of the increased politicization of climate change debate in the last five years. She credits Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the 2007 legislature with bipartisan climate change policy that included the Renewable Energy Standard and signing the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Accord. However, during her most recent term she saw the Republican majority starting to openly deny scientific evidence and the legitimacy of the evidence for climate change.
“This outright denial of science would be laughable if it didn’t compromise Minnesota’s position as a place that finds practical solutions to world challenges,” she wrote.
In the last five years, Knuth said in our interview, she has watched the climate change debate in Minnesota regress from being solution-oriented, to questioning whether the issue exists.
“It’s been frustrating because the debate has become political,” she said. “Debate about climate should be political as far as what we do, but it should not be political about what the evidence shows.”
Knuth has been interested in environmental issues for much of her life. Growing up she wanted to be an entomologist and completed a bachelor’s degree in biology and philosophy at the University of Chicago. She worked in the Division of Insects at The Field Museum in Chicago and as a field biologist for a summer in Hawaii during her undergraduate. After graduating she studied the environmental ethics of the Norwegian oil industry during the 2003-2004 academic year through a Fulbright fellowship. Then she completed a Master of Science in Conservation Biology at Oxford University before returning to Minnesota in 2005. She worked in Hamline’s Center for Global Environmental Education and then won a seat in the Minnesota legislature in 2006 at the age of 25.
Public service is not a career path to Knuth, but part of the responsibility of any able-bodied citizen to help create a positive future for society. She dedicated herself wholeheartedly to serving her district and put immense effort into every session. Her tenure included working on the Environment and Finance and the Commerce Committees, helping pass the Toxic Free Kids Act in 2009, as well as working on several climate and solar energy laws in her first term.
"I feel like there are certain bills I carried that I’m proud of,” she said, “But I think I tried to serve in a way that made the legislative office seem approachable and open and it’s just sort of a way of working than a specific ‘I did that thing.’”
In an emotionally-charged farewell speech on May 11,, she spoke of the pleasure she had serving District 50B and working with the dedicated members of the senate. She explained that she had filed to run again in early February, but after the redistricting maps came out she was pitted against fellow DFL senator Tom Tilberry (who later lost the endorsement to Connie Bernardy).
“The maps came out and it felt like the world telling me to stop, step back, rethink,” she said in her speech, “And so I did and I decided not to run. And now I am so grateful to the world for stepping in and giving me a second chance at this choice.”
She explained that her time at the legislature had taught her an important lesson that her personal drive should not get in the way of personal relationships.
“Public service, doing it well, can be very all-consuming,” she said in an interview. “The use of the word ‘serve’ is intentional; it’s more than just a job. I think starting to serve in your twenties, there’s a lot of good things about it, but I think one of the personal challenges for me was finding that balance.”
Her colleagues at the senate are sad to see her go. April 26 was unofficially deemed Orange Day in honor of Knuth, who has worn orange nearly every day since attending Irondale High School. Legislators arrived with orange ties, skirts, belts and sweaters in honor of Knuth’s service.
Knuth plans to stay in Minnesota and continue to serve as a citizen. She will finish her doctorate and continue working with the Boreas Leadership Program, which works to encourage informed and ethical leadership on environmental issues in society. Her future is uncertain, but she was certain that it will include greater contributions to society.
“…I plan on staying involved in our public conversation and in our public life,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to do that, that don’t include elected office. I’m excited about figuring those out and working on them.”
© 2012 Kyle Coombs