If you looked past the politics at the start of the 88th Legislative Session, you could see that the State Capitol was filled with ordinary people cast in extraordinary roles as new members of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
For example, Rep. Jason Metsa (DFL-Virginia), who at 32, is one of the youngest members of the freshmen class, also has some of the biggest shoes to fill: occupying the seat left vacant when 13-term former Rep. Tom Rukavina did not seek re-election.
“It’s absolutely kind of a daunting task,” Metsa said. “Tom spent so much time, and still does, communicating with the constituents in this district and did almost everything personally. So I have a lot of expectations from the communities I’m serving, and it’s definitely a challenge. I only hope I can do as well as he did.”
Metsa intends to work on the issues important to his constituents on the Iron Range, including precious metal mining and expanding the natural resource-based economy.
“It’s pretty humbling to be sent down here by 39,000 people from the district, roughly,” he said.
Among the 132 House members who were sworn into office were nurses and teachers, farmers and business owners, and yes, there were quite a few lawyers, too. “We come from many backgrounds and traditions, but we are one working for a better Minnesota,” said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel Minneapolis, who gave the invocation.
Two members shy of a full House, 72 DFLers and 60 Republicans took the oath of office. Two members resigned prior to opening day because of full-time employment changes: Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter) and Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud).
For freshmen legislators, the day was a family affair.
Rep. Marion O’Neill (R-Buffalo) was surrounded by her husband, Tom, and daughter, Olivia, during the swearing-in ceremony.
Before taking office, O’Neill served as a legislative assistant in the Senate. Now as a representative, she has the advantage of knowing the legislative processes and how everything works.
“It’s almost like a whole college degree,” she said. “I’m looking forward to learning.”
Rep. Anna Wills (R-Apple Valley) said her first floor session was “surreal.” Although she has been politically active since age 12 and is also a former Senate legislative assistant, she wasn’t looking to seek the House seat until former Rep. Kurt Bills announced last year that he was seeking higher office.
“I was like-minded with Kurt Bills. My life has led up to it even though I wasn’t planning on it. I look forward to building relationships,” Wills said. Her husband, brother-in-law and mother-in-law were cozy on the crowded House floor.
After being sworn into his new position by Associate Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina Wright, House Speaker Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls) thanked members.
“It’s a big responsibility for all of us to govern the State of Minnesota. We all come here with different ideas for how it should be accomplished, but one thing I always tell people when they talk about everything that goes on at the Legislature: everyone who comes to serve here is here for the right reason,” he said.
In seconding Thissen’s nomination, Rep. John Ward (DFL-Baxter) said that Thissen is “fair, inclusive and effective in all decisions” and that he is a “strong family man.”
The specialness of the day was not lost on Thissen’s wife, Karen, who had a front-row seat, along with their three children and the speaker’s mother.
“We’ve been at this for so long that it didn’t strike me as such a momentous occasion until I saw him up on the rostrum,” she said.
Still, she’s not expecting her husband’s new role to change much at home. “I just count on him being gone a lot. We come to the Capitol for a quick visit, picnic or dinner.”
Traditionally, the first year of a biennial session addresses the state budget. Legislators must constitutionally complete their work by May 20.