Dan Bauman and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
The Saint Paul Pioneer Press
The revolving door at Minnesota’s Capitol moves so quickly, it can be dizzying.
Longtime Rep. Jim Abeler pushed through this year. On Jan. 6 he ended his 16-year run representing Anoka in the Minnesota House. On Jan. 21, he registered to lobby his former colleagues.
“I never thought I would be a lobbyist,” said Abeler, a former chairman of the House’s Health and Human Services Finance Committee. But he now roams the Capitol halls representing a Somali community organization, a veterans’ service organization and other groups that likely would have come before him during his House service.
Comparing the view from the lobbying ranks to the one he had as a Republican House member, he said: “It’s the same neighborhood, different dialect.”
While many states and the federal government prohibit such quick moves, in Minnesota it is commonplace.
A Pioneer Press analysis of registered lobbyists found that since 2002 alone, at least five dozen legislators have registered to lobby their former colleagues once their election certificates expired. Their ranks include three former senate majority leaders, former House and Senate minority leaders, former committee chairs, former lawmakers who worked for the state government and then turned to lobbying, and a host of others.
The lawmakers turned lobbyists are equally likely to be Democrats as Republicans.
While they are more likely to have House experience then Senate experience, both chambers are well-represented in their ranks. Some wait years after leaving the Legislature before becoming lobbyists. Others, like Abeler, delay only days.
And a few, like former Sen. Dick Day, left their terms mid-session to lobby for issues on which they had previously voted. Day, a Republican from Owatonna, resigned from lawmaking in 2009 to lobby for a group pushing for slot machines at racetracks.
Minnesota law is silent on the matter. But a House rule calls for a one-year cooling-off period for retiring legislators.
“Former state legislators must not register as lobbyists within one year from the date they leave office,” the rule says.
That instruction is routinely ignored. Meanwhile, Senate rules do not address the matter.
The newspaper’s analysis found at least 39 lawmakers from the House went on to become lobbyists and at least 16 did it before a year had expired on their service. Nine, though, happened before the House rule was enacted in 2007.
If former House members violate the rule, there is no consequence.
“Our House rules aren’t enforceable if you aren’t in the House,” said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. She said she voted against the rule but did not sense the political will to dump it during this year’s biannual rule rewrite.
Even the lawmaker who pushed to create the rule admits it has “no power.”
“It was a statement. It was symbolic,” said former House Speaker Steve Sviggum.
A Republican from Kenyon, Sviggum led the Minnesota House from 1999 to 2006. During his tenure, he worked to get the state to adopt a law banning quick turns from legislating to lobbying.
“I was the speaker, and I couldn’t get it done,” he said.
State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, was a partner in those efforts. Still in the Legislature, he is trying again.
“There’s a revolving door between the public sector and the private-sector lobbying that should be broken. When they’ve got the ties, the inside knowledge and everything else, I just don’t think that’s appropriate,” Marty said.
This year, he proposed a ban on lawmakers, commissioners, their immediate subordinates and constitutional officers from lobbying for seven years after they leave state employ.
“The reality is these are extremely popular concepts with the public,” Marty said. He is hopeful the measure will win traction next year.
But many, including Peppin and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, see no reason to limit lawmakers’ post-employment options.
“I think once a person leaves the Legislature, they ought to be able to pursue whatever occupation they want,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook.
‘THERE ARE A LOT OF THEM’
As Bakk recently spoke inside the Senate chamber about lawmakers turned lobbyists, several of his former legislating colleagues pressed through the Capitol’s marble halls. The former lawmakers blend in to the bustle with little notice.
“I think newer members would be surprised how many lobbyists outside the chamber are actually former members. There are a lot of them,” Bakk said. “They make very good lobbyists for a client to pick up because they understand the place.”
Former Republican House Leader Marty Seifert now hangs outside of the House chamber lobbying for outstate cities. Three of Bakk’s predecessors running the Senate — Roger Moe, John Hottinger and Dean Johnson — also now are registered as lobbyists.
Moe retired from the Senate in 2002 because he was running for governor that year. After losing to Republican Tim Pawlenty, he waited about seven months and then registered as a lobbyist.
The DFLer who led the Senate for two decades said his decision to lobby was financial. He now represents some of Minnesota’s largest companies: 3M, American Crystal Sugar, Delta Airlines, the Mall of America, HealthPartners and other household names.
“It has to do with having some hay in the barn. That’s the bottom line,” said Moe. Lobbying is far more lucrative than lawmaking.
Dan Larson, a DFLer, bookended a 10-year-stint in the Legislature with lobbying. He is now the director of the state and local government affairs group for the Lockridge Grindal Nauen legal and lobbying powerhouse.
Echoing a refrain common across the Pioneer Press’ interviews with former lawmakers who lobby, Larson said his service in the House and Senate may help cement his relationships but does not win him votes.
“It’s not about favors,” said Larson.
“Some of my best friends have voted against me,” said former Rep. Loren Solberg, a DFLer from Grand Rapids. He now represents nine lobbying clients, largely from his hometown.
Former state Rep. Michael Beard, a Republican who represented Shakopee for more than a decade, left the House last year and now lobbies for the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Coalition and the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Minnesota. He said his former House-mates feel free to be even less polite in telling him “no” than they might with other lobbyists.
Like several other former lawmakers others the Pioneer Press interviewed, Abeler said lobbying pursued him — he did not pursue it. The former Anoka representative, who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate last year, said autism treatment advocates asked him to join their lobbying team last year.
After some thought, he decided it would fit his “mission” to help them. And other clients have come along as well.
Among them: the Isuroon Project, a Minneapolis non-profit organization that “helps Somali women to build self-sufficiency and maintain healthy lives.”
Just last week, Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, introduced a measure to provide Isuroon $500,000 in grant funding for health equity work. Others have similarly proposed funding the project.
The senator, whose district abuts the area Abeler used to represent, said the former representative was the one who approached her about the grant. But, she said, her previous relationship with Isuroon’s executive director was her inspiration.
Benson said her stance on lawmakers who turn to lobbying has changed.
“Before I was an elected official, I would have absolutely said: ‘conflicts of interest’ and ‘using all the relationships.’ But now? I look at someone like Jim (Abeler.) He just knows everybody,” she said. “As a citizen I’m a little concerned, but on the other hand, (former lawmakers who lobby) are generally pretty good at what they do.”