Pogemiller in spotlight as session nearsby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Frustrating. Analytical. Pugnacious and politically focused. Those are just a few terms to describe the next majority leader of the Minnesota Senate. Larry Pogemiller, a DFLer from Minneapolis, is as complex as they come. He can frustrate his opponents with his brash style. But others say he's a pleasure to work with. The big question leading into the legislative session is whether Pogemiller can work with Republican Gov. Pawlenty, whom he has repeatedly criticized over the past four years.
St. Paul, Minn. — Larry Pogemiller calls himself both a creature of his neighborhood and a creature of the Minnesota Senate. He was born and raised in northeast Minneapolis. In fact he still represents his old neighborhood in the Legislature. Pogemiller lives a block from his alma mater, De La Salle High School. His district also includes the University of Minnesota, where he went to college.
"Everything I know about politics and about public service I learned from either the nuns or the political activism on campus when I went there in the late '60s and early '70s," Pogemiller says.
Pogemiller says he grew up in a standard middle-class home. His father was an engineer at Honeywell. His mother was a nurse. Both are war veterans who saw active duty in World War II. Pogemiller says he grew up loving baseball and basketball. He calls it a "Leave it to Beaver," American dream background.
"Politics is probably not the profession that my family and friends would have thought I would have gotten into," he says. "I think they more saw me as a computer scientist or an engineer."
But Pogemiller entered the political arena when he was elected to the Minnesota House in 1980. Two years later, voters elected him to the Minnesota Senate. During his 24 years there, Pogemiller has shaped school policies as the chair of the Senate Education Committee. Most recently, he was chair of the Senate Taxes Committee.
His tenure on both committees has been frustrating to his political opponents, no matter their political party. He's known to speak his mind, which has led tempers to flare and tears to flow. Take last April, when one member of the Taxes Committee didn't think it was appropriate to meet on a Sunday. Pogemiller delivered a lecture.
"If you want to be a player at the state Legislature, conference committees meet on weekends all the time. As a matter of fact, Senator Pogemiller and Representative Krinkie were here on July 4th last year to try to get the work done. And, senator, I want you to have the opportunity to experience what it takes to get the job done," Pogemiller said.
Pogemiller's grind-it-out negotiating style also led one House member to say he'd prefer a root canal to dealing with the senator. And since Pogemiller's committees were some of the most important at the Legislature, he has a big say in end of session negotiations.
Here's how Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum characterized Pogemiller in 2003 when he felt Pogemiller was dragging his feet.
"Let me try not to be angered by Senator Pogemiller. That's a hard thing not to do. He's a very frustrating individual as he runs the clock past midnight all the time," Sviggum said.
Pogemiller's allies delight in his style, even if it is unpopular among Republicans. Dean Johnson, who Pogemiller is replacing as Senate majority leader, says Pogemiller is willing to fight for the best legislation. But he also says Pogemiller wants to understand every detail of a bill before he votes on it.
"I think it's a difficult task for Senator Pogemiller to order simply a hamburger well done and french fries. He wants to know where the meat comes from and where the potatoes were grown and what temperature these items were cooked at and all of that. He's very analytical," according to Johnson.
Johnson is also one of several members of the Legislature who praise Pogemiller's political skills. He says Pogemiller is a master at determining the political needs of the Senate. And Johnson says Pogemiller knows what it will take to satisfy other members of the Senate before the session even begins.
Republican Sen. Bill Belanger has served with Pogemiller on the Senate Taxes Committee. He lost his re-election bid this month. Belanger says he would agonize over Pogemiller's political moves.
"What you're up against is a fine political mind. If you're not up to that kind of a game, you're going to lose," Belanger says.
Belanger said he fought Pogemiller on every initiative and proposal during Pogemiller's first year as Taxes Committee chair. After the session was over, Belanger said he realized that he got nothing out of it. The next year, Belanger approached Pogemiller and told him he was willing to work with him. He says they've had a good working relationship ever since. Belanger's advice to his Republican colleagues and Gov. Pawlenty is to build a working relationship with him early.
"The message is: Meet him half way and he'll work with you," he says.
Pogemiller has been one of Pawlenty's biggest critics. He criticized the governor for having what he called "a press conference style of leadership." He also blasted Pawlenty's first budget which he said was misguided because it cut services and raised fees to balance the budget.
"Tuition, fees, co-pays on health insurance. And then the big one. The big kahuna. Property taxes. Pawlenty property taxes," Pogemiller says.
For his part, Pogemiller says he isn't worried about his relationship with Pawlenty.
"I think there's far too much focus in the media on personalities and people's relationships," he says.
Pogemiller says the two get along great on a personal level and he doesn't foresee a problem as long as they work in the best interest of the state.
"I think Tim Pawlenty is a very talented individual and I think if he functions at a high level as a governor and we function on a high level as a Senate, we'll get along just fine."
Pogemiller says he's optimistic that the upcoming session will be one of the more productive in the past several years. He also says he's a little shocked at how some view his personality. He says his family and close friends are surprised at the characterization that he's combatitive and pugnacious. Pogemiller says he's quite shy outside of the Capitol and would prefer to spend quiet time with his partner, Jill, and his two daughters.
But he admits that his style is dramatically different than the Minnesota nice styles of previous Senate majority leaders.
"I am very direct and I just need to make sure that directness does not go over the line in a way that makes it hard for people to listen to the message," Pogemiller says.
Pogemiller says he thinks the main focus of the upcoming session will be on education, property taxes and health care. And despite his efforts to maintain a cooperative tone, Pogemiller seems resolved to do what's necessary to push the Senate DFL agenda.
"Obviously the most important thing is to have quality legislation and you need to do what you need to do to get quality legislation," Pogemiller says.
For now, Pogemiller seems to be trying to take the spotlight off himself and his style. He says he's content to work behind the scenes and leave major policy decisions to Senate committee chairs. Whether his aggressive negotiating style ends up overshadowing his colleagues at the end of session remains to be seen.
- Morning Edition, 11/29/2006, 6:50 a.m.