Sen. Pappas on moving offices and Legislative turnoverby Tom Crann, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — This upcoming session at the State Capitol will look very different to members of both parties. Republicans, who will control of both the House and the Senate, are preparing their legislative agenda, while DFLers are trying to cope with the loss of over two dozen seats.
Veteran DFLer Sandy Pappas spoke with MPR's Tom Crann yesterday about the political turnover. Pappas has been in the legislature since 1984, first as a representative, and as a senator since 1990. She faces a different very different situation this session, and even a different office.
Tom Crann: Now that there's been a month or so since the election, you've had time to reflect on it. What message do you think the voters were trying to send last month?
Sen. Sandy Pappas: Boy, that's really a tough question. I think the voters were probably saying a couple things. They were saying, 'You're not feeling our pain enough. We're really struggling out there. We're losing our homes. We're unemployed. We're nervous about the future. There's a lot of insecurity. We might lose our jobs, even if we haven't (already) lost our jobs, and we don't feel like you're paying enough attention to us, so we want to kind of send a wake-up call.'
Crann: You're heading into your tenth cumulative legislative term, whether it's House or Senate. What are you expecting out of this session and this different dynamic?
Pappas: Well, I think it's going to be hard for a lot of us. In the Senate, we haven't been in the minority for 36 years. Most people have never been in the minority. I started out my career in the House two years in the minority, and ... we're kind of used to being in charge. We're used to making decisions. We're used to having staff at our disposal and people coming to our office to talk to us. I think that it's going to be very, very different.
Crann: Tell us a little more logistically about how it works. You say you're used to having staff. In the minority you have fewer staff members than the majority?
Pappas: We're losing about half our staff, so this is very painful for a lot of us, and obviously for them. I mean on top of losing our colleagues in the election - many of us were very close friends over the last four-plus years - we're also losing people that maybe worked for us 12, 14 years. And the job market being what it is, it could be tough for them out there.
Crann: So, what is the mood in your caucus with DFLers?
Pappas: I think it varies. When we first lost, we were in shock. I remember Election Night ... my husband showed up, surprisingly, at the Radisson, and he said, 'They're saying on MPR that you lost the Senate.' And I said, 'No, they're listening to the Republicans. No way would we lose the Senate.' And then we started hearing that (Senator) Don Betzold had lost from Fridley, and (Senator) Ann Lynch had lost in Rochester, and ... the House members were losing.
And we were pretty much in shock ... While we were happy about Dayton - who we still don't know for sure if he's our governor, but it's looking good - we were just really devastated by the loss. And a lot of my colleagues, good women elected four years ago, worked very, very hard and were very devoted to their districts. And it's really hard when the voters reject you.
Crann: And how will you work past that and work in this new situation with a Republican majority?
Pappas: Well, it's going through stages of grieving. I've told a lot of my friends, I wake up with my usual positive self, and then 10 minutes later I realize, oh, we're not in the majority anymore. And then I'm depressed, and then I probably have a couple of glasses of wine at night every night. I've got to stop that soon. (Laughs)
So, you know, you're working through these stages ... It's hard to leave. I've had my office for 16 years. I feel more depressed about my office than when I sold my house. I chose to sell my house. I was evicted from my office, but that pales in the light of the staff and our friends that we lost, and our real fears about the future of Minnesota. I think that very quickly we're going to, we move past our personal stage into what this means for the middle class in Minnesota.
Crann: And what does it (mean)? ... You said that maybe there were certain members who were not feeling the pain that they were going through. If that's the case, how do you adjust as DFLers what you're doing?
Pappas: Well, the irony of that is there's going to be more pain because ... from the national level, Congress has just decided not to extend, or they don't look like they're going to take up extending unemployment benefits. We've got a few years to go for health care reform to kick in ... To balance a $6 billion budget shortfall without any new revenue is going to mean massive cuts. We won't vote for that, but somehow a compromise is going to have to be made to avoid shutting down state government. So I think it's going to be very difficult.
People are going to have to speak up who don't want grandma kicked out of the nursing home, who don't want aid to their students in schools cut, who don't want aid to police and fire cut, and realize that you get what you pay for. And if the citizens of Minnesota are not willing to pay for good services, we're going to have bad services.
Crann: What message would you have for incoming members, especially newly elected colleagues from the other side of the aisle who are coming in for their first term, message or advice for them?
Pappas: Be prepared to work hard because they have a pretty narrow bench in the Senate in particular, not a lot of experienced people, barely had enough people available with any incumbency at all to chair committees, a lot of new chairs who had never even been on committees. Like the Higher Ed chair had never been on Higher Ed. Be prepared to spend long hours here. I mean they're talking about taking Fridays off. I don't know how they're going to do that. Some people are going to have to be here figuring out the budget.
Crann: Most recently you were the chair of the Higher Education committee. I'm wondering what issues do you see rising up, especially concerning Minnesota's colleges and universities?
Pappas: Boy, our colleges are our future, and when people are laid off from jobs, often they go back to school. So they're just bulging with enrollment, and if we can't meet their needs, if we end up raising tuition--. They're already down to the bone in our Higher Ed system. So any more cuts just are going mean higher tuition for students or really inadequate services.
Technology is so expensive, and our students really expect technology 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A lot more online classes are being offered, and that's for their convenience, but the technology has to work.
I know my own frustration when I go to a classroom, and I'm supposed to have a 'smart' classroom, and the technology isn't working, but I'm also noticing a lot more of my students are dropping (out) because they can't afford it, or they lose their jobs, or they're losing their homes.
A lot of people are struggling. They want to go to school, but they can't afford it. And yet, how are they ever going to get a better job if they don't get better educated? So, those are some of the issues, I think - affordability of college and quality.
Crann: And they're a key, as far as you're concerned, to an economic recovery?
Pappas: Absolutely. I mean the economy is going to recover. It's just being slower than usual. And people are going to need to have some post-secondary education. You just can't get a job out of high school that pays you a living wage. So our students have to be prepared to go to some kind of higher education, even if it's a certificate or an associate degree.
Crann: I hate to dwell on the unpleasant aspect of losing the majority, but we spoke with Kurt Daudt, an incoming House member, Republican, about going up to the Capitol as a newly elected member. They have an orientation, and he was all very excited, in awe of the situation. What has the feeling been like as you've had to be there for the new incoming, for the orientation? Give us the other side of that coin. What's it been like?
Pappas: Well, it's an awesome place to work, and I guess my message when I took part in the tour with some of the freshmen, Kurt wasn't in my group, is as we toured the Capitol, I talked about the importance of this building as the people's house, and that it's really important that we take care of it and we repair it. And a lot of the problems with the Capitol are behind the scenes.
It's called HVAC, you know, the mechanical systems. That's a problem, but also you have a lot of peeling paint, and it costs a lot of money to keep the Capitol up. And it's not been a priority because we've had other issues, but, boy, I just try to instill in them some pride and some appreciation of that beautiful building they're going to be working in.
Crann: From your initial meeting with some of the newcomers, do they seem like people you can work with?
Pappas: I really don't know. I have to be honest that I don't know.
Crann: Haven't had enough exposure?
Pappas: I haven't had enough exposure to them, so I don't know what they're going to be like. A lot of them ran very extreme right wing campaigns. There was a lot of very, very negative campaigning that was going on the last two weeks before the election. People were getting negative piece after negative piece, a lot of this corporate money that has come into elections. A lot of money was spent, and we don't know by who and how much, and it's kind of frightening. And a lot of these newcomers ... they benefited from that. So I don't know what they're going to be like. I don't know. We'll wait and see.
Crann: When the new leaders were in on (MPR's) Midday not long ago, they were striking also a 'wait and see' tone ... For example, if there's a delay in the gubernatorial process, in the recount process, they weren't going to try to jam things through with a friendly governor, Tim Pawlenty, still staying there. Do you take them at their word?
Pappas: Yes, and I've heard that, too, from the new Senate leadership that they're being very cooperative, and that's really important for the smooth running of the Senate. I mean after all, we have 201 members that are changing offices. It's pretty chaotic over there and pretty crazy.
Crann: Will that all be done by January 3?
Pappas: Oh yes, yes. It's going on right now, so it should be done in the next couple weeks.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran.)