By T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Sen. Kenneth Kelash in his farewell to his Senate colleagues last week recalled glancing at a book with the names of all the senators
who’ve ever served in the Minnesota Senate.
“My name is going to be in that book,” said Kelash, DFL-Minneapolis, reflectively.
Kelash is one of a handful of area state senators who will be leaving office at the end of their term.
Of the group, Kelash, the product of a special election in 2008, is something of a junior member — Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, was first elected in 1982 and recalled dealing with then State Auditor Mark Dayton.
Not all the reasons for the senators leaving are same.
For Kelash and Sen, Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, redistricting left them with complicated political pictures and endorsement battles lost.
For others, like Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, and Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, controversy touched their time in office and may have played a role in their decisions not seek reelection.
For Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, news of an inappropriate relationship had her stepping down as Senate majority leader and overshadowing her meteoric rise from freshmen to leader in five years and engineer of the historic electoral take over of the DFL-dominated Senate by Republicans after 40 years in the minority.
But the harsher side of politics was set aside for memories, laughter, tears, and sharing nuggets of perceived wisdom from the members of the exclusive body to which only some 1,300 residents have belong since Minnesota became a state 150 years ago.
“Compromise is not a nasty act,” said Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, another area senators not returning the Senate in January.
In his speech, Kelash spoke of the men and women who sought public office.
“Politicians are extraordinary human beings,” he said.
It takes courage, and a certain amount of ego to knock on doors and in two minutes try to convince voters why you’re the best choice to represent them, he explained.
Kelash termed public service as “incredibly noble.” And he spoke of his own upbringing of growing up in a big family and having a father who earned a living with a tool box.
“The dignity of work is something that needs to be rewarded,” he said.
Gerlach, a former Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile launch officer, spoke of taking to politics catnip after some false academic starts and handing out literature as a college Republican for then gubernatorial candidate and present Secretary of the
Senate Cal Ludeman.
Gerlach, considered a policy wonk by fellow Republicans, spoke of the euphoria felt when Senate Republicans secured the “Holy Grail” of politics, the majority, after decades in the wilderness.
He urged Democrats to strive to take away the grail from Republicans, and suggested an appropriate time frame could be about 36 years.
In keeping on a lighter vein, Gerlach spoke of his regret of never being lampooned by Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, by having of a “mask” made of his face.
But on a more serious note, Gerlach warned Senate colleagues to avoid dragging partisanship into committee.
“Let’s not use the Ethics Committee as a political weapon,” Gerlach said. “Please think long and hard.”
Jungbauer — for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, he said — is considered by some to be something of an “odd duck,” he explained. Perhaps that because his personality has him going against the grain of things, Jungbauer theorized.
Although Jungbauer ran for the Republican Party endorsement for governor and speaks of running for the Anoka County Board, in recent months he has been in the news less for his politics then for a string of mishaps ranging from being struck by car while out running near the State Capitol to being bitten by a bat and needing to undergo a series of rabies shots.
Indeed, Jungbauer spoke of having undergone two neck surgeries, two back surgeries, and of his five concussions having him on concussion watch.
But Jungbauer, in speaking of his faith in Jesus Christ, spoke of living in the knowledge that God had a plan for him and not worrying about tomorrow.
“We’re family inside of here,” he said of life within Senate walls.
Unlike Gerlach, Jungbauer — the self-proclaimed biggest global warming denier in the Minnesota — with a smile held aloft a Marty mask of himself, a “Dr. Science” mask.
Jungbauer, who has four grandchildren, like other retiring senators spoke of family.
He spoke of how the beliefs of family members sometimes had him rethinking his votes on the Senate floor.
For instance, his wife Vicki, a former smoker who finds the habit disgusting, found his vote against the statewide smoking ban
incomprehensible, Jungbauer joked. “What was I thinking?” he said.
Koch’s farewell to the Senate was at humorous, at times tearful. She called life a mixture of good and bad.
“I am incredibly fortunate,” said Koch of her own life.
In commenting on colleagues, Koch recalled square dancing with Marty and how former Republican women state senators, like “Pistol Packin’” Pat Pariseau of Farmington, served as role models for young Republican women. One of her proudest moments, Koch recalled, was to see Olson pick up the gavel of the Senate Education Committee.
Koch tearfully thanked Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, for offering an amendment that brought a cancer treatment center to her community.
Koch recalled the election of Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, in a special election in 2010 and remembered thinking the election of the outspoken conservative was perhaps an omen of greater things to come for Senate Republicans.
Koch said nothing directly about the events surrounding her departure from leadership and the Senate, although thanked her former deputy majority leader Michel for spending hours working at the State Capitol rather than at home with his four daughters. “I won’t forget it,” she said.
Like the other senators, Koch spoke of family. “I love you mom,” she said.
Michel, too, spoke of family in his farewell — his was one of the briefer farewells of the day. Running for public office, he explained, is “a little selfish” because of demands it places on families.
“Ten years is enough. Ten years is great,” said Michel of his time in the Senate.
Michel, whose district if composed of affluent suburbs, joked of representing a well-to-do district. “Someone has to represent the One Person,” he quipped.
For her part, Robling said she wasn’t eager to run for the Senate 16 years ago by that a friend asked her to at least pray about it. “This is a ‘Wow’ experience,” she said of coming to work in a building as stunning at the State Capitol.
Robling spoke of walking through the crowded Minnesota State Fair to the Senate State Fair Booth and sensation of realizing the Senate represented all of those people. She spoke of the diversity of the people who stopped by the booth, and realizing that there were constituencies in the state that senators with very different political views rightfully represented.
For her part, Olson never anticipated or expected to spend 30 years in public office, she explained.
She “absolutely hated” civics and government in high school and uncharacteristically earned a “C” grade, she explained.
Olson spoke the people and issues she dealt with in the Senate. Once, in discussing highways, she gained media attention by making a pithy statement about a bottleneck she thought readily fixable.
“All it will take is paint and I will buy that paint,” Olson remembers herself saying.
Olson spoke of a willingness in her personal life for change — for cutting the ties, for moving on. Maybe the reason she spent decades in the Senate is because the Senate is not static, Olson explained.
The people change, the issues change. “This is the ever most changing body there is,” she said.