Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Thissen stumps on Range ahead of caucuses

Former DFL House speaker says he’s focused on improving the economy, education, and health care

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/31/18

REGIONAL— State Rep. Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer, was stumping for votes on the Iron Range this week, just ahead of precinct caucuses on Tuesday. Thissen, who served one term as House Speaker …

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Thissen stumps on Range ahead of caucuses

Former DFL House speaker says he’s focused on improving the economy, education, and health care


REGIONAL— State Rep. Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer, was stumping for votes on the Iron Range this week, just ahead of precinct caucuses on Tuesday. Thissen, who served one term as House Speaker and two terms as minority leader, announced last year that he is running for governor. He announced last month that he will not seek re-election to the South Minneapolis House district that he has represented for the past 15 years.

Thissen, a 51-year-old attorney, has been traveling the state over the past several months to talk to Minnesotans and he’s hearing consistent themes wherever he goes.

“People feel they don’t have control of their own destinies anymore,” he said. Between the high cost of health care, childcare, higher education, and the lack of good-paying jobs in many parts of the state, Thissen said people increasingly feel like the challenges for families are becoming overwhelming, and that average people don’t have the ability to bring the kind of change that’s necessary.

Thissen said he hears increasing support for healthcare solutions like single-payer, which he believes would significantly improve efficiency in the healthcare system. “I think politically, there is support there,” he said. Thissen said an initial phase-in might make sense, starting with children under age 18 and those between the ages of 50 and 65, for whom health insurance premiums can be very high. “If you take those two groups out of the pool, it would likely reduce costs for those in between,” he said. He said direct contracting between the state and health care providers would be another way to reduce the inefficiencies inherent in the current private, multi-payer insurance system currently in existence in the U.S.

While a single-payer system is increasingly popular, Thissen acknowledged that the politics of a transition would be challenging. “There is a lot of money at stake,” he said, particularly for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, which benefit financially from the current inefficiencies. “But we’re also at a point where it just isn’t working for many people, especially for the folks in the individual market. And that’s much more of a Greater Minnesota issue than it is a Twin Cities issue.”

Thissen is also interested in advancing state policies to bridge the funding inequities between school districts. During his time as House Speaker, Thissen supported greater state funding support of local levies to try to level the playing field between property-rich and property-poor districts. He also favors increased financial support for early childhood education, and notes that when resources are invested wisely at the front end with children, the results can be impressive. “We need to think more about those first thousand days, because that’s when so much of the brain development happens [in children],” he said. “We have ignored that part of kids’ lives for too long.”

Thissen, like a lot of DFLers, has been thinking about how to re-engage the party with rural voters. He said many communities outside the metro area are feeling an economic squeeze. He said he’d like to see more community ownership of major assets, like hospitals and energy production. “Right now, we just don’t see wealth staying in these communities,” he said. In addition, he said, the state could be doing more to assist key businesses, like grocery stores, in small communities, transition to new ownership when current owners are looking to retire. He said a program in Nebraska has served as a kind of matchmaker service, connecting business owners looking to retire with prospective younger buyers looking for opportunities. Thissen said he favors what he calls “radical localism,” which he said can help put more power back in the hands of communities. “Right now, people don’t feel they have much power.”

Thissen, of course, couldn’t visit the Iron Range without talking about the current political divide over copper-nickel mining and he said he’s tried to remain consistent on the issue, and echoed the positions of several other DFLers about following the science and the process as proposals move forward. “If we do that and the experts at the agencies determine that the permit should be issued or there’s the ability to do it, I don’t think the governor should be stepping in and stopping that from going forward.”

At the same time, Thissen said he’s not sure that the current financial assurance package put forward for the PolyMet project is sufficient on a longer-term basis. He said as governor, he would be sure that the package was adequately reviewed every year to ensure that sufficient resources are available for any clean-up necessary.

“That will be on the next governor’s plate,” he said.

He said it’s also important that the next governor require enforcement of any permits that are ultimately issued. “That’s something that the state has fallen down on too often in my mind,” he said. “If the permit is issued, I think the other big job of the next governor is making sure that the agency is actually enforcing the terms of those permits and be willing to make tough decisions if the permit is not being followed.” Thissen would also like to see more value-added production if the minerals are eventually developed.

On the proposed Twin Metals project, Thissen said he was disappointed with the recent decision by the Trump administration to downgrade a planned study on the merits of the proposed Twin Metals mine near Ely. “It boggles my mind that we would not do the study,” he said. “Getting all that information makes perfect sense. We need the science behind it to back up what we’re going to do.”

Thissen said he also wants to see the established process followed. “We don’t want it short-circuited, which we’ve seen happening at the federal level.” For example, he said he does not object to the current land exchange plan for PolyMet, but has been unhappy with the way the process has been manipulated in Congress. “Changing the rules midstream is not right to me,” he said.

Thissen, who grew up in Bloomington, is the son of two school teachers. He is married to wife Karen and has three children, including two sons in high school and a college-aged daughter. His legal practice, for the former firm of Lindquist and Vennum, has been wide-ranging, including pro bono public defense, including a death penalty case that led to the release of a wrongly-convicted individual in Texas. He has also handled a number of political asylum cases over the years.


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