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Legislature-Lobbyist Relations Strained
By Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
April 3, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of Session 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

Last week's unusually angry outburst against lobbyists by a key legislator has many state Capitol insiders wondering what set it off. House Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Davids called the successful effort to kill wine sales in grocery stores "the most disgusting, underhanded, unethical, pathetic, dishonest, dishonorable show of lobbying" that he's ever seen. Many legislators say the high-pressure tactics crossed the line, but are highly unusual at the Capitol, where lobbyists' words are their currency.

The relationship between legislator and lobbyist is usually a civil one, in part because the path from one career to the other is a well-worn one - and a short one for many. Unlike the federal government, Minnesota has no requirement that lawmakers be out of office for a certain period of time before becoming a lobbyist. Here are a few recent lawmakers turned lobbyists.

Steve Novak left the Senate after an unsuccessful bid for Congress from the 4th District. He represented the New Brighton area and served on environmental, energy, taxes and commerce committees. He now lobbies for the Minnesota Twins; he's one of 20 lobbyists for the team.

Dee Long is a former Speaker of the House in Minnesota. She was an unsuccessful candidate for secretary of state. She now represents Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy as a lobbyist.

Linda Runbeck left the Senate after an unsuccessful run for Congress from the 4th District. She served on committees that oversaw legislation on taxes, commerce, and energy development. She's now a lobbyist for the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

Robert Vanasek is a former Speaker of the House in Minnesota. He now lobbies for the Minnesota Twins, Lifetime Fitness, Hazeldon Foundation, American Massage Therapy Association, Citizens for Safer Minnesota and others.

Kris Hasskamp left the Legislature after the 2000 session. She was outspoken on issues involving outdoor recreation, tourism, health care and initiatives opposing legalized abortion. She now lobbies for Nutrition Services Inc.
COMMERCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN GREG DAVIDS won't say exactly what happened to provoke his ire, but he says a small number of liquor industry lobbyists made threats to committee members that went over the line. His rebuke came on the eve of the first committee deadline, and at the end of a fiercely-fought battle over whether to allow the sale of wine in groceries. The Preston Republican says some comments went beyond the typical "we'll campaign against you if you support this bill."

"That's not over the line. That's not what I'm talking about. And that happens all the time around here, I'm always told that 'We're going to come get you in the next election.' I give them a road map and tell them where I live and say, 'Come get me.' So that's not it; it was more severe than that, but I'm just going to leave it at that," he told Minnesota Public Radio.

Several members say privately that they've heard that some comments bordered on veiled death threats, along the lines of 'If you support this bill, you won't be around for your next campaign.'

Committee member Bob Gunther, a Republican from Fairmont, says he was contacted by four people, including two liquor store employees, who threatened to pursue ethics charges against him if he backed the bill because he owns a grocery store.

"There are a lot of people that say they were threatened physically. I was never threatened physically. They threatened ethics violations, which really didn't bother me too much," he says.

Gunther says ethics charges wouldn't apply, because the bill only affected grocery stores in the seven-county metro area, and his store is outstate. No one is naming names, but the effort to kill the bill was spearheaded by Jim Farrell, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and a former DFL legislator. Farrell says he didn't do anything inappropriate, and he wants to know who sent threatening e-mails to Gunther.

"I'd be the first guy defending Bob Gunther, and I would like to find out who it is that sent that, because they're way out of line, and it's got to stop," he said. Farrell indicated that if it turns out the offense was committed by one of his association's members, "I'd take the membership money, give them the check back and say, 'Get out of my life. You're not doing me any good.'"

Every lawmaker contacted for this story was quick to point out that the vast majority of lobbyists behave ethically. Committee member Matt Entenza, a St. Paul DFLer, says only on hot-button issues, such as abortion and gun control, do lobbying efforts occasionally cross the line.

"The Legislature's a pressure cooker; lobbyists, like anyone else when they're put in a pressure cooker, sometimes are going to overreact, and we've all - all of us who have served here - have had lobbyists come and apologize later because they realize they went too far or they maybe pushed things a little too hard. But there's no question that this is one of the biggest eruptions I've seen like this in my seven years at the Legislature."

The flap and Davids' comments were demoralizing for many lobbyists, who worry about being painted with a broad brush and getting a hostile reception from lawmakers. But Davids says he doesn't plan to pursue the matter further. He says he drove his point home last week, and he thinks the issue will take care of itself. Wine in grocery stores promises to be back again next year, and when it is, Davids says both sides of the debate should have learned from the mistakes of this year's fight.