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Sam Solon marks 30 years in the Legislature
By Stephanie Hemphill
Minnesota Public Radio
July 10, 2001
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This year's rancorous special legislative session kept lawmakers working longer and harder than usual. Sen. Sam Solon says it was nothing compared to the year he started representing Duluth at the Capitol, 30 years ago. In 1971, he was elected to the House of Representatives. In that year, the longest special session in history produced the "Minnesota Miracle." As a member of the House Tax committee, Solon worked through that summer on the law that shifted most of the costs of education from local districts to the state. Some say he pulled off other miracles over the years in getting state support for key projects for Duluth. Sam Solon is now battling cancer.

Sen. Sam Solon has represented the Duluth area in the state Legislature for 30 years, and has been successful in bringing state resources to his district for a variety of economic development projects. Solon's official Senate biography
THREE DECADES AGO, AS A YOUNG SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHER in working-class West Duluth, Sam Solon ran for the state Legislature at the urging of his principal, a DFL activist. He won, but in his first few days on the job, Solon admits he was a little intimidated.

"Being in the House, you're awed by the Senate. You're a freshman, you've only been there a day, two days, a week. Some of those people have been there 30 years," Solon says.

But he was hooked on politics and now Solon is one of the old-timers. After a term in the House, he won a Senate seat, and he's been re-elected seven times. He says things have changed a lot in the last 30 years. In the old days, he says there weren't so many rules. It was easier to get to know people - easier to get things done.

"Even though the system was much more fun and, in a sense, loose, there was also a handful of people who had a lot of power. But they ran it well. They had integrity and they did what was best for the state," recalled Solon.

During the sessions, Solon roomed with legislators from other parts of the state, and got to know all his colleagues socially. Solon's friendly, easy-going style made him a popular and effective advocate for his constituents. Lobbyist Kevin Walli represents the city of Duluth and other northern Minnesota clients. He says Solon's quiet persistence has often made the difference for Duluth projects.

"He's got this wonderful approach," says Walli. "He'll come into a conference committee in the evening and make his way quietly around the room. In a very low key way he comes into the room, makes contact with everybody, and then moves on. And I know as often as not, he's leaving one conference committee and making his way to another one, upstairs or down the hall."

Walli and others say Solon's friendliness seems to be based on a genuine appreciation of people and a desire to get things done. Sen. Edward Oliver of Deephaven is the ranking Republican on Solon's Commerce Committee.

"When stuff got just so controversial he didn't want to hear it, he asked the parties to go out and solve their problem and bring back a mutually agreeable solution. And he was very good at that," says Oliver.

Solon says he learned to use the "soft-sell approach" when he was teaching. He says you can't teach kids by yelling at them. And he says his commitment to service came from his parents. Both of them immigrated to Duluth from Greece.

"You're pretty well taught to be dedicated to serve," says Solon. "It doesn't have to be in some huge capacity, it can just be helping your neighbor, who may need $10 until payday."

Solon grew up during the Depression, and went to college on the GI Bill. His early years in the Legislature coincided with Duluth's traumatic decline as an industrial city.

"The steel plant, cement plant, Jeno's, the air base, Clyde Iron Works, Coolerator plant - you can name them. We lost thousands and thousands of people with halfway decent jobs."

Solon plunged into the task of prying money from every conceivable state program to help Duluth.

"I loved education, I loved higher education, I loved helping poor people. But at the same time it just stood right out that we've got to create some jobs."

Solon and other Duluth and Iron Range legislators, were so successful at directing state money towards northeastern Minnesota, he was often teased about it by colleagues from other parts of the state. Improvements at the Lake Superior Zoo, expansion of the convention center, the Natural Resources Research Institute and a two-year medical school at UMD, the Northwest Airlines maintenance base, the Technology Village and the aquarium are just a few of the plums Solon brought home with him from St. Paul.

A couple of times, his single-minded drive for jobs has led to ugly fights between the Legislature and local leaders. Solon says one of his proudest accomplishments is legislation mandating the extension of Interstate 35 through downtown Duluth. Grassroots opposition to the freeway extension had grown for 10 years, and by 1984 the City Council voted against it. Arno Kahn was a council member. He says Solon's legislative coup undermined people's trust in government.

"The state Legislature, of course, had no background on the issue and voted the way they did for political reasons. I don't think that's good government," says Kahn. "I think it produces a good deal of cynical response, and tends to diminish the belief that democracy really is government by the people, for the people, of the people."

Kahn says Solon is doing it again with his bill directing the DNR to build a safe harbor on Lake Superior at the northern edge of Duluth, in spite of City Council opposition. But Solon says he takes a larger view.

"This is not a Duluth project, it's a statewide project. Same with the freeway. That was not a Duluth project. It belongs to the state of Minnesota and the United States of America. People say, 'Why are you sticking your nose in it?' Same exact reason, because I think it's the right thing to do for the people of the state of Minnesota," Solon says.

The freeway extension finally resulted in dramatic improvements in Duluth's downtown, fueling the city's tourism boom. Now both sides like to take credit for the results. Whether the same kind of happy compromise can happen on the safe harbor issue is doubtful.

Right now, Sam Solon is fighting the toughest battle of his life. In February he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He's just finished an aggressive treatment at a Houston hospital and is hoping it works.

"Every day I'm getting cards, letters, books of hope and prayer, you name it. It's extraordinary what you're getting. And of course my family is very much involved, and we feel we've got the best doctors. You do the best you can and you've got to be lucky, too," says Solon.

In his 30-year career in state government, Sam Solon created his own share of luck. Now his colleagues in the Legislature, and friends in Duluth, are hoping his luck will hold.

Related Links
  • Northeast Minnesota delegation
  • DNR Safe Harbor information
  • Capital budget request for safe harbor project