Lawmaker retirements spur speculation
ST. PAUL - Two things often are shrouded in secrecy in the legislative session's final weeks: budget deals and pending lawmaker retirements.
Minnesota House members stand for election this fall, and some representatives are keeping their future plans under wraps until the end of session.
"There's lots of variables - like everybody," said a coy Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Appleton, who is among lawmakers whose political future has been the source of speculation.
Seven of the 134 House members already have publicly said they will not seek re-election, the most recent being a surprise announcement by Democratic Rep. Frank Moe of Bemidji. Four Republicans and three Democrats are known to be retiring, but others likely will follow suit before May 19, the Legislature's deadline.
"There's always some surprises," said House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, who expects a few more retirements on both sides of the aisle.
The House typically reserves time on the last day of its two-year session for retiring lawmakers to make the announcement, but some lawmakers do it much earlier.
Veteran Rep. Dennis Ozment of Rosemount said he made up his mind to retire this year after spending time with family before the 2008 legislative session. He announced his retirement a short time later.
Ozment, currently the longest-serving House Republican, said he wanted to give constituents - and possible candidates -- "as much warning as possible."
There is Capitol conjecture about other lawmakers' intentions.
Rep. Bernie Lieder, at 85 the oldest legislator, is weighing whether to return. Surveying the political landscape, the Crookston Democrat sees reasons to run again.
"The incentive to stay is it looks like we could have a veto-proof Legislature," he said of the Democrats gaining seats in the fall election.
However, he said there are factors that make retirement attractive, including the long distance he travels from his northwestern Minnesota home to St. Paul.
Republicans await Lieder's decision, viewing his seat as one they can gain if he steps down. They must wait a little longer; Lieder said he will not decide about re-election until after the session.
Predicting lawmaker retirements is a biennial political parlor game in St. Paul, but speculation about Peterson's future angered the Democrat from western Minnesota.
While Peterson said he is frustrated about reports saying he is leaving after this year, he refused to say he is running again.
"I'm not saying anything," Peterson said.
Only representatives' terms end this year. Senators, who serve four-year terms, were elected two years ago. While senators occasionally leave the Legislature in mid-term for personal reasons, no Senate retirements are expected this year.
Most lawmakers planning to retire decide before or at the end of a legislative session, some said. Veteran Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said she knows of lawmakers who in the middle of a grueling session decided against re-election, only to later regret leaving.
"A time of stress isn't a good time to make major decisions," said Murphy, who intends to seek a 17th term this fall.
Political calculations, as much as personal reasons, can influence the timing of a retirement announcement. Some lawmakers intentionally keep private their impending retirement during a session to protect important legislation and their chances at serving on influential negotiating committees.
Moe said he knew months ago he would not seek a third term, but kept the decision private in a large part because doing otherwise could have hurt his ability to get state funding for projects in his district.
Moe's announcement came at the endorsing convention in his northern Minnesota district. Delegates endorsed him for a third term and rather than accepting their nod, he announced he was stepping down. It has prompted scrambling in both parties.
Republicans were just as surprised as Democrats by Moe's decision.
"Moe would have been nowhere on our list" of targeted DFLers, Seifert said. Now that race could be among the most contested in rural Minnesota.
The two-term DFLer said delaying his announcement should not hurt his party's chances of holding onto the seat.
"Elections are too long as it is," Moe said.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she does not expect any more Democrats to step down this year.
"No one else has said anything, but you never know on the last night," she said.
Rep. Kathy Tingelstad of Andover, a House Republican who was among a group of GOP lawmakers known as the Override Six for their votes to overturn Gov. Tim Pawlenty's transportation funding veto, already announced she is retiring.
But Rep. Rod Hamilton, another Override Six member, said he wants to be back in St. Paul next year.
"I'm running again - absolutely," said Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake.
Rep. Bug Heidgerken, a three-term Freeport Republican, also is an Override Six member. He said he never decides whether to seek re-election until the end of session. He'll do the same this year, he said.
"I haven't really thought much about it," he said, grinning.
Some lawmakers who have thought about retirement plan to stick around. Rep. Mike Jaros, a longtime House member, said he cannot afford to retire.
Jaros, DFL-Duluth, said without benefits given lawmakers, he would have to pay more than $1,000 a month for health insurance. So without an alternative, he intends to build on his 32 years in the House.
"I don't see anybody else paying" for health insurance, Jaros said.
Five-term Rep. Larry Howes said he expects to run again.
"I still like what I do," the Walker Republican said, adding that he has notched legislative successes despite serving in the minority.
Howes said he never decides for certain until the session ends, and said it's politically savvy and good for constituents to hold off on retirement announcements until then.
"It's just good sense to finish the job," he said.
Speculation about Peterson's retirement is based in part on his work outside the Capitol. He is employed by an international renewable energy development firm, and the work requires travel around the country, he acknowledged.
Peterson said it's too early for lawmakers, Capitol observers and his constituents to know of his plans.
"They may want to know, but get to know is a different thing," he said.
Lieder has at least 305 reasons not to run again. For 24 years he's been making the 305-mile trip from his home in northwestern Minnesota to St. Paul.
"It's pretty tough on a person," Lieder said, acknowledging it is even more difficult for lawmakers with young families.
"A lot of candidates don't realize the sacrifice," he said.
Still, serving in the majority can make lawmakers optimistic.
"It always seems that things should be easier next year," Lieder said.
Of course, many already are thinking about re-election. Rep. Torrey Westrom said he's running for another term.
"Unless I get called to be vice president," he joked.
Westrom, an Elbow Lake Republican, said he already has campaign plans made for the summer.