Minnesota is sending big freshman class to Congress

November 12, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON — Minnesota’s congressional delegation is undergoing a dramatic shift in influence and experience as half the state’s members will be new when Congress convenes in January.

Minnesota’s five new representatives are replacing members with 42 years of accumulated seniority and several influential committee assignments.

But with Democrats winning control of the U.S. House in last week’s election, new opportunities are emerging. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a veteran western Minnesota Democrat, is poised to become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, a powerful voice as Congress looks to pass a sweeping farm bill overhaul in coming weeks.


“The more seniority you have, the bigger difference you’re able to make,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a retiring Democrat who was elected to his first stint in Congress in 1974.

Democrat Dean Phillips defeated U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a five-term Republican who will lose his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Voters defeated four Republicans on the panel and handed control to Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz was the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee before launching his successful gubernatorial bid. The six-term congressman was in line to become committee chairman and served as a key player in negotiations this year to fix a massive program designed to expand veterans’ access to private healthcare, particularly in rural areas.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who is leaving Congress and will become Minnesota’s next attorney general, is stepping aside as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, which helped orchestrate Democratic gains in Congress and will now focus to defeating President Donald Trump in 2020. Ellison will also give up a spot on the House Committee on Financial Services, where he pressed for passage of his legislation that aims to improve credit score fairness, particularly for low-income consumers.

Minnesota’s new congressional members will have to find their way in a transformed political landscape, with Democrats still sorting out leadership roles in the House as they prepare to take over in January.

First-term lawmakers are not granted high-ranking roles.

Phillips, for his part, said that he would be seeking advice from experts and community leaders on which committees to pursue. Republican Jim Hagedorn, who is replacing Walz in southern Minnesota, has expressed interest in serving on the agriculture and transportation committees. Democrat Ilhan Omar, who is replacing Ellison in Minneapolis, said she would be talking to veteran party leaders about where she could make the biggest impact.


Republican Pete Stauber, who won election to Nolan’s open seat, is seeking a spot on the House Committee on Natural Resources, hoping to be deeply involved in debates over the future of mining. And U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a member of the House Committee on Financial Services, is in the running to become chair the National Republican Campaign Committee. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum also has a chance to become chair of the environment-interior subcommittee of the influential House Appropriations panel, after serving as ranking Democrat.

Nolan said one secret of Washington is how influential a select few congressional leaders are in determining what issues are debated and voted on.

“So having someone powerful or in the leadership was very significant — more so today in the past,” he said.

Democrat Angie Craig, who will replace one-term GOP U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis in his south and east Twin Cities metro area district, said she wants to serve on the committees overseeing agriculture, transportation and agriculture, and labor and workforce. Eventually she’d like to focus on making healthcare affordable, which had been the centerpiece of her campaign.

The loss of influence is greater when accounting for Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s resignation nearly a year ago, causing the state to lose a spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee that confirms Supreme Court justices and other federal judges. Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed and just won a special election, has been in office for just ten months.

“Having five freshmen puts you pretty low on the totem pole,” said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit that annually holds a retreat for Republican members of Congress.

Peterson is likely gaining power on the House Agriculture Committee. Last week, Peterson told reporters that he got a call from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on election night congratulating him and saying, “When you come back here, let’s get this farm bill done.”

Peterson is adamant that Congress pass the farm bill pass by the end of the year instead of waiting until Democrats take over in January. Though he didn’t offer much detail on his priorities for the committee beyond the farm bill, he showed a general interest in bringing more oversight to agricultural spending.

If he takes over the chairmanship, he’ll become a bigger voice representing Minnesota on Trump’s trade policies with China and other countries that are causing anxiety in some farming areas.

“I don’t see any scenario where agriculture is going to be better off than we were before this all started with China,” said Peterson.

Maya Rao • 202-662-7433