Thissen makes his pitch for governor

An almost blue-collar attitude--rolled up sleeves and can-do mindset, the whole works--may not be the first image of an Ivy-League educated lawyer that comes to mind.

State Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks with attendees at a meet-and-greet hosted at Sage on Laurel in Brainerd. Thissen cited economic issues as the most prevalent concerns he's come across speaking with Minnesotans. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
State Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks with attendees at a meet-and-greet hosted at Sage on Laurel in Brainerd. Thissen cited economic issues as the most prevalent concerns he's come across speaking with Minnesotans. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

An almost blue-collar attitude-rolled up sleeves and can-do mindset, the whole works-may not be the first image of an Ivy-League educated lawyer that comes to mind.

But that's what state Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he's bringing to the table. He's pointing at a 15-year track record as a state legislator-which includes a six-year stint as leader of the state party, as well as a run for governor in 2010-as evidence of tangible results.

On June 15, Thissen announced he would run for governor for a second time-adding that, no matter the outcome, he would not run for another term as a state representative. With caucuses looming on the calendar, Thissen has been making visits around the state. Wednesday afternoon, he stopped at Sage on Laurel in Brainerd to outline his vision for the state, should he be elected to the state's highest office.

"I think we need a governor that's, 'Rolls up your sleeves, let's get stuff done,'" Thissen said, leaning his frame physically onto the table and metaphorically into the conversation. "And I think my time in the Legislature and my leadership there has been all about that, about delivering for everyday Minnesotans. I think people are thirsty for that right now. I think the state needs it. That's why I'm running."

Thissen delved into a wide range of issues-from housing and mass transit, to the deepening opioid epidemic-but he rarely strayed far from what he called the centerpiece of his platform as a candidate: economics.


"The biggest thing that I'm finding is frustrating Minnesotans is a kind of lack of focus on economic security issues-cost of health care, cost of childcare, cost of going to college, retirement security," Thissen said. "Those are things that I worked on and delivered on at the Legislature. We need to do more of it."

Thissen credits his failed run for governor in 2010 as the springboard into his leadership roles in the Minnesota House of Representatives between 2010 and 2016-positions, he said, that gave him the opportunity to travel extensively across the state and gain an understanding of nuances when it comes to Minnesotans' needs and how to address them.

"The depth of understanding you get in that role of the state budget and the levers within the state agency-the ability to make change using those tools, I think, are different this time around," Thissen said. "Just the experience puts me in a very different position than eight years ago."

Thissen, 51, pointed to his experiences-personal and professional-often during the interview. The product of a "suburban, middle-class upbringing," Thissen hails from Bloomington, the son of two public teachers. He was first educated at Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, then traveled eastward to Harvard University, where he graduated in 1989. In 1992, he earned his law degree at the University of Chicago Law School. In 1993, he married his wife, Karen, with whom he shares three children-a daughter, currently a freshman in college, and two sons in 10th and ninth grades.

He works as a lawyer, mostly with group homes and assisted living facilities, but also as a public defender and in a number of asylum cases. For more than a decade and a half, he's served as a representative from Minneapolis' 61B District.

The opioid epidemic

The number of Minnesotans who succumbed to drug overdoses rose from 129 to 637 between 2000 and 2016, according to a report filed this September by the Minnesota Department of Health. In 2016 alone, 395 deaths and more than 2,000 hospitalizations were directly tied to opiate abuse-though these statistics do not capture other indirect social impacts.

Thissen said holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in the crisis is a key component of what the state's response should be. He also took issue with the amount of "bureaucratic red tape" in the processes addicts must undergo to enter treatment-particularly, flaws within the Rule 25 Assessment.


"One of the things that came up over and over again-both from the docs and from these individuals-when they went to seek treatment, or had somebody wake up in their emergency room and say, 'I want to get into treatment,' the way we set up the rules, they can't send someone directly to treatment," Thissen said. "They can apply, they go home again and they're lost."

Removing this red tape represents a critical part of his platform on the issue, Thissen said. At the same time, medical students are receiving insufficient formal, specialized training on opiate addiction and treatment in three years of schooling-a glaring hole in their education that needs to be filled, Thissen said.

In greater Minnesota, Thissen noted many doctors have the option to sign a waiver to provide suboxone (a drug that curbs opiate addiction) for people being treated for opiate addiction, but too many "aren't willing to take the risk." Training doctors and informing them on the benefits and liabilities of that kind of care, Thissen said, is one specific step to combat the epidemic.

Economics of Crow Wing County

Crow Wing County has experienced episodes of economic challenges as a result of shifting job markets and the loss of community cornerstones through the decades-for example, the departure of iron ore companies from the Cuyuna Range area during the '60s, or the closure of paper mills in Brainerd, with the Wausau mill closing as recently as 2013.

Thissen said growing the employment base in the Brainerd lakes area is a key point of focus-whether that's through partnerships with local social and government institutions or providing resources to reinforce the labor market with education.

He also identified affordable day care, which would grant area families more flexibility with their employment options, as a significant part of the equation.

Thissen said his current work on the Next Generation Main Street Act, or legislation he said is designed to help small businesses compete with large competitors like the Walmarts and Amazons of the world.


Tied into that, he added, would be arrangements in which community employers pool their health care benefits, or positioning the state in a "matchmaker" role in which businesses are passed from retiring owners to prospective younger hopefuls to create consistency within the small business base.

Sound investments, placemaking-these are tried and true methods, Thissen said, pointing to the resurgence of Crosby, which has acquired 15 businesses in the last six years because of increased tourism and revenue associated with the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System.

This also illustrates an overarching philosophy, he said, that it's not enough to attract businesses to Crow Wing County-the communities have to make sure the profits remain within its borders as well.

"Too often what's happening is that businesses that are here don't live here. The resources and the profits that are made doesn't stay in the community," Thissen said. "There are lot of things we can do in our health care policy, energy and some of our small-business policies to make sure that the investments we're making are actually businesses located and owned by people here."

Meeting the needs of a changing workforce

Currently, Minnesota is riding a 17-year low for unemployment in the state. However, there are some shifts on the horizon, which include industry automation, as well as changes in the workforce from a manufacturing/retail-heavy model to one where health care and service-based jobs pose as the healthiest areas of growth.

Reflecting national trends, many new jobs are going to require some form of post-secondary certification or degree, which may leave many Crow Wing County residents in the lurch going forward into the 2020s.

To address this issue, making college affordable is crucial, Thissen said, whether that means debt-free college for students now, or debt-forgiveness legislation for workers already out in the labor market. This may also include community partnerships and involving local social institutions as well, he added.

The end goal, Thissen said, is to retrain current workers and form a competent workforce for the long term. Even with fears of automation in the future-when jobs are replaced by robotic implementations-industry in Minnesota can bounce back with accessible training for jobs that support automation, such as technicians and computer programmers.

"We can do that in the state of Minnesota," Thissen said. "We have enough resources to do that."

With automation's increasing prominence, it may be a matter of rethinking the current social contract, in which much of an individual's security and self-worth are predicated on whether a person has a job.

"With automation, comes less demand for human work in some sense. What does that mean where the dignity of work is so important?" Thissen said, adding a single-payer health care system, as well as benefits such as paid time off and child care assistance, are part of the solution.

Implementing Medicaid for all, or creating a single-payer universal health care system would also look to counteract the expected loss of 40 percent of the current workforce to retirement in coming years.

Addressing post-secondary education

At Central Lakes College-an institution that educates about 5,500-about 50 percent of the student population falls below the poverty line, 50 percent are first-generation students and 65 percent are in a precarious housing and food situation, according to Hara Charlier, president of CLC.

Demographics such as students of color, first-generation students and students in difficult financial situations are more likely to drop out or fail to complete their degrees, Charlier added.

Thissen said expanding a federal program called TRiO-an outreach and student service program that aids students from disadvantaged backgrounds-can help to alleviate pressure on college students, as well as provide information for them to navigate college life.

"They've gotten incredible results as a result of this program," Thissen said. "The biggest thing we have to understand is that college education or higher education of some sort is a public good, not just a private good. It benefits the individual student, but it benefits us all as well because it improves the economy."

It goes back to the issue of college affordability, Thissen added, noting as house speaker he championed legislation that froze college tuition for two years and poured $250 million into the education system.

While it was a good start, he said, there's still more to do to reverse the trend placing more and more financial pressure on students.

Mass transit in greater Minnesota

In Minnesota, 86 of 87 counties have some form of mass-transit system. While adding more light-rail lines stands as an area of growth in the Twin Cities, Thissen said, expanding and linking the various transit networks across greater Minnesota posed a difficult, if rewarding endeavor.

"Transportation instability and the lack of transit in greater Minnesota is becoming an increasingly big problem," Thissen noted, adding the economic security of Minnesotan women and the elderly factor prominently in his outlook on the subject.

Thissen said he supported investing in intercity bus and rail systems, as well as providing funding and stipends for "ad-hoc, volunteer-based" transportation systems dotting many of the communities in rural areas.

"It will look different in different places, and it's going to be more expensive in less-dense places," Thissen said. "But that investment, I think, is really worthwhile, especially for communities across the state thriving. If we don't do that, not necessarily Brainerd, but smaller communities are going to struggle to survive."


Thissen identified housing-especially workforce housing-as an issue that's more pressing in greater Minnesota than the Twin Cities.

"The challenge is the banks come in and say it's going to cost 'x' to build this building," Thissen said. "Probably going to cost about as much as the Twin Cities, but the economy and the wages don't support the rents you would need to pay for that."

As such, the state of Minnesota has a responsibility to meet that deficit with gap-financing so solid housing that's affordable and meets the needs of renters is a viable option for regions like the Brainerd lakes area, Thissen said.

Lower-income workers, the middle class-these are stratas of Minnesota society that need the most help with rising housing costs, Thissen said. When he was was speaker, Thissen advocated for a $100 million bonding bill for affordable housing-such as building rental properties and supplementing loans for first-time homeowners. Going forward, he added, that kind of legislation probably needs to be implemented on an annual basis.

Thissen said in the private marketplace, especially when scarcity is present, the state also needs to take steps to combat exploitation by landlords and property owners by giving mortgage payers more legal power to fight back.

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