Wrestling Matt

At Macalester, Entenza took a degree in environmental studies, meanwhile interning at the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, where he caught the eye of Marcia Avner, now the head of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. “I remember that he had this ability to galvanize and organize people,” Avner recalls. “He was just a very enthusiastic activist. He’s someone who’s devoted to understanding issues and also really cares about people.”
After interning with MPIRG, Entenza went to work for Paul Wellstone in the nuclear-freeze campaign of the early eighties. Meanwhile, after becoming one of the first women ever to receive a Rhodes scholarship, Lois Quam went off to study at Oxford, and Entenza followed. He read law at Exeter. In 1984, the couple married and three years later returned to Minnesota where Entenza took a U.S. law degree, this time from the University. Fresh out of law school, he was hired to work in the charities division of the attorney general’s office.

“One thing that struck me about Matt was that he was ready and able to take on some heavy responsibilities at an early stage of his career,” says Charles Wikelius, the deputy attorney general who hired Entenza. “In the enforcement area, what we wanted was someone who could be aggressive. Because in the case of fraud, there is usually an ongoing crime and new victims every day. You want to shut things down quickly but also make sure you have all your ducks in a row when it comes to prosecution. That was what he had going for him.”

In one notorious case, Entenza went after a “nonprofit” supposedly raising money to pay for organ transplants for kids. “Matt got that one shut down right away and sent some people to jail on it, but also found a way to recover some of the money and give it back to people who’d been cheated,” says Wikelius. “It’s good to see criminals get their just deserts, but it’s also good to remember the victims. I always had the sense that protecting the victims was just as important for Matt as getting a conviction.”

In 1993, at the urging of a number of friends and political activists, Entenza ran for the House seat vacated by long-time DFL Rep. Kathleen Vellenga. Both Vellenga’s retirement and his entry into the race were a bit of a surprise. In 1989, Gov. Rudy Perpich had appointed Lois Quam as chair of the commission that went on to fashion MNCare; later, she would serve as part of Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated health care task force. In short, she was better known politically than her husband. “We sort of assumed that if anyone in our family ran for office, it would probably be Lois,” Entenza remarks dryly.
As a lawmaker, Entenza quickly emerged as an articulate friend of the environment, consumers, public education, the nonprofit community, and the state’s vulnerable citizens, including children, the elderly, and the uninsured. As minority leader, he puts his money where his mouth is, donating to charity the one thousand dollars in extra pay he receives each month because of his extra duties.

But his background also resonates in his broader personal philosophy. When he says things like “Minnesota is a place where communities pull together in order to provide opportunities for everyone,” he’s not simply indulging in political boilerplate, the better to contrast a “compassionate” DFL against a “heartless” GOP. He’s using universal language to describe a philosophy cultivated from personal experience—and it is that peculiar mix of the personal and the political that fuels the flashes of genuine anger he displays against the petty scam artists and political operatives whom he perceives to be callous and greedy. For example, Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke, who is, in his view, out to dismantle Minnesota’s public school system, the very institution that made his own success possible. He takes this personally.

“I’ve been able to achieve what I have because a lot of people in Worthington sacrificed and built good public schools and raised scholarship money so a kid like me could even think about going to college,” he says. “Those were folks who had no personal stake in a kid from a single-parent family. They just knew it was better for the community.”

As for his own family, he says, “I try to make my boys my top priority, but also to remember there are a lot of boys out there who don’t have anyone pulling for them, and there are ways as a legislator I can pull for them the way people in Worthington pulled for me.”
“I think his background is one reason he’s so passionate about children’s issues,” observes Minh Ta, public policy director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota. “He’s been very active in promoting the school lunch program and childcare protection. He’s perhaps the strongest child’s advocate in the Legislature.” Minh Ta points to Entenza’s leadership in reforming Minnesota’s laws governing child support; between 1995 and 2002, Entenza was chief author of every major piece of legislation tied to this issue, including the law linking driver’s license renewals to payment of child support. As a result of such changes, child support collection has risen twenty-five percent.

Of course, legislative victories got a lot harder to come by once the DFL lost control of the House in 1998. Even so, after years of trying, Entenza scored perhaps the biggest lawmaking coup of his career when he authored the landmark “Do Not Call” bill that passed in 2002, despite resistance from the Republican legislative leadership.

That victory was made possible only because, despite being one of the most liberal members of the House, Entenza has demonstrated an ability to work with at least some Republicans, like Rep. Greg Davids, from Preston, who chairs the House Commerce Committee. Entenza was only able to pass the bill because Davids brought the bill up for a hearing, despite the objections of Republican colleagues in his caucus.

“I’ve known Matt for twelve years and even though I’m a conservative-to-moderate Republican, I’ve always had a lot of respect for him,” says Davids. “Do Not Call was the culmination of a good friendship. What I like about people is smarts. I like good thinkers. And he is one. Most Republicans in the House respect him even if they don’t agree with him on the issues.”

From the outside, politics may seem to be all about wheeling and dealing and getting your face on television. In reality, politics is mostly about attending meetings and occasionally rushing off to make impromptu speeches. For someone like Matt Entenza—one of the few DFL leaders who can legitimately claim statewide standing (Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson and Attorney General Mike Hatch are the other two)—the job of House minority leader also entails frequent appearances in the media on shows like TPT’s Almanac, MPR’s Midday, and Fox News. Conscious of his role as one of the few public voices of the DFL, he has taken very vocal positions on issues outside his immediate legislative purview, as he did several weeks before the confirmation hearings of Education Commissioner Yecke, holding a press conference and issuing a press release calling upon the Senate to refuse to confirm Yecke’s appointment.

All this punditry means a lot of dashing from one place to another for Entenza, as on this particular Tuesday, which has been proclaimed Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol. After a morning round of committee meetings and paperwork in his office, Entenza shows up a few minutes late to a meeting already in progress in Senate Conference Room 318. Along with Dick Cohen and Rep. Michael Paymar, Entenza is here to talk with a group of three dozen or so artists, arts administrators, and arts consultants about how state cutbacks are affecting the arts.

A little after 1 p.m., the meeting breaks up. In forty-five minutes, he will have to be down in the Rotunda to address a gathering of AARP members whose lobbying efforts were critical in the passage of the Do Not Call bill. In the interim, he heads down to the Capitol cafeteria where, over a late lunch, he talks about DFL prospects this fall and his own political future.

“Democrats have made the mistake in the recent past of talking about protecting programs instead of showing where we want to go,” he says. “The Republican message has been clear. It’s about fear—of immigrants, criminals, gays, government…”

Clearly there are forces that he believes are at work to undermine DFL efforts to build a sense of community. “I work at keeping my ratings at zero from organizations like the Minnesota Taxpayers League,” he jokes, adding in a mock-rueful tone that his rating from the far-right group recently rose to twenty percent because of his opposition to any expansion of gambling in Minnesota.

The Taxpayers League appears frequently in Entenza’s political discourse, serving as a trope for all that he thinks has gone awry in the system. It was the League, of course, that extracted a “no tax increase” pledge from Tim Pawlenty (admittedly, the League probably didn’t have to twist the governor’s arm too hard) which translated last session into big cuts in state social service budgets—and dramatic rises in fees and property taxes as more of the burden for paying to keep the state running shifted to local units of government.

So what is it that ticks Entenza off so much about the Taxpayers League? “It represents a culture of selfishness and me-first-ism that’s contrary to the Minnesota I grew up in,” he says with asperity. “It’s saying that the need of the few to have even more trumps building a Minnesota where everyone has opportunities.”

The Pawlenty administration, he says, may use moderate rhetoric but its members are “the political operatives of the Taxpayers League. They talk about the needs of all Minnesota but only serve the few. The two most obvious examples of this double-speak are the way this administration pretends to protect classroom funding while cutting funds for disabled kids in special ed, and claims it is not raising taxes while making cuts that cause a rise of hundreds of millions of dollars in fees. How they do all this with a straight face is amazing to me.”

Two years ago, Entenza talked publicly about running for attorney general, had Mike Hatch decided to throw his hat into the governor’s race. Now he disavows any ambition other than to become the next speaker of the Minnesota House—sooner rather than later, he says.

To help bring about the DFL majority that would make that possible, he’s been spending a lot of time taking his message to meetings and forums around the state, especially to community gatherings in the Twin Cities suburbs that have emerged as the new fulcrum of political power in Minnesota. By his reckoning, only 4,200 votes in districts around the state separated the Republican majority from the DFL minority in the House in the last election. They are votes he is determined to recapture.

“Matt has enthusiasm about him,” says Rep. Margaret Kelliher, the House assistant minority leader. “He’s been able to give voice to the ideas we think are needed to make Minnesota successful. He’s a real asset to the party.”

If somehow the Democrats manage to retake the House next fall, Entenza will undoubtedly be elected speaker. Then he’ll be in even more direct combat with Tim Pawlenty. On the surface, the careers and even life experiences of the two men bear some resemblance. Pawlenty grew up in a blue-collar household in South St. Paul and, like Entenza, attended public schools and took a law degree from the University. Both seem cool-headed and reasonable, though comfortable with incendiary party rhetoric. But there the similarities end.

“The governor’s charming and handsome,” Entenza concedes. “Compared to Arne Carlson and Jesse Ventura, he seems more like Minnesota. He’s a nice Minnesota boy. But he’s got the values of a cultural conservative from Mississippi.” So far, he says, Pawlenty’s gotten a free ride. He’s made the most of the traditional honeymoon governors normally enjoy with the press (if the scandal over the $4,500 a month he received from political associate Elam Baer to provide unverified legal work had come to light this summer rather than last, Entenza contends, the governor might not have gotten off so easily), and “the tendency of Minnesotans to look at the bright side first, and not necessarily worry about all the details.”

“The governor is an excellent spokesperson, but he’s the most radical governor we have ever had,” he says. “For the time being, image is carrying the day. But the more the details of this administration come out, it will become clear that it is too far from the mainstream.”

As minority leader, Entenza has been a vocal critic of Pawlenty’s gubernatorial performance, taking the governor to task for his “no new taxes” pledge, his bonding proposals, his broad interpretations of campaign finance laws. But the differences between the two go beyond mere partisanship. The personal experiences that have shaped Entenza’s political philosophy and personal sense of justice fuel a genuine distaste for the down-home Social Darwinism of the Pawlenty apparatus.

“I spent my legal career prosecuting people, like the ones I grew up around, trying to make a buck off other people’s vulnerabilities, and I’ve built my legislative career on consumer bills like Do Not Call,” he says in a mild tone that does not quite conceal his disdain for the telecom slamming and equity-stripping scams allegedly practiced by Pawlenty associates and benefactors. “It certainly is ironic that the governor’s campaign advisors are being investigated and fined for consumer-law violations. Of course,” he concludes with a lawyerly flourish, “the governor doesn’t know anything about this stuff.”

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